By Nicole Hennessy
It’s not hard to see how Lakewood differs from other Westshore cities, with its proximity to downtown, its dense population of single- and multiple-family homes and its urban feel, contributing to a character its residents tend to protect.
Recently, up and down Detroit Avenue — a street, along with its twin, Madison Avenue, known for its locally owned small businesses and bars — more and more national franchises are popping up.
No longer does the historic marquee on the west end say “Detroit Theatre.” It is now blank, aside from the word “twin” in the middle. Impending demolition looming, soon the plot of land will contain a McDonald’s.
On various reports detailing the plan, public comments ranged from outrage to acceptance. And even though the architectural integrity of the theater had been compromised by years of neglect resulting from low revenues, the sentimentality stretches back all the way to its opening in 1923.
But this is not the only historic Detroit building to undergo a corporate facelift.
The 100-year-old St. Paul Lutheran Church also succumbed to demolition last September. Replaced by a large CVS pharmacy,the store’s nearby decrepit-by-comparison predecessor now sits empty.
Closer to the theater, another historic building, of substantially less sentimental value than the other two, is now a fenced-off pile of rubble.
Rumors of a new Taco Bell circled the city, but officials say that plan did not go through, so the future of the property remains uncertain.
What is certain is that Lakewood is changing.
Diane Helbig, chairperson of the Lakewood Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors, said that “for a city to stay economically thriving, it takes a pretty good mix of the locally owned and the nationally owned.”
Referring to nationally owned stores, she pointed out the fact that these franchises are owned by local people who chose to open a store or restaurant that already had the format spelled out for them, making doing business a bit easier.
“They’ve made their decision, and they’re providing a valuable resource to the community,” she said.
As far as the question of the city shifting in terms of aesthetics, like other suburbs, Lakewood imposes cosmetic building restrictions addressing issues of signage and style. The new CVS went as far as using some of the stones from the church in order to perpetuate its legacy.
Still, whether it is a matter of awkward newness or not, a drive down Detroit proves to be a different experience than even a few years ago.
“From my point of view,” Helbig continued, “I think a lot of businesses are moving into Lakewood, not just national franchises.”
Like CVS, which abandoned its previous location, so, too, will McDonald’s vacate its previous Sloane Avenue site. And, again, like the old CVS, the future of the soon-to-be-vacant McDonald’s is unclear.
Similarly, in 2007 a Bunts Ave. Giant Eagle abandoned its location to build a larger store across the street. Today, the old building still stands vacant. Plans of a Get Go gas station, of which there is one nearby, have been discussed recently and demolition of the property may take place as early as June.
As diverse as it is, Helbig finds it interesting how connected Lakewood’s community is, something she attributes to the city’s walkability. As a result, she sees an engaged population that voices opinions on development, especially within the past few years.
Part of the danger of overpopulating an area with stores that can be found in multiple nearby locations is the chance that large stretches of a city will ultimately be forgotten.
“It’s a concern that everyone is aware of,” Helbig said.
David Stein, owner of a local furniture store called Plantation Home, is also president of the Downtown Lakewood Business Alliance. Newly elected, he is just six weeks into his position.
What separates the city’s main business center, located on Detroit, from that of communities like Westlake, he says, is that it’s a real downtown.
Of lifestyle centers like Legacy Village and Crocker Park, he says there is a Disney Land feel.
“They’re basically movie sets made to look like old downtowns,” he added.
People won’t find that in Lakewood. But as far as the increasing franchises are concerned, he said, “It’s fantastic.”
Agreeing with Helbig, he thinks it is unrealistic to have a city comprised exclusively of local businesses.
In fact, he’d be happy to see large furniture stores move in next door or across the street from his shop, reasoning that it would increase foot traffic.
At the risk of sounding too negative, Stein said people who are against the city’s accommodation of national chains most likely do some of their shopping at them, and he’d rather see that money stay in Lakewood.
Stein tries to shop locally as often as possible. But he acknowledges that not everything he needs is available at small-scale businesses.
He said what it comes down to is, ”we’ve got a lot of residents in Lakewood that don’t like change.”
When the Detroit Theatre demolition was in the height of its controversy, Stein wrote a letter to the editor of the Lakewood Observer, a resident-operated newspaper. In it he wondered, If so many people are upset about losing this landmark, why weren’t they frequenting it rather than the larger theaters in surrounding communities?
And while he showed support for the new franchises, he wrote, “First and foremost support your local businesses, churches and organizations. Through this support we wouldn’t have the empty buildings and storefronts to contend with.” Then Stein went on to encourage residents to open their own businesses, stressing a focus on growth rather than than a fear of change.
With programs like “Buy Lakewood,” through which customers of local businesses get discounts on Fridays, the city continues to support local merchants. And if residents have concerns, Helbig encourages them to express themselves.
“It’s really easy to see the national chains; they tend to be a little bigger, and we’re used to them, so we recognize them more quickly,” she said. “But I would suggest to people that they look at all of the economic development that’s going on in the city.”