Northside Grill owner Jim Koli has seen a lot of changes in his neighborhood since he opened nearly thirty years ago. Lately, they seem to be accelerating.
When he took over the former Cloverleaf diner, he recalls, the triangular block north of the Broadway Bridge was “off the radar.” His immediate neighbors were a gas station and thrift shop; nearby were a party store, a T-shirt printer, a barber shop, an auto detailer, and an automotive testing lab.
It was emphatically not a destination. The Broadway Party Store was the only business open at night, and it was robbed repeatedly. There was a year-round homeless camp on the abandoned Argo Pond millrace.
A U-M grad in fisheries biology, Koli had struck out on his own after running U-M food service operations. He met some “wonderful people,” including football star Desmond Howard, but also learned he wasn’t cut out for a bureaucratic career. He ended up owning not only the restaurant but its building, and the 1832 Anson Brown Building next door—the city’s oldest surviving commercial structure. It came with the T-shirt shop facing Swift St., and he later acquired the gas station, too.
Koli credits developer Ed Shaffran with the most important change: in the late 2000s, he turned the former emissions lab into loft apartments. With the Border-to-Border Trail nearby, Sic Transit Cycles took over the auto detailer in the 2010s, later expanding into the former T-shirt shop and then the thrift store when those tenants left.
Meanwhile, the city replaced the stagnant millrace with the popular Argo Cascades, and luxury apartments began rising on the long-vacant former Kroger site nearby. One of the least glamorous parts of Ann Arbor had taken on an up-and-coming sheen.
Koli, now the veteran business owner on the block, has mixed feelings about the changes. He’s determined to keep Northside a family restaurant even though a fancier place with a liquor license would be more lucrative. He also finds the city less friendly to small businesspeople like himself.
In the past, he recalls, he could kick around ideas for his properties with the mayor and city staff. When he tried recently to learn whether enclosing his small outdoor patio would trigger prohibitively expensive stormwater-retention requirements, he was told he’d first have to present an architect’s plan, at a cost he estimates at $20,000.
“We’re not all millionaires from Chicago,” he says in a pointed reference to the company behind the still-expanding Beekman on Broadway apartments. But he’s a realist and sees where his onetime backwater is headed.
After decades of stewardship, though, he’s deeply attached to the Anson Brown Building. He persuaded the city not to include it in the Broadway Historic District because it would have limited his freedom to update it—but says he’s told his family that, if anything happens to him, they need to make sure it has formal historical protection before they sell.