When I called Shinola in Detroit in April asking when its Ann Arbor store would open, the person who answered the phone said May then brightly added, “It will be on Main St., right across from Starbucks.” And that pretty much illustrates what has some long-term townies worried: will Ann Arbor’s historic downtown buildings be reduced to a quaint backdrop for visitors navigating from one international corporate brand to another. Have a latte at Starbucks; buy a Life Is Good! T-shirt; window-shop at Shinola; then head over to Ruth’s Chris for a steak.

On the other hand, you could look at it this way: Starbucks has been on Main for awhile–and before it, Subway and Quizno’s. And you can’t get much classier than Shinola. Ann Arbor’s Main St. is vibrant, with just a handful of national chains among its collection of local and regional restaurants and stores.

But the sprouting of a couple of new corporate logos runs in tandem with the related news that outside money is pouring into downtown Ann Arbor real estate. It’s doing so at a rate that is making some of the traditional Main St. show-runners, like Ed Shaffran, Jim Curtis, and Jon Carlson, apprehensive. The name most often mentioned is Dr. Reza Rahmani.

Rahmani, who started buying in Ann Arbor in 2009, is the landlord for Life Is Good, Starbucks, and Shinola. Earlier this year he bought a package of properties from the Nalli family that includes two Main St. buildings (King’s Chosen/M Den/Carol Roeda in the 300 block, and the former Falling Water in the 200 block) plus a cluster on Ashley anchored by the Fleetwood Diner.

He’s not the only newcomer writing large checks. This past winter John Roumanis sold the building that housed his elegant, short-lived Vellum Grill to the Jim Brady’s Detroit chain. (Owner Tom Brady–not the quarterback–named it after his restaurateur grandfather, who called himself Diamond Jim.) And over on S. Fourth. Ave., an anonymous franchise group has just reopened the onetime Maude’s/Dream Nite Club as a Ruth’s Chris Steak House.

Ann Arbor already has two locally owned steak houses downtown, and Ruth’s Chris is seen by some as an intruder. Its generic design, which would look at home in a mall out-lot, doesn’t help. “It’s not appealing looking to me. It doesn’t fit into the fabric of downtown,” says Carlson of the new facade and second-story addition.

Reza Rahmani does not like to engage with the media, but after I left many emails and phone messages for him, he finally called back.

Rahmani, fifty-three, is an ophthalmologist, with one of the busiest Lasik surgery practices in Michigan. His clinics are in Rochester Hills, Novi, and Brownstown Township. He confirms that he still operates, though he wouldn’t say how often. Beyond that, he won’t talk about himself.

His first Ann Arbor purchase was the old Ritz Camera building on State St. in 2009 (now 7-Eleven), followed by 312 S. Main St. (Conor O’Neill’s/Rush St./the Ark), 300 S. Main St. (Starbucks/Black Pearl/Life Is Good), 301 S. Main St. (Shinola), and finally the latest bundle of properties from the Nalli family for $6.4 million.

Rahmani sounds stung by the suggestion that he’s regarded as an outsider. He points out that he lives in Northville, “fifteen minutes away. It’s closer for me to drive into Ann Arbor for dinner than Birmingham, Royal Oak, or downtown Detroit. The first rule of real estate is ‘know the area you’re investing in.’ Ann Arbor is small enough that I can follow the news and the events that go on.”

One refrain heard from other property owners is that Rahmani paid above market price, a charge he strenuously disputes: “I don’t have money to throw away. If I don’t get a deal, I don’t buy it. Ann Arbor is expensive real estate. Well, we might have paid a little too much for the Selo/Shevel building [Shinola]. But that’s the most prime piece of real estate in Ann Arbor. It demanded that kind of price,” $2.5 million before renovations.

Jon Carlson is a partner in 2Mission Development, which bought and rehabbed the buildings that now house Grizzly Peak, Blue Tractor, and others. But as much as he relishes owning and renovating historic properties, Carlson says, he couldn’t match what Rahmani and Brady have recently paid. He says, “I know the valuations, we’ve all looked at those buildings, and we couldn’t afford it. You are going to have to have new rents, new leases, to get to a place where you get a return on your investments.” In other words, a new round of gentrification. Yet he thinks that Rahmani’s rehabilitation of the former Selo/Shevel and his snagging of Shinola as a tenant are brilliant.

Curtis Commercial, a local, family-owned business, owns the other two buildings on the Liberty/Main corner (Lena and Cherry Republic). Jim Curtis says of Rahmani: “He’s paying premium dollar for these locations. Can one purchase buildings for [these] prices, renovate them, and create an economic long-term path for a tenant to survive?” He has no answer for his own question, though he adds that he’s glad that “outsiders value us.”

Jim Curtis is the middle of three generations of Curtis downtown property owners. A soft-spoken man with a courtly reverence for his solid, brick buildings and the kind of work it takes to sustain them, he says: “We’re so honored to be temporary trustees of these buildings. It’s not just automatic that if you buy and renovate a building that it will be there long term. You have to be fair with your rents, take care of your buildings, negotiate in good faith.” And Carlson stresses the importance of local landlords: “They walk the streets, they clean up the graffiti.”

Rahmani may not live here, but he’s not an absentee owner, either. Rich Magner, owner of Blimpy Burger, says of his new landlord: “He eats burgers. He comes in with his [construction] crew sometimes.” Ben Torres, who owns the State Farm insurance office on Ashley that came with the Fleetwood package, might be insuring some of Rahmani’s buildings, though “we haven’t closed any deals yet.” Torres, like most people who have worked with Rahmani, portrays him as a direct and straightforward businessman. “He’s always treated me fairly,” Torres says. His lease option runs out in 2017.

And Rahmani has made one true friend on Main St.: the Ark. When he bought the building in 2011, he allowed the Ark to buy its second-floor space.

“I have a great deal of respect and appreciation for him,” says Marianne James, the music club’s executive director. “Having a permanent, long-term home on Main St. was a game changer for us.

“He didn’t have to do it, he was not looking to sell, but it meant more to us than it would mean to anyone else. He came down in price to make it possible.”

Even Dana Forrester, owner of Lucky Monkey Tattoo Parlour, who is frank about her fear of what will happen to her business, says: “I don’t hate the guy, but it’s just a bummer.” She says Rahmani “feels like he bought the block at a premium and the current tenants are underpaying.” Her lease is up in summer of 2016, and she says Rahmani hasn’t officially decided what the new rent will be, but “he told us what other comparable properties of his are paying, and it’s more than double” the current rent.

“I’ve been here fifteen years,” Forrester says. “When we opened, this block was a shady, down-and-out block where homeless people were literally camping out on the sidewalks … And now we’re going to be punished for our success. He’ll gut it, find a group of investors, and find a microbrewery or a restaurant” that can afford to pay twice what she’s paying.

Commercial real estate broker Jim Chaconas says that so far Rahmani has proven to be a fair landlord. “I sold him the Rush Street building, and some of those rents got renegotiated.” He says they’re now in the range of $24-$28 per square foot, run-of-the-mill for Main St. Chaconas thinks that Shinola might be paying nearer $50 a square foot but says even that is not outlandish: “I’m paying $48 at my office” in the McKinley Towne Centre. And, echoing Carlson, Chaconas says the Selo/Shevel building is now a showplace. “I couldn’t believe some of the stuff he did. It’s beautiful.”

Chaconas says that the doctor is a down-to-earth guy. “I see him in jeans and polo shirts. One time we were meeting about something, and I said I had peeked in the Shinola building. He said, ‘Let’s go see it.’ We’re climbing through this building–he gets dirty, I get dirty. He’s in Ann Arbor all the time.”

Chaconas brushes off concerns about rising rents. “No one goes out of business because the rents are too high,” he contends. “If you’re grossing enough, you should be able to accommodate a rent increase. The problem is that a lot of business owners in Ann Arbor are operating in a kind of retirement mode. They’re burned out. The guys at Seyfried [Jewelers]? It was time to go.”

Seyfried was replaced by Mark Messmore’s Life Is Good store. “I’m paying the highest rent on Main St.–$75 a square foot,” Messmore laughs. He says it’s all relative. He’s currently looking at spaces in San Francisco for $250 a square foot and in SoHo in Manhattan for $90 a square foot.

Ed Shaffran owns the Pratt Block, between Life Is Good and the Ark. Asked if Rahmani overpaid, he says, “Real estate is not a commodity where you can say someone overpaid or underpaid,” especially not with historic buildings–“there are only so many of them.” Asked if high prices will translate into higher rents, and if so how that would affect him, Shaffran says, “I don’t know. Let’s say everyone else on Main St. is asking $30 [a square foot], and he’s asking $60. Well, good luck to him. He might not be able to get it. On the other hand, if he does find someone to pay it, who is that someone likely to be? A local guy with a retail business?” The implied answer: not a chance.

Even more than rising rents, redevelopment would represent a radical shock to the downtown business ecosystem. Will Rahmani redevelop any of his properties? His answer skitters between “I don’t know” and “probably not.” At the moment, he sounds exhausted by the job of overhauling the Shinola building: “To tell you the truth, this construction was not a very pleasant experience.” For one thing, he didn’t anticipate the cost and hassle of parking and maneuvering heavy equipment in downtown traffic.

Except for the three houses on Ashley, all of Rahmani’s downtown properties are in the Main St. historic district (and the Ritz Camera building is in the State St. district). Alexis DiLeo, a city planner, explains that within a historic district, buildings are individually designated as “contributing” or “noncontributing” to the historic character. “If you have a contributing building, development is a nonstarter.” That rules out all of Rahmani’s Main St. properties except the one-story M-Den/King’s Chosen building. Built in 1962 as a paint store–and later home to Al Nalli Music–it is classified as “noncontributing” and so conceivably could be demolished and replaced with a four-story building, though “it would still be subject to guidelines.”

The most likely candidates for radical change are the three houses on Ashley, which historic preservation coordinator Jill Thatcher notes lie outside the Main St. historic district in a D2, or “interface zone. So those are redevelop-able.” She even has an idea of what he could put there. “Are you familiar with 410 North First?,” a twenty-five unit condo project recently approved for a similar-sized plot of land. She says Rahmani wouldn’t be limited to putting condos on the site, “but residential seems to be hot right now.”

But one clue that Rahmani has no near-term plans for redevelopment is his lack of interest in 310 S. Ashley. The building known as “Hathaway’s Hideaway” stands between two properties Rahmani just bought from Nalli.

Attorney John Hathaway bought the former First Ward building from the city in 1970 “just because he cherished local history, and thought we could have some fun there,” says his widow, Mary. Mary Hathaway rents or donates it for special events, but otherwise it sits vacant.

The Nalli family, she says, repeatedly tried to buy it from her. But Rahmani “has never called me asking if I wanted to sell. I wouldn’t, but I’m surprised he hasn’t asked.”