Residents in Center Line have a running joke that it’s one giant parking lot.
That’s because there are a lot of car dealerships in the 1.7-square mile city located inside Warren, Mich.
Ed Rinke Chevrolet Buick GMC is the most prominent, stretching multiple blocks on Van Dyke Avenue.
“We have enough cars.” - Wes Arnold, resident
“I can’t really speak for every person but it seems to me that we probably have enough car lots,” says Wesley E. Arnold, above, who grew up just down the street from the lots. “We should have businesses of different types. We have enough cars.”
Crossing the Lines
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The Rinke family has been in the car dealership business in Center Line since 1917.
Recently Edgar Rinke, Jr made an effort to expand across the street from his main dealership by purchasing two vacant storefronts.
Rinke planned to display vehicles there but current zoning didn’t permit that. He applied for the necessary variances but was denied by the Zoning Board of Appeals. Now Rinke is suing the city and the zoning board in response. He did not respond to a request for an interview for this story.
The car dealer’s fight to turn vacant storefronts into additional car lots has been a big topic of conversation in Center Line.
“I don’t think the zoning board should rezone storefronts to be parking lots. We need some other solution than just more lots of new and used cars,” says Cameron Francis.
He and his wife Abbey are raising their toddler in Center Line. The couple moved in 2015 from Madison Heights after finding a custom-built 1950s home in their price range that had been owned by only one family before them.
“It’s a lot of empty storefronts that once had life.” - Cameron Francis, resident
The Francis’ say they like that Center Line has a small-town feel but is centrally-located and somewhat racially diverse. They enjoy going to Taqueria Alma, a taco shop in a strip mall, and Haney’s Family Restaurant, but they say, for the most part, the business district in town leaves much to be desired.
“It’s a lot of empty storefronts that I know once had life,” Francis says.
Among his friend group Center Line has a reputation of being where people’s grandparents live, Francis says. He thinks the city needs to do a better job of attracting people in their 20s and 30s who tend to value a place that’s walkable with amenities close by.
“It’d be interesting to see how the leadership here in Center Line decides to make moves for today’s generation,” says Francis.
Jan Ornsten has served on Center Line’s Downtown Development Authority for the past 7 years. She admits the business district has seen better days.
“Right now, I would think it’s kind of empty,” says Ornsten. “We need to have some new development, new business. I would like to see maybe a car wash come into our city.”
Ornsten says the bulk of the Downtown Development Authority’s duties include issuing grants to businesses looking to make external improvements such as repaving their parking lots, getting awnings or painting new storefronts. For example, the DDA granted $10,000 – the maximum amount available – for new lighting at Te Roma Grill and Beergarden.
“It was a neon light around the whole building to actually make it look like a Las Vegas-style building,” Ornsten explains.
The DDA also plans events. They helped implement a Center Line and Warren car cruise called Cruisin 53 earlier this year. And once the Iron Belle Bike Trail gets routed through Center Line, Ornsten hopes to start a monthly bicycle cruise similar to Slow Roll in Detroit.
A Walkable Community
Center Line’s city manager, Dennis Champine, says the city hopes to become more bike and pedestrian-friendly.
“Our goal is to create an environment that people can park their cars and walk from shop to shop, but also to create an environment for individuals who are looking for a downtown district to live in and not have to get in their cars, but to simply just walk out their door,” says Champine.
But the city will have to find its way over some big hurdles before achieving that goal. For one, officials will need to figure out how to make Van Dyke, a state-run seven lane highway, more pedestrian-friendly. Leaders will also need to figure out parking; in the business district it’s not allowed on Van Dyke or several nearby residential side streets. Also, right now very few people live in the actual business district on Van Dyke Avenue or 10 Mile Road. In 2015, only 5 people were estimated to live on these thoroughfares, according to the city’s development plan.
People are “driving through but they’re not stopping. That’s on us.” - Dennis Champine, Center Line city manager
Champine says one key to success will be to secure developers to build mixed-use structures. He says he’s imagining “mom and pop” stores on the ground floor and apartments up above. He’d also like see some craft breweries and corporate coffee shops like Biggby, Starbucks or Tim Hortons.
“That will draw the attention of passerbys and so forth that are just looking for a cup of coffee,” says Champine.
But that could be difficult for a city that recently lost its only coffee shop. Hometown Heroes, an independent venture opened by a long-time resident, survived a little more than a year before shuttering in August.
Champine says the city has to do a better job of getting drivers to stop in Center Line.
“We do have very high traffic volumes on 10 [Mile] and Van Dyke through the city, but that’s just it. The majority of those vehicles are driving through the city from one end of the City of Warren to another end of the City of Warren. So they’re driving through but they’re not stopping. And you know, that’s on us,” says Champine.
He hopes that will start to change soon. Champine says an economic development director, a new position, is expected to start this month. And Cattleman’s, a butcher store and market which could draw out-of-towners, is scheduled to open next year. When it does, it will be the only grocery store in town.