It's looking like the new Main Street.
by Sally Mitani
Literati may be the sentimental favorite, but it's only one of many changes on the street. Washington, which has always seemed like a back alley to Liberty, is suddenly looking like the new Main Street.
Mark's Carts, at the west end of downtown, and Sava Lelcaj's upscale grocery Babo, on the campus end, have recently brought new excitement to the Washington streetscape. "I love the street," says Lelcaj. "The rents are amazing. If you want to have high traffic, you have to have great prices, and if you want to have great prices, you have to control your rent costs."
Lelcaj's latest move is to acquire three storefronts (one purchased, two rented) on the 200 block of East Washington. She hopes to open, by mid-September, a Mediterranean-inspired restaurant there.
In mid-April she had just returned from Barcelona, where her team of six (everyone from a cook to a graphic designer) searched for inspiration for what was to be a tapas restaurant. She came back convinced she needed to correct her course a little bit: "Traditional Spanish tapas would be a tough sell in Ann Arbor. It's all cheese, oil, bread. One night we had calamari soaked in ham hock fat. I grew up eating that food, but it just doesn't appeal to me anymore." So instead of classic tapas, her yet-to-be-named restaurant will be serving Mediterranean-inspired, but lighter, small plates. The center of the three buildings--the former Mahek Indian restaurant--will house a large kitchen, flanked on one side by a bar serving tapas and on the other by a more traditional dinner restaurant.
Renaissance, whose address isn't on Washington, but whose parking lot is entered via Washington, is open again, with a slightly shifted focus after a fire closed it down in December: "We aren't going to sacrifice our luxury clothing. We'll still carry our fine Italian lines, but we're also adding some more moderately priced clothing--for instance Joseph Abboud," says Bill Sizer, sales associate. "And of
course custom-made clothing for men and women will remain a large part of our business."
Renaissance owner Roger Pothus isn't as sunny as Lelcaj about the future of Washington--or of downtown in general. "Look, it's Ann Arbor's first urban canyon," he says, waving a hand at Washington. To the west the Ann Arbor City Apartments high-rise is under construction at Washington and First; across the street the Varsity is going up next door to Sterling 411 Lofts; and to the east rise towers of North Quad and Corner House Apartments.
Pothus isn't anti-development, but he thinks the city has allowed all these high-rise buildings without considering the careful retail balance necessary to attract downtown shoppers. "Downtown is a glorified food court with a few brave retailers," he says. "The ones who are surviving are doing it because they're very, very good. Time after time, semi-luxury big retailers have eluded downtown, and now Arbor Hills Crossing [on Washtenaw] has signed Sur la Table and Anthropologie."
Jon Carlson discovered the street a long time ago--he opened Grizzly Peak on West Washington in 1995, and his 2Mission Design company is headquartered there. More recently he's followed up with the Blue Tractor and its basement bar, Mash, on East Washington--right across the street from the buildings where Lelcaj is now at work. "I almost feel guilty that we're going to benefit so much from the investment that Sava is making on Washington," he says.
Carlson himself isn't sitting on his hands: he says his Old German in the basement of Grizzly Peak will open in mid-June, serving German-style craft beer and a limited menu.
It will be, of course, a tribute to the Old German restaurant that stood on the spot for generations. The new bar's entrance will be on Ashley, the original Old German's side door. Though in mid-April the space was an empty shell, Carlson said all the hard work--like the moving of the bathrooms--had already been done; the rest, he says, will be "just cosmetic."
[Originally published in May, 2013.]