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From Detroit to Oakland, pandemic threatens urban renewal

In this March 24 photo, Woodward Avenue is shown nearly empty in Detroit. Before the coronavirus showed up, downtown Detroit was returning to its roots as a vibrant city center, motoring away from its past as the model of urban ruin. Now, with the coronavirus forcing many office workers to their homes in the suburbs, those who remain wonder if revitalization will ever return. (AP photo)

DETROIT — Downtown Detroit was returning to its roots as a vibrant city center, motoring away from its past as the model of urban ruin.

Then the pandemic showed up, emptying once-bustling streets and forcing many office workers to flee to their suburban homes.

Anthony Frank, who manages Dessert Oasis and Coffee Roasters on Griswold Street, said everyone loves Detroit’s comeback story, but a 20% drop in business has been difficult to handle.

“We definitely had to do a lot of soul searching just to try to make sure that we were able to keep this thing going,” said Frank, who is hopeful that things will eventually pick up again.

From midtown Manhattan to San Francisco, just about any city built around clusters of office buildings that used to bring in thousands of workers every day is feeling some degree of angst.

But experts say cities such as Detroit, Cleveland and Oakland, California, that were shedding years of decay and starting to turn a corner will have a harder time recovering because they don’t have an established base of large office tenants. And even though downtown populations in Cleveland and Detroit are growing, their overall populations are still declining, making their comebacks all the more challenging.

If the virus persists, some businesses will ultimately close, and the damage could ripple through downtowns and hurt the businesses that remain, said Daniel Shoag, an economics professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

“There’s a possibility that this could be really bad in terms of wiping out the base and being really hard to start from scratch,” Shoag said.

In resurgent cities, restaurants, dry cleaners and other businesses were banking on continued growth to fund investments, said Christopher Mayer, a finance and real estate professor at Columbia University.

“Their (profit) margins weren’t that high, they were making a bet on the new neighborhood,” he said. “All of that I think has been upended, and I don’t know when it’s going to recover.”

In Cleveland, the downtown was thriving before the pandemic with two new residential towers opening and paint maker Sherwin Williams announcing a new headquarters with about 3,500 workers. Downtown’s population is nearing 20,000, up 25% since 2010, the Downtown Cleveland Alliance says.

But the pandemic sent businesses on a downward spiral. At Maestro Tailor in the Playhouse Square theater district, owner Mark Srour’s alteration and clothing business is down 80% from before the virus. He’s hoping customers come back when theaters reopen and workers at nearby law firms and office towers stop working remotely.

“Sometimes I don’t pay myself,” said Srour, who emigrated from Lebanon a decade ago. “It’s OK. As long as I can survive and keep going with my dream.”

The pandemic also is threatening dreams in downtown Oakland, a city long overshadowed by San Francisco. But San Francisco’s soaring real estate prices prompted companies and residents to begin migrating across the Bay Bridge.

Last year, Blue Shield of California moved from San Francisco to a new 24-story headquarters in Oakland, bringing 1,200 more employees to the roughly 80,000 whose jobs normally bring them downtown.

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