Retailers Aim to Revive East Jefferson Area

Posted on May 12, 2014

Detroit— Some long-neglected retail districts along East Jefferson east of downtown are banding together to attract attention — and investment.

The neighborhoods along a seven-mile strip of Jefferson, including Lafayette Park, West Village, the Marina District and Jefferson-Chalmers, are marketing themselves together under a new business association: Jefferson East Inc. The association is encouraging residents and business owners to “Go East” to create the type of live-work-play atmosphere growing in Detroit hotspots such as downtown and Midtown.

Some neighborhood commercial blocks are already seeing signs of new life: The Straits Garage, a car repair shop, just opened on Joseph Campau; the owners of Parkway Foods just purchased a long-vacant strip mall at Jefferson and St. Jean and moved their grocery there; a pop-up coffee shop has opened a permanent home along the avenue; a home furnishings shop relocated to Jefferson; and an entrepreneur is restoring a vintage diner and is seeking funds online to open a new restaurant, Rose’s Fine Foods.

“There’s just been a lot of energy,” said Josh Elling, executive director of the Jefferson East Inc. “I have not seen this level of interest, investment or optimism since I’ve been here.”

The stretch of east Jefferson closer to downtown is a hodgepodge of car dealerships, gas stations, liquor stores, drug stores and small strip malls. But the farther east you go, the more desolate the avenue becomes.

“It was just a strip you would drive through until you got to downtown,” Elling said.

The improvements also include aesthetics. A $300,000 streetscape refurbishment project is set to begin this summer. Local organizations have logged 3,500 hours of private police patrols, and Jefferson East is paying for Clean Downtown, run by the Downtown Detroit Partnership, to pick up trash.

Elling said crime remains a problem, but the Jefferson East initiatives have helped drop rates. Recent police raids at crime hotspots like the Colony Arms and King Homes apartments have helped clean up the neighborhood, too.

Last summer D:Hive, an organization that connects businesses with resources, temporarily set up shop on Jefferson, and Tech Town’s SWOT City program is assisting business owners along the avenue with growth services and ideas.

“There was this thought that this was always an area that would develop,” Elling said. “But having an organization like Jefferson East continually reminding people has been important to reposition in people’s minds that it’s the next hot neighborhood.”

Once a bustling district

Jefferson Avenue was once a bustling retail district fueled by the automotive industry.

Nick Sinacori, a historian and author of the book, “Horsepower, Men and Machines,” which chronicles the area’s history, said the region’s heyday was in the 1950s.

As auto companies built factories in the city and surrounding area — including Chrysler’s 3 million-square-foot Jefferson North assembly plant, which still stands today — small businesses opened along the avenue to cater to workers. Grocers like Alberts and Great Scott Supermarket sprouted up, Sanders opened a store with a soda fountain, and S.S. Kresge launched a discount store in the Jefferson corridor.

But Detroit’s race riots, and the popularization of shopping malls doomed Jefferson’s retail scene, Sinacori said.

“You saw a demographic shift,” he said. “Auto plants started to shrink, Five and Dime stores weren’t as popular, and if you could go to the mall, these smaller stores weren’t needed.”

Now, some long-time businesses are investing in the corridor and new ones are sprouting up.

Vincent Nona, owner and manager of the 45-year-old Parkway Foods, had been open on Jefferson for about 20 years, but decided to move to a larger location last year when a strip mall that once housed Farmer Jack went on the market. He purchased the plaza for $2 million, doubled the square-footage of his store and is talking with retailers to fill remaining storefronts.

“We saw an opportunity to be bigger, better and offer more services to our customers,” he said. “We see this city and this area as being back on the rise. I think it definitely has a lot of potential.”

Support from neighborhood

Lisa Milton moved her home furnishings store, Redesign and Restoration, to Jefferson Avenue last month. The East English Village resident said she chose Jefferson Avenue because of the visibility it offers and the potential it has.

“I liked the idea of taking a chance and being one of the first people to get in on a neighborhood coming back,” she said. “I feel like the neighborhoods are pretty bad and desolate, but people seem to be very upbeat still and like seeing new businesses come into the area.”

Lucy Carnaghi plans to open a small diner, Rose’s Fine Food, in June at 10551 E. Jefferson. She and business partner Molly Mitchell are currently rehabbing a 1960s building and hope to soon offer simple, fresh foods grown by local producers.

She said the neighborhood support has been surprising.

“It’s really, really exciting,” she said. “It’s just been a nonstop parade of people stopping by and wanting to come in and see what’s going on. They’re excited to have something new in the neighborhood.”