A New Leaf For Oak Park As A Bikable, Urbanist Suburb
But I think it's pretty commonsensical to understand that the built environment whatever form that is in and takes has an impact on our quality of life form and function are one and the same to some extent. And I think you know what we're doing is, is recognizing that and saying, you know, we're not gonna build strip mall USA in our inner ring suburb of a major city, and so to compete for great residents and great businesses and be part of this movement. That's going on the city Detroit, which against not transcending the way, I would hope it would we have to do these things to, to get on that same page. That's the voice of Eric ton gate city manager of oak park. And this is an extra boat as additional of your daily Detroit podcast for Saturday, Junaid twenty nineteen. I'm Jerry stays. And I'm spend gossips after decades being known as a dowdy and dry. Suburb oak park is on the rise with a couple of dozen liquor licenses to allow out. A new brewery and restaurants on the way in a new streetscape project to overhaul nine mile road. City is even drawing new residents priced out of neighboring Ferndale sned spoke at ton gate, about all those new projects parks, challenges transit, and what's going on, with that old WWE building on eight mile that's supposed to become a new restaurant? All that more right after this, you know, daily Detroit automatically arrives in your ear buds. Thanks in part to listeners like you by joining us on patriot. New can help ensure that we can continue to produce episodes like this, that pushed Detroit's conversation forward, and you'll get free stickers and other -cational perks as thank you stickers. Make sure to become a patriotic at patriot dot com slash daily Detroit. Joining us in the studio today is, Eric toungate. The city manager of oak park. Eric, welcome today, Detroit. Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure to be here. Absolutely. So a lot going on in the city of oak park, and we'll get to that in, in just a moment. I wanted to start by, like you come from kind of, you know, you wear a lot of different hats as city manager, I mean, I was reported for many years. And I always, you know, I learned very early on the city manager in, in cities like oak park, again, without the strong, mayor fulltime mayor is really the person who knows everything you know, that's, that's your, your best source. You have a in particular you have a background in economic development, you worked for the Michigan economic Development Corporation, the Detroit economic growth corporation, you worked for city Hamtramck, Wayne County, etc. Let's talk about park. I mean what is your sort of pitch to business owners that come to you and say, hey, were looking for a new location? And we want to invest Celano park me. What, what? Does your pitch to them? Well, I mean besides that I think we have world class public services, I think anyone would agree with that. And we're, we're various student keeping up our infrastructure. We don't claim to be trying to supplant, the the downtown's around us Birmingham Royal Detroit, etc. But we want to be a very integral part of the larger narrative that is going on. Unfortunately, I don't I don't think the narrative that we're seeing in the city of Detroit specially in the city of Detroit, but elsewhere to it's happening in Birmingham, and Royal oh, just the same on, on lesser levels, but the narrative is not, you know, transcending as much as I think it should that we all have a key role to play in oak park. You know, we're a bedroom community, but our objective is to be the very best bedroom community. Meaning we will provide the highest quality of life who for those who want to live their best life in our community right now. We are targeting. A whole bunch of different public infrastructure improvements that cater to when you come home from work after you've come home from work from your job in midtown Detroit or Birmingham, or whatever that, you know, you can bike with your family's safely bike with your family, or you can partake in activities that you couldn't otherwise partaken. So that's our objective. We also I will say economic development wise, old park is probably the most primed example of policy changes that are now leading to some advancements in one of the best examples is when I came to become the city manager in two thousand twelve oaks park was a dry city. We did not allow alcohol to be consumed in any establishment of restaurants. Yeah. Restaurants bar didn't allow bar, any bars didn't have any and this issue had gone to the voters four previous times and failed and we brought it back to them. We started with the tavern license step in the process, and then we. Put it on the ballot and the voters unanimously supported this effort, because we said to them. Hey, there are twenty five restaurants because we were allowed to have by our population about twenty five licenses. There are twenty five possible restaurants, who otherwise would locate in our community. But won't come if we're not allowing them to serve beer, or wine or whatever it may be with people's dinner. So we've since changed that this has been a few years back now. And we're now seeing this proliferation of, of new restaurants with a brewery, coming, a whole bunch of other interested parties now. And we'll get to some of the specific new developments coming down the pike. What about some of the challenges of oak park, I think a lot of people perceive, a park, it's a kind of an aging suburb. Some of the commercial districts are little down, their luck music fair to absolutely on. This is exactly what I was speaking to a moment ago that, you know, especially nine mile in our one of our largest projects going on right now. Now is a complete re configuration of nine mile road. And most people will note the changes that the city of Ferndale has undertaken on their portion of nine mile and we're gonna continue those changes and actually probably one up some of the improvements that were made to we have a bike path, where we're actually closing to neighborhoods streets, that empty into nine mile and, and turning those into pocket. Parks, really true pocket parks. We're getting rid of two lane miles on nine mile going, westbound, otherwise known as a road diet as bright. That's the popular phase of let me people don't realize I think that Ferndale did that back in the nineties believe because nine mile used to be four lanes two lanes in each direction, and fairly high speed limit and everything. And all the I remember talking to the old you probably met him way, back in the day, Tom bar, when they're you know, old activists city manager, and he told me that, you know, all the businesses on nine mile made you enter. In the back like the front doors were permanently locked, and they'd say go to the back near the parking lots, and they put it on a road diet and encouraged people to walk on the sidewalks and encourage the downtown business owners. Anyway, that's I devote. I digress. But there are reasons to do this. Right. Absolutely. I, I am. I'm an MBA. So I'm not some, you know, urban planning expert or anything like that. I never claimed to be, but I think it's pretty commonsensical to understand that the built environment whatever form that is in and takes has an impact on our quality of life form and function are one and the same to some extent. And I think you know what we're doing is, is recognizing that and saying, you know, we're not going to build strip mall, USA in our, our inner ring suburb of a major city, and so to compete for great residents and great businesses and be part of this movement. That's going on the city, Detroit, which, again is not transcending the way, I would hope it would we have to do? These things to, to get on that same page. You know, you mentioned you're not necessarily an urban est but the things going on a nine mile in particular are definitely very like urban est place making that sort of thing. And I just wonder hasn't been a lot of pushback from on that. Absolutely. There's all things in government, as they rightfully should have pushed back, we would be nonsensical to think that anything we do in any government at any level of government anywhere would be easy and not have detractors, that's actually the beauty of our of our democracy. That the idea is the more debate either pro or against an issue that takes place the better the results. And we don't shun that in oak park, we expected, and we welcome it. I certainly am not loyal to my own interests. Even or, or others. I'm loyal to good ideas, my job there is to promote good ideas and promote the taxpayers highest quality of life. There. Who pay my salary, and so whatever that means we're going to pursue it if we're wrong, we're going to admit were wrong and improve upon ourselves. And we've done that every step of the way but we don't let detractors take us away from what we think is right? And, and just lastly, personally speaking now, public infrastructure is one of the most direct most impactful ways that government, specially local government and state government can affect the betterman of people's lives. And we shouldn't be afraid of that. You know, we're about to build a aesthetic bridge project over top of is six ninety six many people will note that this is uncurling cool. Right. The overpass when, when that freeway was built in the nineties m dot put up these wrought iron, you know, chain link fences along the way that really aren't the most aesthetically pleasing. So if you're. Look at ours. Ours happens to be the chain link version of that on the Coolidge is six ninety six overpass. It's bent and trash collects behind it and so forth. And we thought you know what let's use his opportunity to make an impact and put a stake in the ground and say this is oak park. So for the hundreds of thousands of motorists who daily drive down, I six ninety six coming up here, they will know when they are in oak park, just like when you're on I seventy five and you're going through Auburn Hills and you see what they did this a very similar project. It'll have a major impact and create the sense that, hey, this is a community. That's doing something I travel that intersection more or less on the surface drive, usually all the time. And I noticed in recent years, you guys have had the sunflowers along the, on the service drive along the freeway embankments, which is a nice touch. It goes appreciated by me. At least I'll tell you that. Well, I appreciate you saying that, that was years back. I I'm born and raised in west Michigan. Southwest Michigan and a couple years back, I grew up next to sunflower farms, where I where I grew up in so couple years back, I said, you know what? All these cities are, you know, Detroit is doing things every time I go downtown or something. I see something right? Think to myself, who would have ever thought of that and thought that would work and I'm always mesmerized at the creativity, and I thought to myself, well, heck, in some of these, you know, drab corridors of our city, let's heck with it. Let's plant sunflowers. I mean, there's no more prominence lower than the sunflower or easy to grow as a gardener. So, yeah. I mean it's just, you know, you can't water those things enough, and it turns out that it's just had I can't even tell you the number of letters and emails and phone calls. I have received a lot of which come from senior citizens just saying thank you for brightening, my day. So think about how, you know, in a drab corridor now for a very small amount of money, relatively speaking. We are we are. Affecting the social awareness, improving the built environment making more quality public space but also than making are positive impact people's lives year. I it's incredible. When you think about it or so let's kind of move up to, to eleven mile road between Coolidge and greenfield. That's another big area of focus for the city. And you've got a whole bunch of stuff going on there. Talk about that. 'cause you've got what a new brewery, online, and to new restaurants, now, understand one, and that's announced, right? River Rouge brewery, has announced that they're going to be locating in a in a spot on eleven mile, you know, eleven miles unique in a lot of ways most unique because we share eleven mile with the city of, of Berkeley, you know, it's a pretty dense corridor. I mean, terms of the, the property, distances from the street and so forth. So to me, it's an opportunity for us, especially to now that we have liquor licenses and we, we didn't have an economic development department in two thousand twelve either by the. They had never had an economic interesting. Yeah. But now it's an opportunity to revisit some of these traditionally commercial industrial spaces that right up to the street. And this is what's happening. And you're seeing, you know, there's, there's been some tremendous interest in these spots from restaurants for this very reason. And it's kind of an industrial district now too, and it's been rezoned. We've, we've rezoned it in recognition of things I just mentioned, but yeah, it was traditionally, an industrial commercial district that I it didn't fit with the with the tone of the neighborhood surrounding it, and so forth. But I'm very excited about it because there's a lot going on. We just had a, a company located in one of the larger commercial spaces named boardroom, and they're a, they're a car company, but, but they're studying sort of this, this technology associated with self driving vehicles and, and other things. But they've got a couple of hundred employees in that spot now. So we're very excited about that, too. And we are also just lastly, we are also partnering with Mogo. We're one of the communities have part Mogo in one of the Mogo stations will be set up along eleven mile upstream testings. Well, and when does that sort, not quick enough? I was I just had a meeting yesterday with staff. And, you know, there's it's a lot of balls in the air, we're, we're, we're working with a lot of other communities, actually, the city of Detroit and other partner communities in this. So there's a lot of things going on. And we're all trying to turn our keys at the same time, I would have liked to have seen these stations that the concrete sport in oak park. I don't know if it is elsewhere, but there's no park, but I would have liked to have seen these stations setup an. Active already. I think we're looking at probably the end of July before we actually see it. And we're also worlds can people expect at see Mogo by kiosks in there are I believe five stations strategically placed throughout the city. They'll be one year. The city hall municipal complex. They'll be one along Coolidge, greenfield eleven miles at four, I think there's one more at nine Coolidge, no good on nine and Coolidge is, is basically the center of oak park. Okay. So, you know, talking about all this new exciting development, that's coming down the line. You've got Mogo bike sharing launching later, this summer where do you see a park in? You know, look in your crystal ball and twenty years, fifty years, whatever, yeah. I mean I you know, I I always come back to this, this conversation about mass transportation in our region. Oh, yes. You know it used even as recent as ten years ago, I think the conversation at which point I was. Living in the city of Detroit, which I lived there for ten years, total, but I ten years ago or so the entering suburbs in the city of Detroit had very little in common or far less than they do. Now today, the interim suburbs, especially the entering suburbs in the city of Detroit have everything in common. Their futures are undoubtedly tied to each other. When I think about the lack of fixed light rail, and notice. I'm saying that very specifically, I think of a lack of courage, leadership involves courage in political will. And this is the elements that's missing. What are we talking about after our talking about railroad tracks and train cars? That's not rocket science. It's done all over the world. We can do it here too. It just involves courage and political will I oftentimes scratch my head when I hear other leaders, speak about transit or people in stay. Government, speak about transit or not speak about it at all as if it's somebody else's issue. It's all of our issue whether we have autonomous vehicles or not isn't going to change that Royal Oak is an interim suburb to Detroit. So great about the Thomas vehicles. But people thousands of people millions of people in our region are still going to need to get from point a to point b last time. I checked those points aren't changing downtown. Detroit's not gonna move off to some other location anytime soon. So let's build fixed systems to transport these people back and forth, if we do not do it in my opinion, economic development, wise, cloudy, life, wise, you name it in my opinion. We will not arrive at a world class as a world class region or city, under any terms, this, this lack of leadership on this issue is extremely deficient. It's unfortunate, but somebody has to. Take the has to use the political will and have the courage to take it on. I think going back to the discussion about eleven mile. I think you're the city you guys have a whole bunch of new liquor licenses and my right about that, that you're kind of using as part of your pitch absolutely for these businesses. You know, we, we have I believe we have as many as twenty four liquor licenses currently available while and it's just so unique because where would you ever imagine, you know, in Birmingham and Royal Oak there, they're fighting over these things in, you know, these developers put him in escrow for hundreds of thousands of dollars. And because they are just aren't any available, and then in our town here, we have twenty four or so of them twenty two twenty four. And let's say that for the cost of the application in the permit application, you can get one. It's amazing does. I'm just curious, does park have any restaurants today, that are serving deer wine or liquor. Yes, we do with eleven mile, though, like I was actually. Driving through there the other day. And as I mentioned, you know, it's an industrial district and it dawned on me that because I was thinking about this interview I it don't on me that that's going to be slightly challenging from perspective of that's well off the beaten path for like entertainment food, and drink, you know, options and everything. Do you have any plans as the city have any plans to sort of try to market that as a destination, because it's, it's just, you know, it's not people's muscle memory to cruise down eleven mile in Berkeley. Oh park to look for a place to eat. It wasn't it hasn't been if I could like in that other situation other area Woodward avenue in downtown, Detroit, and the lower Woodward quarter hasn't been in people's psyche, as shopping destination for forty years. That's true that's now changing. So the expectation I have is that the market will drive that. But again, that's also fully aware, we're going in with our eyes wide open in terms of we don't plan to supplant or be a weekend destination. We. To be a really great bedroom community more of a twenty four hour. Right. So when you come home, there's a nice cafe where you and your family can have a drink and dinner. I understand that you're also looking at potentially doing another road diet there on in that same stretch of road of eleven miles out, right? Yeah. We've received some grant dollars to do a study along Coolidge in eleven mile, we certainly will pursue any other portion of the city. There aren't many others beyond greenfield or, or even add like to revisit eight mile with working with them dot in terms of what we're what we're doing there, but we have a grant we're going to be studying. And, and if the results of that recommend that we, we do have road either as well. Then we'll, we'll certainly give some credence. I have to ask you because we talk about it a lot. And I think there's a lot of interest in it. What's going on with union joints? There was supposed to take over that old WW, J transmitter site down on eight mile road and turn it. Into a restaurant, call eight M K, what? And that's been, it seems to have been stalled. It was announced, I think almost three years ago. And here again, you know, obviously the city we want this to move as fast as possible. One of the things that was discovered as part of their due diligence the private developers due diligence union joints. That is was that there were some undiscovered environmental contamination that had leaked into that site who so they are now working to remediate that what kind of contamination do know it I, I don't know the specifics of it, but it was from an industrial site next door to it that had leaked in that they otherwise had not discovered in their previous phase one and two environmentals. We are shared by union joints that they will finish that project and at this point, I have every reason to believe that that's going to happen sooner rather than later. All right, very good. So Eric, we talked to at the top of the show about, you know, the role of the city manager and part time mayor and everything do you plan to stick with the kind of, you know, April? Political city manager administrative role or or as a run for elected office in the cards for you in the future. Do you think well, I'm gonna go in do what whatever I think is necessary in order to improve this world. You know I've got two daughters. I wanna make sure that I'm leaving this world and better hands than when I found it. So whatever that means I want to be selfless in doing that if I can best serve through city manager role or the one currently, and then I'll do, so I, I'm not a cynic. I don't believe the world is getting worse. I actually believe the world is getting better optimistic about the future. And I always come back to the idea that the problems that have been created by people can also be resolved by people. And if I can be part of the resolution of our problems in our society in our state in our cities here in Michigan. Then so be it. So we'll see. All right. Eric toungate is city manager for oak park, and Eric, thanks so much for coming in and telling us about everything going. Thank you so much for. That's our show for today. Friends things for listening make sure to tell a friend about it on Jair stays now. I'm spend gossips and take care of each other. And we'll see you around Detroit. You're listening to the podcast, Detroit network. Visit WWW dot podcast Detroit dot com for more information.