Cocktail bars open every few months.
So are new and instantly popular restaurants.
And dozens of luxury apartments are about to hit the market, with more to open later this year.
This flurry of development activity isn’t in the usual spots of Oakland County or Detroit’s latest revitalized neighborhood. It’s happening in downtown Wyandotte, sometimes called “downriver downtown.”
Downtown Wyandotte, just off the Detroit River, is seeing a mini-boom of business openings and new projects and redevelopment, including the largest market-rate apartment building in decades in the city of 25,000, the second-oldest in the County Wayne after Detroit.
Many of the businesses are moving into what were vacant or nearly vacant storefronts and buildings.
“I’ve been involved in Wyandotte since 1972 and I’ve never seen it this hip,” said Christ Doulos, owner of The Vault restaurant, 3058 First St., which opened in April 2021 in a former bank. “A lot of people living downtown, a lot of apartments, and the mayor and council are very proactive in helping us do business.”
Those in the business community hope the new influx of residents and places to visit will help keep downtown a vibrant year-round destination with a small-town feel beyond the busy Wyandotte Art Fair. Street that takes place for four days every July.
“We’re getting a lot of young people moving into town,” Wyandotte Mayor Robert DeSana said. “They just love the Wyandotte vibe.”
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Momentum downtown began building shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020. The projects have generally been driven by smaller, local developers who are very familiar with Wyandotte and have a desire to watching things grow.
The pandemic delayed some developments and openings, though most plans were put on hold and very few downtown businesses sank due to the COVID disruptions, according to development officials.
Downtown Wyandotte was one of the first communities in southeast Michigan to establish a social district, which allows bar and restaurant patrons to walk outside with alcoholic beverages. Michigan began allowing districts in the summer of 2020 to support food and beverage businesses during the pandemic.
Another popular aspect of downtown Wyandotte is the free parking. This is a contrast to other metro Detroit centers, where street and parking meters are strictly enforced.
The downtown occupancy rate is about 87% for commercial space and 99% for residential, said Joe Gruber, executive director of the Wyandotte Downtown Development Authority.
The most high-profile new development is the recent renovation and expansion into apartments and storefronts of a building that had been a US Postal Service facility at 166 Oak St.
“This is the largest single project in Wyandotte in decades,” Gruber said.
The project, led by development partners Robert Verdun and Jason D’Herin, involved the partial demolition of the old 1960s structure and the construction of a five-story L-shaped building for the 48 luxury apartments.
The building’s first floor will soon house six new businesses, including newly opened restaurant Tacos N’ Tequila, whiskey and cocktail bar The Oak Barrel and fashion and accessories boutique The Bling Thing.
The new apartments, known as W Lofts and Suites, have a unique outdoor lounge on the second floor with a swimming pool, a green area and an outdoor exercise area.
More than half of the apartments have been leased, Verdun said, and the initial batch of units will be ready next month.
Asking rents will start at $1,200 per month and go up to $4,000 per month for penthouse units. The development benefited from several incentives common to complex adaptive reuse projects, including a $4.5 million brownfield tax cap.
Verdun said he and his business partner noticed a strong demand for apartments in downtown Wyandotte, such as those that opened six years ago in a redeveloped Sears & Roebuck department store building.
Pre-renters at the amenity-filled W Lofts include young professionals, employees of nearby Henry Ford Wyandotte Hospital and some local business owners, Verdun said.
More new apartments
Vault restaurant owner Doulos said weekends are especially happening, and business in its first year exceeded forecasts by 20%.
The restaurant’s reception, he said, “has just been fantastic.”
“Downriver has always been seen as a place where you’re not going to eat good food, except maybe Sibley Gardens,” Doulos said.
In the same former banking complex as The Vault is a recently opened workspace, The Offices, as well as six new apartments.
The complex was completely vacant when it was purchased in late 2019 by local developers Ron Thomas and Justin Bise. While their redevelopment plans were slightly delayed by COVID, once the apartments opened last year, they rented out quickly.
“A few years ago, there weren’t a lot of quality housing options downtown,” Thomas said. “If you want a single-family home and want to live a few blocks from downtown, then there are some nice spots. But as far as modern, updated apartments, there just weren’t any.”
Last year also saw the opening of The Iron Gate, a craft cocktail bar with small food plates.
The municipality of residence
After tackling the old Maple Street bank complex, Thomas and another partner, Daly Merritt Properties, began transforming the top floor of Wyandotte City Hall, 3200 Biddle Ave., into seven two- and three-bedroom apartments.
That fourth floor had been the medical clinic office before the building became City Hall about a decade ago.
The spacious, sun-drenched apartments opened last week and rent for $2,000 a month.
“We probably put more into it in terms of time and money than we should have,” Thomas said, “but I saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get the project done.”
Next up for Thomas is a plan to redevelop the old Wyandotte City Hall building, 3131 Biddle, into a mix of commercial space and 35 market-rate apartments.
That $10 million project will begin later this year and be completed by the end of 2024. It calls for adding two additional floors to the two-story building — plus a rooftop bar.
Thomas, a former competitive BMX rider and 2002 graduate of Wyandotte Roosevelt High School, said he believes the downtown will support all the new apartments on the horizon.
“What I’m seeing is that if you get past the $2,000 price point, then the market becomes very thin,” he said. “But if you can manage to build things and bring them to market and keep your prices reasonable, then the market seems to support that.”
Development officials say several early arrivals and redevelopments downtown were key to building momentum.
Whiskeys on the Water, 2903 Biddle Ave., opened in 2016 in a former bank building and quickly emerged as a destination bar and restaurant.
“Downtown has always been a place for business, it’s always been a place for people to come, but I feel like this really took us to the next level,” Gruber said.
That same year also marked the first opening of Bobcat Bonnie’s downtown. The gastropub closed months later for reasons unrelated to sales, but went on to reopen.
Wyandotte’s long-vacant Sears & Roebuck department store, 3063 Biddle, was bought by the city and sold to local developer and owner Joe Daly after plans to turn it into a boutique hotel fell through. He then tore down and transformed the old three-story Sears into offices and six apartments, which opened in 2016.
CONTACTJC Reindl IN313-378-5460 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jcreindl. Read more about the business and sign up for our business newsletter.