After six months of controversy, on July 27 the Dexter City Council approved plans for Jack Savas’s coffeehouse, the Strawberry Alarm Clock Cafe, on Broad St. near the railroad tracks. “We’ll break ground immediately. It should be closed in before the first freeze,” promises Savas, a brash entrepreneur with a vision not everyone in Dexter shares.
“I’m not a typical American. I spent years living overseas–Japan, New Zealand, Australia. I used to work in the diplomatic corps,” says Savas. The Detroit-area native ran Michigan’s international trade and investment office in Tokyo from 1989 to 1995 and now lives in Loch Alpine. “When you live overseas and look back at your own country, you do it with a different lens,” Savas says. One thing he saw was that Americans have gotten the wrong idea about coffeehouses. They’re not supposed to be workstations for people who can’t afford offices, he contends, but community centers, and Dexter needed one that’s open at night.
One of Savas’s more vocal opponents, John Hansen, agrees on that point. “[Savas] has worked all over the world, and he wants to bring coffee culture to Dexter. He believes in European notions of walkability, for instance. I’ve traveled considerably myself, and I think it’s a noble idea.”
Some of the opposition was from nearby residents who don’t want retail in their neighborhood. But Dexter community development director Michelle Aniol says that mostly “the design was the hurdle … It doesn’t have the ornate details that some may have desired.”
So why didn’t Savas make it easy on himself and rent a downtown storefront? Savas claims nothing available was big enough. Last December he bought the house at 3441 Broad. With an unsalvageable foundation, it sold for $80,000. His plan from the beginning was to demolish it. And why couldn’t he build something that harmonized better with the older homes in the neighborhood? “I wanted the cafe to have its own identity and character.”
The Strawberry Alarm Clock is named after the band whose 1967 “Incense and Peppermints” was part of the iconic Sixties soundtrack (in the hippie love-groove vein, not rage-filled protest vein). Born in 1969, Savas didn’t live through those days, but he says, “I’m all about peace and love.” The era appeals to him so much he mined it for architecture, and his staff will be in period costume–bell-bottoms and tie-dye.
Council put him through the wringer. “Three times I had to redo the drawings,” he says. “The original design was boxy,” he concedes, especially the west side, which has now been softened by windows.
Hansen, one of the moderators of the twice-monthly Dexter Forum (“the official place to trade rumors,” he calls it with a smile), didn’t think the building was ugly per se–it was, he says, “kind of a neat building, with an industrial look to it”–just out of context. And he had a deeper objection: he’d like to see Dexter enact a historic district ordinance. Hansen thinks that’s particularly important because Dexter “doesn’t have a lot of landmark properties,” the kind of showstoppers that get put on the national historic register. The Greek revival house that Savas demolished “was probably built in the 1850s. It would have been a reminder of our past.”
Like most Dexter officials, Aniol wanted the coffeehouse and defends the decision to approve the plans. “It’s in keeping with the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior Standards for Historic Preservation,” she emails. “The scale and massing reflected the architecture of the neighborhood.”
Most importantly, it fits in with some of the strategies Dexter is using to attract future residents. “Urban infill” and “placemaking” are the new buzzwords. Savas comes to an interview armed with a copy of The New Rules of Real Estate, a book he says proves that people want coffeehouses in their neighborhoods.
The building controversy has been stealing most of the thunder, but Savas emphasizes that he’s given plenty of thought to the business inside. He says it will be local and sustainable. He’ll be doing the cooking himself, and he hopes to introduce high school students to the ways of European-style cafe culture both as customers and staff (he says he’ll pay them more than minimum wage). He’s lined up local vendors like TeaHaus, Mindo, and White Lotus Farms. The coffee “will focus on country-specific beans that have been harvested less than two months before arriving in Michigan and roasted locally. We will not do business with national corporate giants such as Sysco and Gordon Foods. No thank you. We prefer fresh and locally grown produce!”
Sandy Hoard closed Hoard Studios on Main St., where she sold her drawings, her jewelry, and her crazy cloth bags that mixed and matched Sixties block prints with prim florals and heathery tweeds. She has moved to the west side of the state. “This is home for us,” she explains. Her husband, Greg, is an electrical lineman, and it was his work that brought them to Dexter a few years ago, when he took a job in Detroit.
“We’ve been floating around for at least seven years looking at houses” on a lake near Plainwell, where her sister lives, says Hoard. “I guess the right one showed itself.”
Dexter mayor Shawn Keough called our attention to an error in the Community Observer’s Fall issue. In our Marketplace Changes column, we reported that the Dexter city council put Jack Savas, the owner of the proposed Strawberry Alarm Clock cafe, “through the wringer” in the building approval process. Savas noted that he had to re-submit modified drawings three times.
In fact, Savas was describing his dealings with Dexter’s planning commission, not its city council. “It’s not uncommon for someone to have to return with plans several times to the planning commission,” Keough notes. City council approved the project on the first try, by a four-to-three vote.