For a city aiming for carbon neutrality by 2030, the story behind Lowertown Bar & Cafe serves as an apt example of that ambition’s promise and perplexity.
In a historic but long-quiescent part of town, a trio of local friends has converted a onetime Pure Oil service station into a cozy indoor and outdoor gathering spot geared toward Northside residents and workers as well as those finding recreation along the Border-to-Border Trail and the Huron River. But modernizing the property at the corner of Moore St. and Broadway to fulfill what they recognized as a long-standing community need took Pete Baker, Hubert Raglan, and Joe Bollinger more than two years. Detailing myriad complications unearthed along the way, the affable Baker suggests that if the Observer could tell the story “without us sounding cranky, that would be great!”
Built in 1938, the 1,378-square-foot facility had most recently been shared between barber Johnnie Rush Jr. and Sic Transit Cycles, a bicycle repair shop, which Bollinger co-owns and continues to operate. (It’s since moved around the block and expanded into the Anson Brown Building, the city’s oldest extant commercial structure.) In 2021 the three partners, who each live within biking distance of the parcel, paid Rush $375,000 for it.
That seemed pricey to some, including Jim Koli, owner of the Anson Brown Building and Northside Grill, an oasis of hospitality in Lower Town since 1993. But the purchase was only the beginning.
“This was an exceptionally more complicated project than it seems like it would be, but a lot of it was because this block has just not changed much in fifty years,” explains Baker. Beneath the building’s trim exterior, workers uncovered three previous foundations and a sinkhole they later attributed to a sewer line that had long since been severed for DTE’s concrete-encased wiring beneath Broadway.
“When the phones rang, it was usually like a heart-skipping moment, like ‘now what?’” Baker says. After a process he compares to an “archeological dig,” their contractors eventually reworked every system and feature on the site except for three cinder block walls.
Baker says they now understand why developers often prefer teardowns to renovating older buildings as “more economically feasible … And it sucks, but they’re not wrong about it. We were luckily deep enough into this project that there was no going back on it.
“So I think if we’re going to do more of these kind of things in the city, we’ve got to be really good about the recordkeeping, what’s happened with the lot, the city responsiveness on permits, and stuff like that to not slow it down.”
Those obstacles included seeking and getting a zoning variance allowing fewer than the fourteen parking spaces that the 0.13-acre site’s proposed use required. “If we tore the building down we wouldn’t have fourteen parking spaces,” Baker notes, illustrating how seriously car-focused planning rules have skewed development patterns. That step, at least, won’t be an issue for future redevelopers: City council eliminated mandatory parking minimums citywide in 2022.
They’re not worried about the lack of on-site parking: They expect most customers to be neighbors within walking or biking distance, and a U-M lot across the street is free evenings and weekends. And eliminating it allowed them to use every bit of the parcel, nestling three gas firepits and outdoor seating for seventy behind tall wooden fencing. Inside, the former two-bay garage now seats fifty, with abundant natural light from skylights and oversized windows.
“Whenever I come in, I look at who we have here,” says Raglan, a tax attorney who grew up in England and came to Ann Arbor as a U-M student, “It’s a whole mix of people, and that’s really encouraging. I know there are local people of all different ages, demographics; they come for different reasons.”
The trio’s network of friends played various roles in the build-out and in food and drink offerings from the likes of Ypsilanti’s Hyperion Coffee, Two James Spirits in Detroit, Botanical Bakeshop in Milan for vegan pastries, and Elevated Shortbreads from Blissfield.
“That just shows how much talent there is in this whole area that sometimes gets overlooked by the big stores,” remarks Raglan. “So it’s nice that we were able to tap into that.”
Dave Castleman, formerly of Pacific Rim by Kana, is the general manager. Their sixteen-tap system serves up beers, nitro coffee, hard cider, and some premixed cocktails. Customers order at the counter during the daytime and with their phones using QR codes in the evenings, when drinks are served at the table. They hope that will make for better conversational rhythm among patrons and more bartender focus on mixology.
Baker points with pride to their scratch-made chai lattes, the prospect of deploying their espresso machine for martinis, and the selection of nonalcoholic cocktails. “We’ve been told by plenty of friends that work in the medical system [that] they love going out after hours with their friends, but they’re often on call. They can’t be drinking, but they don’t want to just have a Coke,” he says.
Launching in winter wasn’t their first choice, but “it’s good for us to start softly,” Baker says, giving them more time to arrange an array of musical, food truck, and other outdoor programming. He points to York Food & Drink on Packard St. as a “similar model” of a neighborhood hub. They await a possible synergy with their abutting neighbor, as the former Broadway Party Store site has been sold to an entity connected with Carrozza Pizza.
“For something that’s close to downtown with this big of a neighborhood around, it’s really surprising how little was here,” Baker says. “This has been everybody’s idea for generations, it seems like. We were lucky enough to be able to make it happen.”
Lowertown Bar & Cafe, 1031 Broadway St. Tues.–Thurs. 7 a.m.–3 p.m. & 4–11 p.m., Fri. 7 a.m.–3 p.m. & 4 p.m.–midnight, Sat. 8 a.m.–midnight, Sun. 8 a.m.–10 p.m. Closed Mon.