Placemaking in Southwest Detroit

Last week, the League’s Southwest Detroit PlacePlan project took an important step with a three-day charrette, a community-based design workshop. Southwest Detroit is known for great food, a lively atmosphere, and local art. Known as Mexicantown, Hispanic culture is evident in almost all aspects of the community.

Vernor is Southwest Detroit’s main street and is populated with densely packed storefronts, restaurants, and independent businesses. Due to Southwest Detroit’s proximity to Canada and the international bridge crossing, the area unfortunately has quite a bit of industrial land use and suffers from a high volume of truck traffic.

A Google map of Vernor with "the gap" highlighted.

A Google map of Vernor with “the gap” highlighted.

As seen in the map above, Vernor’s vibrant commercial district is divided by about a half mile “gap,” created by complicated intersections, a former industrial complex, wide one-way roads, a viaduct, and an unnatural bend in the road. In an effort to better connect the east and west sides of Vernor, the League partnered with Southwest Detroit Business Association (SDBA) and Archive DS to collect resident ideas, concerns, and desires to reduce the gap and better connect the community.

Over the three-day process, ArchiveDS designers worked long hours in SDBA’s storefront office to get to know the community, collect ideas from residents, and create stages of potential improvements. Because development is often a slow, expensive process, ArchiveDS developed a number of solutions to more immediately improve the area, with long-term recommendations to look forward to when financing and leadership allow.

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(Left) Current view of the Vernor and Livernois intersection. (Right) Proposed streetscape improvements: Bump-out parking, bike lanes, crosswalk, landscape improvements, and sidewalk bordering techniques. Some of these aspects are very low-cost but make a big impact on pedestrian comfort.

For example, Southwest Detroit has many independently operated taco trucks, ice cream vendors, and small, independent businesses. Currently these vendors are scattered across empty lots and sidewalks throughout the district.

To capitalize on this aspect of the community, ArchiveDS recommends building small sitting areas in underused parking lots for food trucks to park and sell on a regular basis. The endeavor doesn’t have to be highly organized, as it is at Mark’s Carts in Ann Arbor, but can be a simple space for residents to gather, have a meal, and enjoy the outdoors.

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(Left) Current view of the Vernor viaduct. (Right) Proposed recommendations to make the space more pedestrian friendly: Local art, protected pedestrian/bike area, and creative lighting.

Larger, more long-term changes will certainly benefit the gap and ArchiveDS pulled in elements of the community into the recommended changes. As seen above, the viaduct between Livernois and Dix is a harsh divide of the east and west sides of Vernor. The team recommends incorporating local art, a clearly defined pedestrian/bicycle area, and creative lighting to make the space more comfortable and welcoming.

An imagined market in an industrial building near the Livernois and Vernor intersection.

An imagined market in an industrial building at the Livernois and Vernor intersection.

A major problem in the identified area is a former industrial building. Although a clean up and improvements are necessary, the building could become a major asset to the community. As seen in ArchiveDS’s rendering, the building could be transformed into a indoor/outdoor market to benefit local business owners, residents, and visitors to the community. Transforming the space into a destination wouldn’t come without substantial funding, but identifying what the community wants is the first step towards changing the area’s future.

The Archive DS team is now writing a full report to share with SDBA and the Southwest community. The League will move to a supportive role as the community continues to identify priorities, coordinate funding, and gain momentum for the project.