The Future of Development and Parking in Downtown Ferndale
On Monday, March 9, the city of Ferndale ended a year-long, exclusive negotiation period with 3-60 LLC, a group of developers who wanted to bring mixed-use structures featuring parking decks, loft-style apartments, and office space to the sites of two city-owned parking lots.
By refusing to extend talks, the City Council avoided committing to a project that would influence development in Ferndale for decades. For now, Ferndale’s surface parking system will remain intact while the city decides what kinds of development it wants in the future.
A successful suburb
In the years following the Great Recession, downtown Ferndale has experienced a renaissance rivaled by few metro Detroit communities. Along Nine Mile Road, the city’s main business strip, new and stalwart businesses have contributed to the development of a vibrant, often bustling downtown.
Derek Delacourt, director of Ferndale’s Community and Economic Development Department, cites a number of factors contributing to the city’s vibrancy. “There’s a sense of pride in this community, from both its residents and business owners,” he says. “We have a great downtown and a great housing stock. The city is walkable and bikeable, and it’s positioned perfectly between Midtown Detroit and the northern suburbs.”
What just two years ago was a vacant department store has been transformed into the Rust Belt Market, a bustling weekend bazaar. New businesses like Found Sound Records, the Red Hook coffee shop, The Oakland craft cocktail bar, and several new restaurants have joined fixtures like the Pinwheel Bakery, the Library Book Store, and the Natural Food Patch to form an eclectic mix that appeals to a wide demographic of metro Detroiters.
In short, the rest of the region has begun to notice what residents have long understood: there’s something special about Ferndale.
But with vibrancy comes increased demand for parking and pressures from developers looking to cash in on Ferndale’s cool. With the demise of the 3-60 proposal, the city will have to re-evaluate how it wants to develop its downtown, a position many metro communities might find enviable.
Ferndale’s parking problem
“Compared to where we were years ago, I’m happy to say that we have a parking problem,” says Christina Sheppard-Decius, executive director of Ferndale’s Downtown Development Authority. “It means we’re busy.”
Currently, Ferndale provides parking with metered on-street spaces and a series of city-owned surface parking lots located on either side of Nine Mile Road along Whittington and Troy streets.
Delacourt says that a recent study shows Ferndale’s existing parking system to be significantly stressed on evenings and weekends.
The same report, however, shows that city-owned lots are only at half capacity during week days, says Ferndale City Council member Melanie Piana.
“Really, we have three problems,” says Piana. “There’s a parking problem during periods of peak demand on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings. Then there’s the walkability problem. The parking study showed that people don’t want to cross Woodward Avenue. To me, that’s a big issue. Finally, there’s the regional transit issue.”
If you ask local business people, however, parking is the city’s most urgent problem.
“We need more parking. It’s the complaint I hear most from our customers,” says Keith Barwick, an assistant manager at Ferndale’s Natural Foodpatch grocery store, where he’s worked for eight years.
Barwick says his customers come from all over – Detroit, Pontiac, Bloomfield Hills, and right down the street in Ferndale – and they often have difficulty finding a space to park. “A lot of times I can’t even find a spot,” he says.
“As a business owner, you can get a bad reputation if parking is difficult,” says Chris Best, co-owner of the Rust Belt Market, which is located at the northwest corner of Nine Mile and Woodward Avenue. “In the Midwest, people are programmed to park as close to their destination as possible.”
Sandy Levine-The OaklandSandy Levine, who co-owns The Oakland, a 3.5-year-old craft cocktail bar in downtown Ferndale, echoes those sentiments. “In a bigger market, it’s not that big of a deal to walk three blocks to your destination, but that’s not the case here,” he says. “The city needs parking.”
Levine is currently in the process of opening a new restaurant, Chartreuse, in Midtown Detroit’s Park Shelton building. He says that Park Shelton’s attached parking garage was a huge factor in his signing a lease.
As the local economy rebounded in recent years, groups interested in building mixed-use developments in Ferndale began to approach the city with proposals for the city’s parking lots.
In March of 2014, the city entered into an agreement with 3-60 LLC, granting the company exclusive rights to negotiate with the city for development of those lots.
At the head of the proposal was Jake Sigal, a Ferndale resident and tech entrepreneur who recently sold his startup, Livio Radio, to the Ford Motor Co. His vision for 3-60 was to attract fast-growing tech companies to Ferndale, whom he believed would be drawn by the city’s character.
“We were exited to work with a young, successful entrepreneur who is dedicated to Ferndale,” says Delacourt. “He’s a huge proponent of the city.”
A document prepared by 3-60 LLC for Ferndale City Council outlined ambitious plans that included 875 parking spaces, nearly 200,000 square feet of office space, and as many as 120 residential units spread across two buildings located on the sites of the city’s two largest surface parking lots.
The 3-60 project was met by residents and business owners with mixed reactions. Concerns over the project’s scale, its potential effect on the character of the downtown, and how construction would limit shoppers’ access to parking in the short term loomed large.
Developers of the 3-60 project were insistent on building on both sites simultaneously, effectively eliminating the downtown’s main parking options for the duration of construction.
“Construction mitigation was at the forefront of everyone’s mind,” says Sheppard-Decius.
“I was scared about the construction,” says Chris Best. “Two years of missing parking would be enough to kill some businesses. You could lose many of the businesses that are the reason people love Ferndale.”
While he acknowledges the challenges construction would pose, Sandy Levine shakes them off. “That’s part of progress. What are you going to do, just never build anything?”
Concerns about the development’s height were also common. “People don’t want to lose that small-town, home-like character because that’s what they love about Ferndale,” says Sheppard-Decius.
At the Library Bookstore, a longtime Ferndale business, signs decrying the imminent “destruction of downtown Ferndale” are taped to the shop window, while pamphlets at the register implore residents to oppose the 3-60 project because of the effect the development will have on the character of Ferndale.
Denny Morland, an 18-year employee of Library Bookstore, was skeptical of the 3-60 proposal. “It will take away from the small-town feel that Ferndale has,” he says. “We probably need more parking, but do we need two structures?”
The future of development in Ferndale
Following the city council’s decision not to extend negotiation with 3-60 LLC, feelings remain mixed about the project.
“I’m pretty disappointed that it didn’t go through,” says Sandy Levine. “I don’t think we were as welcoming and open-minded to the project as we could have been.”
Chris Best’s feelings about the outcome aren’t as black and white. “I’m relieved, but I wasn’t as strongly opposed to 3-60 as some others. That said, I’m a little disappointed that there isn’t a parking solution on the horizon.”
After a year of negotiations, Ferndale’s leaders, civil servants, and business people have learned a few things that will influence future development decisions in the city.
From the DDA’s perspective, replacing surface parking with mixed-use structures remains a priority.
“Every time you remove surface parking and replace it with something viable, you add vibrancy and improve the local economy,” says Sheppard-Decius.
As pointed out in this blog post by Ferndale City Council member Melanie Piana, the idea developing surface lots into mixed use projects is nothing new. In fact, it’s been the goal of the DDA for over 20 years.
It seems a foregone conclusion that Ferndale will indeed eventually replace its surface parking, but the ultimate question remains: With what?
“Parking spaces do not build Ferndale’s character. Our sense of community, our businesses, and our walkable downtown do,” says Melanie Piana.
“We don’t have to start over,” says Delacourt. “We – the city, the DDA, residents and businesses – learned a lot about the parking system and what we want in terms of development. In that sense, this last year has been incredibly productive.”