In a 1959 Ann Arbor News photo, the 100 block of S. Main St. is a kaleidoscope of storefronts and signs. On the west side you can make out Mayer-Schairer office supply and Peck’s Cut Rate Drugs; on the east, Richman’s Clothing and the Sugar Bowl Café.
The west side is even livelier today, with the former Goodyear’s department store restored and subdivided and other “modern” façades peeled back. But for decades now, the east side has been dominated by sheer walls of stone and glass: the façades of JP Morgan Chase and PNC Bank, stretching out from the corners of Washington and Huron to nearly meet mid-block.
Such monoliths are anathema to contemporary planners. “Blank walls are death downtown,” says planning consultant Dick Carlisle. The fortress-like Chase building in particular “kills that entire block” as a pleasant pedestrian experience, he says.
Yet developer/restaurateur Jon Carlson remembers that when he was a student at the U-M, it “was the busiest block downtown” in foot traffic. “People went to traditional banks all the time in the mid-1990s, and there were so many employees up above, so it was really vibrant.”
But first the employees left, and then the customers. When the banks computerized, they no longer needed the back-office staffs that once tracked transactions on paper. As they were absorbed into regional and national networks, they no longer needed many managers, either.
Meanwhile, says Goodyear Building owner Ed Shaffran, a generation has come of age banking online. “Their bank is their phone,” he says. “My daughter, she’s thirty-four years old. I can probably count on my left hand how many times she’s ever been into a bank.”
“Young people don’t need to go into their banks anymore,” agrees Bill Zirinsky, who closed his Crazy Wisdom bookstore on the block in February. “They’re doing it all online. The whole way we used to bank—by going into a branch—that’s gone.”
So it’s no wonder that PNC is looking for tenants for most of its street-level space. At the turn of the year, Chase rented a smaller spot in the historic Glazier Building down the block and put its building up for sale.
It seems like the walls are poised to come down. But in the post-Covid world, what will replace it?
Carlson’s office at 3Mission Development is almost lost between the street’s financial monoliths. Starting with Grizzly Peak in 1993, Carlson and Greg Lobdell renovated a series of downtown buildings to house restaurants, including Mayer-Schairer, which became Vinology. But “after we did four or five projects, a lot of bigger developers moved into town, and we’d go after buildings, and our offers were never accepted,” he says.
That’s why their newest restored restaurant, Thompson & Co., is in Ypsilanti’s Depot Town—and its Ann Arbor office is at 111 S. Main, a building that “no one else wanted.”
The former owner, who Carlson delicately describes as “an unusual person,” lived out of town. “And it had been vacant for twenty years. It looked fine from the front. Even the city of Ann Arbor, when they came in for a couple of inspections, initially said, ‘Oh, this is a solid brick building. It looks great.’ They finally got into it and found literally a tree had grown downward from the roof to the fourth floor, through the fourth floor into the third floor. And when it would rain, it would go all the way through. It was the worst structure we’d ever seen in town.”
The only things that the partners kept were the front façade, the walls, and the elevator. “The floor joists, the roof … every single thing had to be redone.” Bringing it back to life took a lot of time and money, but “we’re thankful he sold it and moved on,” Carlson says. “You shouldn’t have a building vacant like that.”
Carlson believes that the bank buildings on either side will be redivided. But he’s not sure about putting restaurants there.
“There are a lot of restaurants—and a lot have closed,” he replies. “I think there’s enough restaurants.
“That’s the biggest challenge, I think, for this block,” he says. “What goes in on the first floor? The classic developer buys these, and you get big rent on the first floor on Main St., but those buildings are huge—there’s not a need for huge restaurants …
“I’m jealous of Birmingham with all the retail. Even though they have Somerset Mall right by it, they keep nailing big retailers, and I’m like, how can we not have a Restoration Hardware to take over one of those bank buildings?”
“I think you’re going to see a change,” Ed Shaffran says. A generation older than Carlson, he owns prime real estate, both commercial and residential, much of it along Main St. and Fourth Ave.
“I had breakfast with a prospective tenant today,” he says. “We were talking about office space in general. How many businesses need ten to twenty thousand square feet? I’m not being negative.
“Look at my building at 306 South Main. “It used to be the old Kline’s department store. On the first floor are small retailers now. Le Dog, London Beauty, Renaissance Clothing, Rocket Fizz, and Chris Petersen Jewelry. All right there. They don’t need five thousand square feet apiece. They just need a thousand square feet.
“So where do you find that thousand square feet? They have to subdivide it.” But he points out that his daughter’s generation isn’t just banking online, they’re shopping online, too. “Some of the young people who are our tenants, they don’t shop anymore. It’s all delivered to them. They go online, and their groceries are delivered to them.
“It’s a different world. For them, it’s the real world.”
Though office demand, too, is softer post-Covid, he’s seeing young parents, especially, tire of working from home. So he predicts we’ll see more offices taking street-level spots that once housed stores or restaurants.
When he looks at the old Chase Bank, what does he see? “There’s a side of me that says residential,” he replies. “You do the upper floors, convert them either into condos or apartments.
“You could put parking in the basement. You got an alley. You can get cars in there. Or, like a lot of apartments downtown, you just don’t have parking. You park in the structure.”
Shaffran is “a bit more established developer than us,” Carson says. “And when you go all the way up to Dennis [Dahlmann], he is a guru. He owns some of the biggest buildings in town, and I think he owns half of Sanibel Island.”
On the Florida island, Dahlmann says, he owns “four hotels on the gulf, a golf course, and two retail centers. It’s no longer a vacation place, but it’s a great place to work, because it’s sunny and warm.” In Ann Arbor, his real estate portfolio includes the Bell Tower and Ann Arbor Regent hotels, a onetime church at State and Huron that’s now Hobbs+Black architects, the Ann Arbor Commerce Bank Building, the City Center Building, and more. But one of his most prized real estate possessions is the Glazier Building, the seven-story Beaux Arts building on the corner of Main and Huron.
“At the time we bought it, it was in disrepair,” Dahlmann says by landline from his Sanibel condo. “We washed the whole building, lit it up, and made all of the repairs that were needed.” He also added a canopy over the entrance off Huron St. because “you really didn’t know where the entrance was” without it.
Though banks no longer need as much space, they still want to be on what he calls a “financial corner.” When KeyBank left the Glazier Building, Dahlmann says, it took less than a month to lease the space. “Chase expressed an interest immediately, and we made a deal with them.
“The point is, who took the space when it became available? Another bank. And across [Huron], when the bank building became available, Comerica moved there. So I would guess every time one of those corners becomes available, it will probably be another bank.”
Other developers, he says, have inquired about developing the parking lot behind the building.
“We’ve had many opportunities to sell it for a high-rise apartment building, and we’ve just turned them all down,” Dahlmann says. “We don’t have the infrastructure for more high-rise buildings. The more we build, the more difficult it’s going to be to access it.
“I don’t know if you’ve seen what’s going on on South University,” he adds. “It was just a charming little shopping area, and now it’s going to be a cavern of high-rise buildings.” He’s doing what he can to keep that from happening to Main St.
To Shaffran, though, it’s not an either-or choice. “Downtown needs to grow, and the way it needs to grow is up,” he says—“without tearing the buildings down.
“Keep the façades, [but] don’t freeze-dry our buildings,” he says. “Allow me to go up another eight or ten stories. That’s easily done.”
Joe Barbat did it, on a smaller scale, when he restored the onetime Montgomery Ward store on S. Fourth for retail and apartments. So did Reza Rahmani when he replaced a single-story building in the 300 block with offices that rise three stories from the street, then step back for three more. But while building that way is more esthetically attractive, it’s far from cheap.
Many people’s warmest associations with Main St. revolve around retail. We liked to walk down the street, browse in shops, and run into people we knew. But Shaffran makes the same point about stores that Carlson makes about restaurants: there’s a limit to how many a community Ann Arbor’s size can support.
“We don’t have five million people within a fifteen-mile drive,” like Chicago, Shaffran says. “I mean, the city of Ann Arbor, greater Ann Arbor, is about 250,000 people. That’s nothing!”
Yet when Zirinsky and Ruth Schekter closed Crazy Wisdom in February, it wasn’t for lack of business. “We had our most profitable year in our history last year, from September 2020 to September 2021,” Zirinsky says.
Instead, it was a “time-of-life decision for me and my wife—I want to be untethered from the responsibility of running a retail business 360 days of the year, seven days a week, as I’ve done for a third of a century.”
Looking at the future of the block, Zirinsky doesn’t think Chase will find it hard to turn its space into offices or retail.
Neal Warling of commercial broker JJL is handling both bank buildings. “Most of the PNC building is still occupied by PNC,” he says, but “we have lease space available on the first floor.”
He says they already have an offer on the Chase building. “We have been marketing the building for sale. We’ve selected a purchaser. We have a signed letter of intent,” he says. “But we’re still negotiating the purchase contract, so I can’t really say much about it.”
He will say what it isn’t: “No, it is not another bank. It’s a developer-investor.”
While Shaffran wondered if the basement could be converted into a garage for residents living above, Warling thinks it’s more likely to be something like others on the street, with “bars in the basement, or Keith Hafner’s gym.”
Whatever happens, Carlson will be in the middle of it. “The funny thing is, we probably have, at least on the 111 side, the least valuable property,” he says. But given its location, “we’ll need to work together” with whomever buys the Chase building. While the current façade is cold, he says, “if you stand over at Mongolian BBQ when the sun is setting, through that glass façade you can see the historic building behind there.”
The pandemic “really was tough” for restaurants, he adds by email. But this spring, “you can feel the energy coming back. You literally can. We’re getting busier, we’re getting more people walking around town …
“I love Ann Arbor. It has been damaged by the last two years. But it will come back strong.”