Lonely to Loved: Turning the Corner at an Ann Arbor Intersection

Lonely corners – we know them and we avoid them: Division and Liberty, Washington and Division, Fourth Avenue and William Street. They lack the charisma that makes downtown areas vibrant and desirable.

Then one day, the lonely corner is transformed. We stop avoiding it. It becomes an essential stop on the downtown scene. What makes a corner successful – or not? For architect Theresa Angelini, it's physical and visual barriers. Steps and setbacks are unwelcoming. Buildings flush with the sidewalk with lots of windows invite investigation.

Angelini and Associates' own office on Ann Street just east of Main supports her philosophy. Its windows often feature detailed models of the studio's projects or architectural icons such as the Empire State Building. The studio creates residential and commercial design, as well as master planning. Currently it's redesigning the former Gift of Life building on Platt Road to be the new home of Summers-Knoll School.

The success of the little commercial strip on Ann Street between Main Street and Fourth Avenue is "all due to our terrific landlords, Peter and Olga Bilakos. They keep the rents reasonable," Angelini says.

Lower rent in less-than-prime locations is an important element of downtown health, says Susan Pollay, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority. Fourth Avenue – a good example of this –is still evolving, she says.

"It is not a prime location but the rents are lower. It's a chance for a [new] business to find its legs, an important incubator for restaurants and others," she says.

"Ann Arbor is lucky to have healthy side streets. Some [cities] just have linear downtowns. If [your business] is not on 'the road' you're out of luck."
Setbacks such as those at One North Main are a negative, although they were best practice when the building was built. It's level with the street, however, and that's good for foot traffic, Pollay and Angelini say. "The steps at Ann Arbor.com (301 E. Liberty at Fifth Avenue) are inhospitable. It seems deserted," Angelini observes. "When there are steps, it makes people hesitate but they don't go in."

The whole intersection of Liberty and Fifth Avenue is visually troubled – current construction aside. The Federal Building's setback and steps, Herb David's steps and the 301 East Liberty building's elevated plaza define Pollay's "windswept corner."

Normally, a post office is a valuable asset with terrific foot traffic, Angelini says. Still, Liberty Street is an important connector, linking Main Street with State Street in a dumbbell traffic pattern. Kerrytown helps pull people north of downtown.

One or two businesses can transform a neighborhood identity. That's the way Ann Arbor evolves. Windows replace stone walls. A lively market replaces an anonymous brick building. It's happening on Liberty and Washington Streets today.

We can't wait to eat at Mani Osteria, shop at Babo, or gaze out of the giant new windows on Washington Street while we bank at the UM Credit Union now under construction in the former Ann Arbor News building.

Stylish and popular, Mani occupies the once-derelict northwest corner of Division and Liberty Streets. Most recently a furniture rental store, it's come full circle to the high-design look of another former occupant, Handicraft Furniture.

"We didn't know what to expect putting a restaurant (there)," says Adam Baru, owner of Mani Osteria. "There were people who thought it was a great idea and people who thought it was a terrible idea. It's become a great place for us."

Baru grew up in Ann Arbor. He says Mani is enjoying tremendous success and a tremendous amount of good will because it went into a location that was dormant for so long.

"The landlord has invested in our success and is quite happy – as we are - to bring a great vibe and energy to a corner that was obsolete. This part of town was never an area that I remember visiting," Baru says.

To everybody who said Roger Pothus was crazy to move Renaissance to the middle of a dead block on Division Street, you take that back. Pothus is lookin' good.

"Having Renaissance across the street is great," Baru says. "They've been really terrific to us getting the word out. People can go and shop there and then walk across the street to dine."

"I knew I wanted to be downtown. I thought Main Street or a block off Main on Liberty or another side street," Baru says. "I didn't want to be near all the noise – all the restaurants aggregated in one spot."

"Here, we're close to wonderful Ann Arbor destinations like Power Center, Hill Auditorium, the art museum. We're close enough to the university to get professors, administrators and students."

It's also about making a day of it or creating a night out, Baru points out.

"What are you going to do after you eat? See movie, a play, have a drink?" Baru asks. "Borders was nice. Its absence is a concern of ours – what's going to happen in the Border's space? We hope for a retail anchor. Ann Arbor is a special place and you don't want it to lose the charm that makes it a special place."

Baru isn't stopping at one restaurant. "I would love to do something else. When? I'm not sure. I need a nap first," he wisecracks. "It will be different than Mani. I would love to do something with an outdoor patio."

"The creativity in this town is great. I think what Mark's Carts did is brilliant. Different venues, that's why I'm here everyday. I'd like to keep developing this 'Midtown' area of Ann Arbor."

He's not alone. Babo: a market by Sava, opened recently on the northeast corner of Washington and Division Streets. A gourmet food shop and casual restaurant, it's a hit with people who live and work downtown. Owner Sava Lelcaj already has a successful restaurant nearby on State Street, Sava's State Street Café.

Babo's inviting window displays, clever graphics and coffee bar visible through big windows on the Washington Street side encourage exploration. Its shelves are full of imported pasta, natural foods, organic pantry staples – and toilet paper.

Refrigerated glass showcases hold unusual cheeses and delicatessen meats. Facing the restaurant more showcases hold an array of prepared foods. A blackboard records customers' requests for new items to stock. "We have that!" is chalked next to many of the requested items.

Coffee is ground to order, cup by cup. It's the inside-out of a Plexiglas-shielded inner city market with only the most basic goods on its shelves. You can run in for a pint of half and half, but you'll linger to buy rosemary ham.

What makes one corner lonely and another Mani-nificent or Babo-licious?

"Babo and Mani have the right scale. Borders killed its side of the street because it only had one entrance. It's interesting that the original buildings had apartments above. They were also smaller spaces," says Theresa Angelini.

"Scale is important, as are windows on the street, and more than one entrance. Use is important, too. Architecture offices, insurance companies, and banks don't generate enough traffic."

For the DDA's Susan Pollay, foot traffic is key. People avoid the "windswept" corners, she says. That includes occupied but uninviting buildings that aren't flush with the sidewalk. Zingerman's took an unpromising location and made it promising, she points out.

"On Washington Street, a lot of businesses were forlorn. Babo, Mani Osteria and McKinley's activities in the area have made it a success. The same thing could one day happen on William Street," Pollay says.

Angelini agrees: "For as much pedestrian traffic as the (downtown) library generates, I'm surprised there has been no retail development in the area. It may change with the new bus depot."

The library lot presents a great opportunity – but not if it becomes a convention center, Angelini says. Convention centers don't enliven their neighborhoods – on the contrary, they often create dead space because they're the wrong scale for the neighborhood.

Strengthening William Street would not diminish Liberty Street, Pollay says.

Farther west on Washington Street, the new Y was an outlier. Then its connection to downtown strengthened.

"Mark's Carts were a nice infill. The Kiwanis is important, too. Sweetwaters, Vie and Three Chairs are great businesses in a block that has evolved into a hip and active spot. When Hertler's was there (the hardware store that preceded anchor store Downtown Home and Garden) it was forgotten," she says.

So, what other changes can we expect for downtown? Pollay says banks may be moving out of the central business district as they move online, opening up prominent spaces on Main Street and cross streets nearby. Changes in county transit options will help move people around Ann Arbor, to other points in the county and to the airport.

Downtown's self-image has expanded with time, too, she says. "When I came here in the '80s, downtown was six blocks of Main Street. Now it's a much a larger concept and bigger district."

- Constance Crump is Concentrate's Senior Writer. She's also an Ann Arbor-based writer whose work has appeared in Crain's Detroit Business, The Ann Arbor News, The Detroit Free Press, and Billboard Magazine