More and more Oakland County cities are realizing they don’t need to have a traditional downtown to create main street appeal.
Oakland County is home to the nation’s only countywide Main Street program, which helps municipalities improve and develop their downtowns. But even cities like Oak Park, Hazel Park, Lathrup Village, Wixom and Madison Heights, which don’t have traditional downtowns, are looking to the Main Street program for assistance in maximizing their economic corridors and commercial districts.
They’re incorporating more pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, appealing streetscapes and cohesive design standards as they strive to create a sense of place and attract more foot traffic.
“Instead of being known as sort of a drive-through community that’s largely residential, these communities are recognizing that having some kind of identifiable downtown center is giving them also a sense of identity,” said John Bry, program coordinator for Main Street Oakland County.
Oak Park has several improvements on tap for its more densely populated commercial corridors, including the addition of a decorative bridge sign on Coolidge overlooking I-696. It will be constructed next spring and should help identify the community to those traveling through, said City Manager Erik Tungate.
The city also plans to use tax increment financing to create bike lanes, increase pedestrian safety and add other amenities on Coolidge Highway, 9 Mile Road and 11 Mile Road. Oak Park won a grant to reduce two traffic lanes on 9 Mile and build a linear park in their place. It will close two side streets on the east side of the park and turn them into pocket parks for the neighborhood.
“We’re hoping to create a sense of place and provide for quality of life amenities that otherwise wouldn’t exist here,” Tungate said.
Oak Park incorporated as a city after World War II and developed during a time when investment in downtowns and walkability started to deteriorate, he said. While it has a municipal campus at Coolidge and Oak Park Boulevard, its commercial areas come in the form of shopping plazas and strip malls instead of a traditional town center.
Tungate isn’t trying to recreate a downtown in Oak Park, but he’s looking to improve land use and public amenities along the city’s economic corridors. He also hopes to challenge some preconceived notions about the city.
People assume that Oak Park is a tiny suburb, but it’s actually much larger than many of its neighbors with about 30,000 residents, he said.
Oak Park was a dry community until a few years ago, and that history has contributed to the impression that the city isn’t a good place to open a business. Tungate hopes the availability of liquor licenses will help attract more restaurants, especially those with sidewalk cafes, which add to a more walkable, main street vibe.
“I think it takes a while to build momentum, and we’re doing that now,” he said.
Creating a village center where there wasn’t one before
Just northwest of Oak Park, Lathrup Village is working on a major effort to create a vibrant, walkable village center with mixed-use developments.
Lathrup Village had a downtown platted as a community strategy in the 1920s, but the commercial area didn’t physically manifest until decades later when development focused on the automobile and featured major roadways, larger setbacks and parking lots.
Now, the city is working with Main Street Oakland County to promote a plan that would transform the area at Southfield Road and California Drive into a village center billed as “equal parts town square, retail district and community social hub.”
Spaced-out, single-story buildings would be replaced with dense multi-story mixed-use development featuring tree-lined streets with on-street parking, sidewalks and seating areas. Officials are targeting developments that include housing, retail, restaurants, offices and entertainment spaces.
That section of Southfield Road sees about 50,000 cars a day, so officials hope to reduce the volume and speed of traffic with the use of islands and fewer lanes, said City Administrator Sheryl Mitchell.
“We have a pretty active downtown major corridor strip, however people aren’t stopping as much as we would like and experiencing our community,” she said.
The city already offers a farmers market and other events, but hopes to create more of a destination for residents and non-residents alike.
The former Annie Lathrup school, located in the heart of the village center, is a “tremendous opportunity” for redevelopment, Mitchell said. She’d like to see the historic building renovated into a mixed-use building with residential units.
Cities are smart to keep the best of their historic buildings because they give character, said Oakland County’s Bry. As they redevelop and build out downtowns or other commercial areas, they should take steps to ensure good design standards and rehabilitation practices that are compatible with the community’s vision, he said.
It’s also important to carefully plan out streetscapes, landscaping, signage, bike lanes and racks in order to make it easy and appealing to walk and bike. Marketing and promotion play a key role as well.
“We have all these wonderful downtowns and commercial corridors not only in Oakland County, but the region, and they’re all vying to tell their story and why they’re unique, and they all have something different about themselves to offer, but people forget that,” Bry said.
Downtowns and commercial corridors are an indicator of the economic health throughout their cities and can have a ripple effect as they grow. Vibrant main streets not only provide amenities for residents to enjoy, but position cities as competitive within Oakland County and the broader region, he said.
They’re also not frozen in time, he noted. While they evolve styles and directions over time, cities generally come back to recognizing what really works, Bry said, like keeping traditional elements intact, promoting walkability, and supporting a distinctive character that ties into the town’s unique history.
Photos by Stephen Koss. Lathrup Village photos by Anthony Lanzilote.