New Retail Project Coming to South U?

There are some major changes afoot on South University.  It’s been long rumored that Ron Hughes of Bingham Farms-based Hughes Properties is working with the Ulrich family to redevelop their significant holdings in the area.  Hughes is responsible for some pretty serious commercial projects in town including the former Borders redevelopment on Liberty and the ground floor retail component of the Landmark high rise at South University and South Forest.  The DDA is also in the planning stages of some much needed street and sidewalk improvements for the area including removal of the massive round planters, crossing improvements to the South Forest-South U intersection and increased space for outdoor seating.


Adding to this change could be a smaller commercial building filling the only structure-less void on this stretch.  Back in 2009, arsonists burned down the former Pinball Pete’s, at the time vacant and boarded up as Pete’s had moved across the street some years before.  The Tice family, owners of the Pizza House restaurant, had owned the property for many years.  It appears they had explored several options for the site, including experimenting with a food truck court in 2013, but had never committed to a long term redevelopment plan.


In December of 2015, they sold the property to Boston-based Suburban Campus Properties, owners of the adjacent University Towers (SCP also owns the commercial component of the Michigan Theater Building), for $1,050,000.  This makes sense simply as a buffer against future high rise development next to the Towers but SCP does not appear to be sitting on their hands, they recently listed a potential new retail/office development for lease.


The listing shows they’re planning a two story building with up to 12,000 square feet of space available on both floors.  It’s important to note that this is just a conceptual plan, the design and size of the building will be dictated by the tenant or tenants they attract to the space, however it gives you an idea of what the owners are anticipating.  They’re asking $45 per square foot, a hefty price tag and one that can likely only be taken on by a national retailer looking to plant a flag here in Ann Arbor.  New construction with high ceilings and modern amenities in the heart of the campus area is a rare find and I would expect there to be considerable interest from the market.  For reference, the Landmark retail space was asking $45 per square foot as well, 7-11 pays nearly that for 2,500 square feet.  Walgreens pays just over $40 per square foot for nearly 18,000 square feet of older but completely renovated space with high ceilings at State and North U.

Like most locals, I hate seeing the proliferation of national chains in the downtown area although I do understand that a mix of local, regional and national businesses is healthy.  This building would replace a vacant gravel lot in an in-fill location and that is certainly a good thing.  Normally I would say there is plenty of older, cheaper space on South U for local businesses to establish themselves but I don’t know what the future will bring to this stretch, some of those buildings may face the wrecking ball.  Here’s hoping they find a quality tenant that fits in well with the overall character of the area and build a high caliber design.  I know the family behind SCP just enough to know they care about more than just the bottom line and I believe they will be selective and measured in their decisions going forward on this project.


My first thought when I saw this project was the possibility of a Nike Store to go along with the new Nike apparel contract at UM.  I just read a story about Under Armour opening a 15,000 square foot flagship store in Madison, WI following up on their recent contract with UW.  Would the townies want that?  Definitely not.  Would your average 19 year old be thrilled?  Probably.

For the record, I think South U needs some redevelopment.  There are a number of buildings that would break my heart to lose but there’s some brutally designed, poorly maintained 1950’s-1980’s structures that are in need of a major reboot or potential replacement.  I’m a huge proponent of character but significant swathes of South U are tired bordering on moribund right now.

When poking around for this story, I noticed that 1121 S University, the building at the NW corner of South U and Church with TCF Bank on the ground floor, sold last year to University of Michigan Credit Union.  UM ended their partnership with TCF last year in favor of PNC.  I would not be surprised to see TCF exit this location whenever their lease is up and see a new UM Credit Union branch replace it.  Hard to argue that would be anything but positive, the building needs some work and you’re replacing an out of state bank with a local one.  Hope I’m right.

Argus Farm Stop Expansion

It’s rare that a place opens and immediately becomes an indispensable part of the community.  Sometimes, a business at once fills a void we didn’t know existed and also epitomizes the culture and character of a neighborhood.  For the Old West Side, just off the western edge of downtown Ann Arbor, that place is Argus Farm Stop.


Husband and wife team Bill Brinkerhoff and Kathy Sample opened Argus not two years ago in August, 2014 in an old service station at the corner of Liberty and 2nd.  A year round farmers market and coffee shop, Argus quickly became the de facto meeting place for the neighborhood.  The quick popularity and success however seems to have put a strain on the already tight confines of the space.  Last summer they announced plans to add a 556 square foot greenhouse to the front of the building, effectively increasing their space over 40%.

Work is finally underway and should go relatively quickly.  I wish them the best of luck in their expansion, this is a regular coffee and occasional grocery/lunch stop for me.  Pro tip: Matteo serves up awesome barbecue from a serious smoker in the front parking lot on Fridays and Saturdays.  Highly recommend it.

Restaurant Roundup – Spring 2016

Ann Arbor really is a great food town.  That said, it’s easy for things to get a little stagnant.  Turnover and change in the restaurant business is not only a part of life, its generally pretty healthy assuming the openings are outnumbering the closings.  There has been a lot of activity recently so I thought I would try and sum up some of the happenings in the downtown area in 2016.



The Pretzel Bell – 226 S Main St – An Ann Arbor institution reborn in the former Lena/Habana space at the prominent corner of Liberty and Main (The Parthenon or Cunningham Drug Store if you’re going way back).  It won’t be the original and may never have its character but it could fill a void downtown, there’s actually very few decent, non-chain sports bars (BWW and Bar Louie are chains, The Arena sure but it has its issues, Scorekeepers doesn’t count unless you’re 19).  This place is about 50 feet from my office and I always felt Lena never lived up to its potential so looking forward to scratching my name into a table under the bell soon.

Fred’s – 1113 S University Ave – A cool addition to the standard (read: delicious when recently drunk) garbage on South U, Fred’s is a little health food spot specializing in juices, smoothies and light breakfast and lunch fare. Sorry to see former UM basketball player David Merritt’s clothing store close down in this location but it appears they live on online.  Fun fact: Fred is the brother of local dynamo Sava Lelcaj of Sava’s, Aventura and Babo Market fame.


Piada – 311 S State St – So-called Italian Street Food, this fast casual spot just opened in a location that was most recently Five Guys but will always be remembered by a certain generation of us as Shaman Drum.  A chain based in Columbus, OH is normally a double whammy of hate but honestly the concept seems to provide something different to the area and with only 35 locations or so, it’s not the kind of place you see on every corner… yet.

Mark’s Carts – 211 W Washington St – Now it’s in 6th season, there are two new food carts joining the fray in the little lot off Washington.  Pita Cruiser, a little gyro and shwarama truck based in Charlevoix is the first.  I sampled the gyro the first week it opened and wasn’t too impressed but need to give it another chance once they’ve established themselves.  The other is Seafood Driven.  This one I’m excited about.  Helmed by two young partners, one a Zingerman’s alum, they feature quick, East Coast style seafood, think clam chowder and lobster rolls.  I hope to be a regular.



KouZina – 332 S Main St – 2016 is the year of Mediterranean “Street Food” in Ann Arbor.  Building on the success of his very popular location in downtown Royal Oak, owner Bobby Laskaris is opening his fast casual Greek spot in the former Middle Kingdom space on Main Street.  It’s Chipotle-style ordering, pick a gyro, salad or bowl, pick a protein, pick the toppings, etc.  Main Street is typically more a full service restaurant location so it will be interesting to see how they do here but I can tell you there’s a definite lack of simple lunch spots downtown west of State Street.  The building looks great and they appear set to open any day now.

San Street – 415 N Fifth St – New Korean spot coming from Ji Hye Kim who is graduating from her San Street food truck to a full on bricks and mortar location.  Partnering with the good folks over at Zingerman’s, Kim will be taking over their Events on Fourth space (Zing will move to their new, larger Greyline space in the new Residence Inn on Huron).  A former Mark’s Carts occupant, this is sort of a great local success story.  Look forward to steamed buns, banh mi and fried chicken from a really talented young chef.

20160423_130829 (1)RoosRoast – 117 E Liberty St – Beloved deep local coffee roaster RoosRoast is taking over the lease of Elixir Vitae on Liberty just east of Main.  The original location on Rosewood sort of epitomizes A2: communal, original, funky and friendly.  If they can bring half that character to downtown it will be a great addition to the scene.  Lobster Butter Love y’all.

Jim Brady’s – 209 S Main St – An unfortunate loss for the Ann Arbor dining scene, Vellum closed in 2015 after just 2 years in business.  High end and creative, it was never quite able to find its place.  The space was bought by Tom Brady (not that Tom Brady) last year and should be the fourth location of his budding Jim Brady’s mini chain.  It first appeared the restaurant would open in 2015 but it seems this location was put on hold while the Detroit spot was opened up.  Jim Brady’s Detroit is up and running so perhaps we’ll see some progress here soon on the 50’s themed throwback bistro.  Here’s hoping the A2 location is not too heavy on kitsch and focused on bringing a unique experience to Main Street.

Garage Bar – 618 Church St – Not necessarily a new opening but rather an outdoor expansion of Pizza House in the ground floor of the new ArborBlu building at the corner of Church and Willard.  Looks to be a little more bar oriented compared to the restaurant feel of Pizza House and is exclusively outdoor with large garage doors opening out to the street.  Numerous taps and a fire feature appear to be on deck with an opening likely in May or June.

Siris – 207 N Main St – From the owners of the Heidelberg comes a new barbeque concept featuring 100 craft beer taps and a downstairs cigar lounge.  Formerly Sheesh Mediterranean Cuisine, the restaurant and a significant portion of the building were damaged by a fire back in 2011.  This block of Main Street struggles with foot traffic but there is a lack of good barbeque in the city (ricewood notwithstanding) and cigar lounges are few and far between so that will attract a certain clientelle.  The renovation has been long in the making including digging out the basement for the cigar area, looking like an early summer opening.

Allen Rumsey Supper Club – 615 E Huron St –  The restaurant opening in the recently renovated and re-branded Graduate Hotel, the old Campus Inn on Huron.  I’ve had the opportunity to meet some of the guys over at AJ Capital Partners, the Chicago-based hospitality firm behind this venture and I can tell you they’ll put a ton of thought, energy and experience into this place.  Their eateries in the Soho House and CAA in Chicago are totally original with damn good cocktails and food in a community setting.  The location is a little challenging and the swank may be a test for Ann Arbor but I think these guys can pull it off.  Looks to open in June or July.


309 S Main St – The former Melting Pot location, a chain fondue spot.  Few mourned its loss and not notifying the staff?  Not cool.  The space has a “for lease” sign in the window but no visible signs of a change over.  The location is too good to stay empty for long.

116 S Main St – Formerly Kai Garden, a thoroughly decent if not exceptional local Chinese restaurant that closed down in 2015.  The business is still listed for sale for $195,000, I would think the space needs a pretty good overhaul, definitely a little tired inside and out.


307 S Fifth Ave – Old Jerusalem Garden space, most recently the Katoi pop-up.  Another tough blow for the downtown scene, Katoi was awesome.  Our loss is Corktown’s gain, they opened their new permanent location in Detroit this spring.  This building is tiny and from what I understand, needs some work.  Perhaps it can serve as another incubator for an up and coming restaurateur?


How Does Ann Arbor’s Transit System Stack Up?

The Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) recently released a massive new transit database aggregating information from 805 transit agencies across the country.  This awesome new tool, dubbed AllTransit, offers a trove of data, analysis and maps about transit access, frequency and usage in all major (and many smaller) markets in the US.

Ann Arbor AllTransit Map - Bike Commuting.png

A map of central Ann Arbor overlaid with the percentage of bicycle commuters, just one of many data sets that can be easily analyzed and mapped.


The data points are numerous and the site breaks down its major metrics into six categories: Jobs, Economy, Equity, Health, Transit Quality and Mobility Network.  They put this vast data set into an algorithm to derive a simple AllTransit Performance Score, a number from 1 to 10.  They have rankings as well, perhaps it’s unsurprising to see New York City with the overall top score at 9.60.  Ann Arbor fares well, its score of 7.87 is good enough for 14th in the country for cities between 100,000 and 250,000 residents.  It ranks 36th overall with virtually all higher ranked cities being either a major urban center or a suburb of same urban center.

I wanted to pare down the rankings and take a quick look at how Ann Arbor stacks up against comparable college towns across the country as well against various cities in Michigan.

College Town Population Transit Use Percentage AllTransit Performance Score
Cambridge, MA 107,289 29.87% 9.5
Berkeley, CA 118,853 23.22% 8.7
Ann Arbor, MI 117,770 11.05% 7.9
Boulder, CO 105,112 9.90% 7.7
Charlottesville, VA 46,597 9.09% 7.4
Madison, WI 243,344 9.67% 7.3
Chapel Hill, NC 59,376 N/A 7.3
Eugene, OR 160,561 4.52% 6.2
Provo, UT 116,288 2.28% 5.2
Athens, GA 119,648 3.11% 4.0
Average 119,484 11.41% 7.1

Again, Ann Arbor stacks up well.  Cambridge and Berkeley may not be the best comparisons as they are essentially adjacent to major cities with highly established transit networks (Boston & San Francisco, respectively ranked #2 and #4 in the country in this metric).

Michigan City Population Transit Use Percentage AllTransit Performance Score
Ann Arbor, MI 117,770 11.05% 7.9
East Lansing, MI 48,648 6.02% 7.1
Detroit, MI 680,250 9.21% 7.0
Grand Rapids, MI 193,792 4.11% 6.7
Lansing, MI 114,620 4.59% 5.7
Flint, MI 99,002 4.16% 5.2
Battle Creek, MI 51,833 N/A 5.2
Saginaw, MI 49,844 2.16% 5.0
Royal Oak, MI 59,069 0.88% 4.8
Kalamazoo, MI 75,922 2.59% 4.4
Average 149,075 4.97% 5.9

Ann Arbor tops the list in Michigan and in fact, Ypsilanti would be #2 on this list with a score of 7.6, not shocking since the cities are intrinsically linked and share a transit system.  Somewhat surprised to see Kalamazoo at the bottom of this list, a city with a heavy student population and a fairly established bus system.

The possibilities for using this data for city planning, real estate development and affordable housing are endless.  It’s clear Ann Arbor is a leader in transit for its metro size but there are still many opportunities for improvement.  The city has no true high frequency service and the percentage of transit and bike-based commuting has plenty of room to grow.  Hopefully the upcoming service changes at The Ride and future projects like The Connector, North-South Commuter Line, Ann Arbor to Detroit Commuter Line and Washtenaw Avenue BRT Line will continue to make the city more accessible, efficient, environmentally friendly and welcoming to young and old residents.

A Downtown Park?

The idea of a park in downtown Ann Arbor has been around a long time but has come to a head recently with the ongoing discussions of selling the so-called Library Lot to a private developer for a mixed-use project.  Proponents of keeping the land for a park are even calling for a public vote in the fall.


For a variety of reasons, I don’t think the Library Lot should be a park.  It’s essentially mid-block, it’s not large enough to be the significant central park it should be and the parking structure underneath prohibits large growth vegetation.  Furthermore, the parking garage was built to house a building on top and it’s an ideal location for the dense project that’s been proposed by Core Spaces.  Backing away from it now would be a disaster and cost the city the $10 million it will receive for the land plus millions more in tax dollars for years to come.  Taking the decision out of city council’s hands is also a little ridiculous, we elect these officials to make city decisions, let’s let them do their jobs.  (More info on the planned project can be found here.)

However, I’m all for a downtown, central park.  I just think the Library Lot is the wrong location.  The right location is directly across the street.  I’m talking about the Federal Building.  This building, arguably one of the ugliest in Ann Arbor, is an awful use of one of the most prominent sites in the city.  Even more criminal is some of the beautiful buildings that were torn down to make way for it including the beautiful Masonic Temple.

The Federal Building was built in 1977, a closed off, low slung building with a large parking lot in the rear.  Essentially, a travesty of urban architecture during a time period that saw altogether too much of that.


The site it sites on is much larger than the Library Lot and would have access to Liberty, Fourth and Fifth.  The rear of the site could be sold to the AAATA to expand the Blake Transit Center with a desperately needed additional bus lane and perhaps more indoor waiting area space.  This would essentially be a western extension of Library Lane and would help take buses off Fourth.  The remainder of the site could be used for the park.

Downtown Park Map.png

The benefits are obvious, an expansion of the transit center, green space to counter two larger nearby developments and filling the need of a downtown meeting place that the community needs.  The big and even more obvious problem is what to do with the existing Federal Building.  I would suggest building a new, more functional urban building in one of a few locations.

In my opinion the best location would be the the site just two blocks north of here, the southeast corner of Fifth and Huron.  That property is owned by First Martin and has been held for an office development for a long time.  It’s directly across the street from City Hall and the Courthouse.  It’s also a location where modern architecture would not be too out of place if a new building went that direction.  Another good option would be the County-owned site at the southwest corner of Main and Ann.  That location is across the street from the Washtenaw County Courthouse and has direct access to the Ashley and Ann Parking Garage (which can be expanded to house an additional 375 cars if necessary).

Is this all a pipe dream?  Perhaps but it could be done and the results would be outstanding.  I would say the citizens of Ann Arbor that want a downtown park should consider using their time and effort towards this end, perhaps petitioning their federal representatives instead of continuing their pursuit of a park on the Library Lot.

Birth of the Blog!

I live and work in Ann Arbor.  I love this town, I moved here purely because I love the town, it was home for me.  I work in real estate and have a passion for cities, the way they develop and grow and the way people interact with their changing dynamics.

My mind is constantly dwelling on topics of transit, real estate development projects, parks and social change.  This blog is meant to be an outlet for those ideas.

I hope to provide some additional information and insight on the many changes to our fair city and a few opinions along the way.

Follow me on Instagram and drop me a line any time!