After years of making do, Frenchtown residents could one day have a neighborhood grocery store. That’s part of a early-stage plan to redevelop a key downtown block. But some residents are concerned the history of the area could get lost in the process.
Empty lots and crumbling buildings could one day be replaced by a clinic, a bank, townhomes topped with solar panels, and a Publix. That’s the dream of a group of developers, Frenchtown business owners and residents for the block that once held the old homeless shelter.
Early conceptual drawings show chrome buildings with plate glass windows rising six stories above the street. That’s a stark contrast to how the area looks now. And that worries Frenchtown resident Delaitre Hollinger. He grew in the neighborhood and now heads the National Association for the Preservation of African American History and Culture.
“These types of projects are continuing to erode the historical integrity of this community. So I want to see a project that comes forward that includes with it an integration of growth and historic preservation,” Hollinger said.
Hollinger is particularly concerned about the Economy Drugstore, located at the corner of Macomb and Virginia Streets. Geraldine Roberts and her husband founded the pharmacy in the 1940s. Sixty plus years later, their children and grandchildren are still taking care of the family business. The drugstore features prominently in the conceptual designs, but its current building would be leveled and replaced by a brand new facility. For longtime residents, it's one of the few physical reminders of a time when they didn't have to leave the neighborhood to have a good meal or do their shopping.
Vandon Jones remembers that time too. His aunt owned the Tookes Hotel, one of the only accommodations in the city when black musicians like Lou Rawls and author and activist James Baldwin came to town. Jones would like to see the remaining historic homes preserved. But he says his neighborhood has to change in order to survive.
“I’d love to see what you got actually come to fruition because it brings back what used to be here. The grocery store was Super X, now it’s maybe Publix. Things grow. And you got to grow with it. Otherwise you just die,” Jones said.
The city’s community redevelopment agency will consider making an exclusive deal with the developers on May 25th. The city wouldn't be able to look at any other company’s plans for six months, while the team gathers community input and finalizes their design.