When Mary Liz Curtin and her husband Stephen opened retail mecca Leon and Lulu a decade ago, they felt a little lonely in downtown Clawson.
“There was Pizza Hut, a hairdresser, a used car lot, a Chinese restaurant, a Burger King and a porno shop,” recalls Curtin with a chuckle.
But things were about to change.
That same year, Black Lotus Brewery opened its doors, and things began to liven up in Clawson. Foot traffic increased, and new businesses followed. Today, Clawson boasts a thriving restaurant scene with older stalwarts like Noble Fish,Old Port Inn and the Clawson Grill serving up food alongside newcomers Atomic Chicken, Mojave Cantina and Old Detroit Burger Bar.
“It’s no longer a sleepy little town, and the people who are opening businesses here are enthusiastic and energetic,” Susie Stec, Clawson’s Economic Development Coordinator, explains over lunch at Clawson Grill. Stec says there are “maybe half a dozen properties” available in the downtown area. She points out that the Grill’s facade was recently completely redone, and right next door is the brand new business, Clawson Jewelers.
Clawson’s downtown is comprised of just a few blocks, but it’s full of unique destinations including Wunderground, one of only a few magic shops in the state of Michigan; Warp 9 Comics; the inimitable Leon and Lulu, and dining options that run the gamut from Vietnamese to Italian. And as Clawson’s residents and businesses work to ensure a stable and successful future, they’re doing so by honoring and incorporating the city’s past.
The oldest building in downtown Clawson dates to around 1915, and few were built in the 1920s, including those called home by Black Lotus Brewery and Da Nang Vietnamese Restaurant. Most others were constructed in the 1940s and 50s.
Leon and Lulu was once a roller skating rink. A careful look around the building reveals remnants of the building’s past—including the floor and concession stand—help to give the space a unique ambiance. Curtin says she “can’t imagine being in another building.”
And Leon and Lulu is expanding into the building next door, which used to be a theater. The space is becoming The Show at Leon and Lulu, complete with a historically accurate marquee. Curtin says the building will serve as additional retail space and a new bakery-cafe.
Rehabbing spaces in downtown Clawson has required ingenuity. Black Lotus Brewery, which celebrates its tenth birthday this year, is in a building that was originally a drug store and later became a carpet and plumbing fixtures store. The owners of Woodpile BBQ, which just opened in 2015, had to get imaginative when transforming their building on the site of a former A&W built in 1957.
Downtown Development Authority Director Joan Horton is a Clawson native and remembers visiting the city’s downtown, including the drugstore and the A&W, when she was young.
“It was a place where you came to shop and see people,” recalls Horton, “but then like a lot of towns, the malls came and changed everything.”
Policies by the Michigan Department of Transportation in the 1970s aided in the decline of Clawson, as they did in so many other traditional downtowns across the state. Road projects cut through walkable towns, making them less pedestrian-friendly. They also made it easier for people to get to the malls and forget about businesses in their own neighborhoods.
The decline and stagnation in downtown Clawson persisted through much of the 1980s and 1990s. However, in the last decade or so, the pendulum of consumer preference has swung back toward mom and pop-owned businesses, and many entrepreneurs are taking note.
“Six or seven years ago, we started seeing people,” says Horton. “Before that, there was no one walking around. But now everyone is sitting on a patio. If you’re walking the dog, pushing the kids, you go downtown, and that’s how it used to be.”
Horton credits the nonprofit National Main Street Center and Main Street Oakland County for aiding in the turnaround of many once-struggling downtown areas, including Clawson. The programs focus on design, organization, economic vitality and promotion to breathe life into failing downtowns and spur entrepreneurship.
Plans for the future
Last year, the Clawson Planning Commission adopted a new Downtown Master Plan, which takes into account the city’s history and aims to add greenery pedestrian areas. The previous Master Plan required that new construction had to be built up to the sidewalk with no respect to what the rest of the block looked like, and allowed for homes around the city’s downtown to be torn down to make room for new commercial development.
”Residents didn’t want that and they made that very clear, so the new plan says those homes around downtown can be used as an office or a salon, but it still has to be a home,” Horton explains.
The city of Clawson adopted a Complete Streets resolution in 2010, embracing the idea that every road should respect all users and all abilities.
“When you look at planning roads, you should consider the old, the young, pedestrians, drivers, the handicapped and cyclists,” says Horton. Even though it isn’t possible to do everything on every road, Horton says it’s very important that cities try to get as close to that ideal as possible.
Since completing the installation of several pedestrian islands on 14 Mile in Clawson’s downtown in last year, Horton says many drivers are slowing down and creating a safer environment for pedestrians. Now the challenge is a parking shortage in the city’s downtown. In the past when there weren’t as many restaurants and businesses, it wasn’t a problem, but now that’s changed. Parking in Clawson is free—a major draw for those who are all too used to emptying their change purse for an afternoon in nearby Ferndale or Royal Oak.
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