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Posted on Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 5:58 a.m.

Ann Arbor's East Washington Street should stand as a lesson in transformation

By Paula Gardner

In a town where change can take enormous amounts of time, energy and community debate, one downtown Ann Arbor street continues its metamorphosis into something meaningful.

East Washington Street was a “dead zone” a decade ago when I started business reporting in this community.

It was just a few blocks that connected the incredibly vibrant downtown Ann Arbor to the vitality-laden University of Michigan.


Sava Lelcaj plans to open a new restaurant on East Washington Street this year.

Melanie Maxwell |

Yet even amid some business successes - like Arbor Brewing Co. on its western end - the buildings along the street combined to create pockets of inactivity that seemed beyond fixing.

Single-tenant office buildings that closed at 5 p.m. A former Laura Ashley store next to a parking deck. Rental housing. Surface parking. No windows. No reason for anyone to stop. No area to create a sense of place.

Enter a wave of individual private investments during those years, and the blocks are transformed.

Today, there’s an energy on the street that’s fueling the drive of local investors. They’re seeing opportunity. They’re also creating it, by staking a claim to underutilized spaces. And by doing that, they’re effectively expanding the downtown market area.

The most recent example is Sava Lelcaj, who took a risk by opening babo market at the corner of South Division - and now stands ready to start her third downtown business further west in the 200 block of the street.

“I love Washington Street,” Lelcaj told reporter Lizzy Alfs.

The owners of Blue Tractor might say the same thing, after buying a building a few years ago, expanding their scope and eventually buying another building downtown so they could move Cafe Habana and further expand.

That’s organic business growth at its best.

East Washington, while building vibrancy, doesn’t fulfill everyone’s vision for the city. Among the changes are two student high-rises, including the one above babo.

Yet the investors who turned the buildings into a collection of destinations have made a difference to this city. Consider McKinley Towne Centre, which extended storefronts along South Division - and generated the foundation of foot traffic that made the retail spaces, like Mani and its sister restaurant, Isalita, possible on East Liberty.


The exterior of the Blue Tractor BBQ & Brewery in downtown Ann Arbor.

Angela Cesere |

Or Jon Carlson and Greg Lobdell, who activated their block with Blue Tractor and the offices above it.

And next comes Lelcaj, adding to the block with her new restaurant.

Beyond that, there are changes on West Washington - Mark’s Carts, the Village Green apartments - that provide a deeper connection for the city, and a still-more vital commercial corridor.

Yet compare that to East William Street: Another underutilized connector street between downtown and the University of Michigan campus.

The mix is different, since there is some public land involved, including the Ann Arbor District Library.

But I can’t help but think: We shouldn’t just celebrate the transformation of East Washington Street. We need to learn from it, too.

Paula Gardner is Community News Director of Reach her by email or follow her on Twitter.


Wolf's Bane

Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 4:12 p.m.

I will never patronize any business that is located within one of these skyscrapers; I don't care what goes in, they'll have to do without me.

Ryan J. Stanton

Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 1:24 a.m.

My favorite things about Washington Street: babo (for groceries), ABC (for brews and vegan eats), Blue Nile (for delicious Ethiopian food) and Mark's Carts (for all that is Mark's Carts). It's definitely a street worth walking down and I often find myself cutting over from Huron or even Liberty because it's a nice east-west drag if you're trying to get between Main and State.

Scott Reed

Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 12:47 a.m.

Density and walkability are the key factors here. We need more and taller mixed-use developments, fewer cars and narrower roads. There are still too many so-called "historic" dilapidated houses that are a stain on the downtown, especially in the old fourth ward area. Hopefully the trend towards a more vibrant downtown will continue, and the local slumlords attempting to hold back positive development can be weeded out.


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 3:54 a.m.

Scott...go back to Chicago or NYC or wherever you resided before AA. Immigrants to AA , especiallly the ones who want to turn our town into a mini-NYC or mini-Chicago are ruining the uniqueness which Ann Arbor used to have!

Wolf's Bane

Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 4:30 p.m.

This is an ad for McKinley Towne Centre. Nicely played. Don't forget, McKinley are the same guys who gave us that church ruin over on Main street for many years. Kudos.

Wolf's Bane

Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 4:10 p.m.

Paula, check your records. McKinley was the first of many to purchase the the Greek Church. In fact, they let the scrappers come in and turn it into a ruin to begin with. Check your records, Paula.

Paula Gardner

Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 11:39 a.m.

The church ruin? If you mean the former Greek Orthodox church, McKinley owned the parking lot. Not the building as it fell apart.


Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 5:59 p.m.

No doubt.


Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 3:32 p.m.

Some serious work needs to be done on State (not just the pavement, which is INSANE; every trip down that street takes about 6 months off the life of my car). That unoccupied area by the Blue Front (is that its official name? It's the liquor store w/ blue awning and frontage) and across the street is depressing looking. It would be great to get some well-used businesses in there. Does anyone here shop regularly at Babo? Any thoughts as to what it offers that's different or better from Sparrow Market or Meijer? I frequently walk by it on my way home, and went ina couple times, but didn't spend a lot of time comparing, etc. Some input would help.


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 3:23 a.m.

Never shopped at Babo, but I hope it's better than Kerrytown grocery shopping.....last time I was there I couldn't find prices on any of the produce, it was ridiculously crowded with high school students, the aisles were jammed too close together, and the check out clerk was clueless about any of the produce, including prices. I hope Babo does a better job than Sparrow's.

Tom Whitaker

Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 9:17 p.m.

I think RUKiddingMe was referring to the empty space on Packard NEXT to the Blue Front, not the Blue Front itself, although the Blue Front owners might want to pay a little more attention to how their windows look from the outside.


Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 7:14 p.m.

My son lives on E Ann and shops at Babo regularly, so, yes, I think that folks who live in that area enjoy a high-quality local market. I wouldn't even begin to compare the quality foods at Babo with mass-market Meijer.

Jeff Gaynor

Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 3:14 p.m.

And Literati Bookstore will open at 124 E. Washington Street soon.

Leah Gunn

Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 10:53 p.m.

@GoNavy - Try the Ann Arbor Distruict Library. Free magazines and public bathrooms.


Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 9:40 p.m.

Will they have bathrooms I can use, and an area where I can read the magazines for free without paying? I love Amazon but I need something in town to fill those needs -


Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 3:06 p.m.

The Fifth and Division Street improvements, funded by the DDA, have been instrumental in new development, not to mention the Library Lane parking. It is now easier to park and the walking experience to and from these businesses is more pleasant. The corner where Mani is located saw a series of failures before the sidewalks were improved.


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 3:09 a.m.

@Tom: This forum is the only one I have ever participated in that doesn't allow for editing. Would that be so difficult to add?

Tom Whitaker

Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 9:15 p.m.

Crap! I mean North Fifth Avenue!! ugh.

Tom Whitaker

Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 9:14 p.m.

Sorry, I meant to say that the improvements on North Division by Kerrytown were CUT from the project and not put back in even though bids came in $1 million under budget.

Tom Whitaker

Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 4:16 p.m.

The Fifth and Division improvements at Kerrytown--where they are most urgently needed--despite the project bids coming in $1 million under budget. Where did that money go? As one who lives on Fifth Ave., I find the library block to be even less pedestrian friendly than before. The new transit center will likely make it even worse, with more bus traffic exiting on to Fifth Ave.


Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 2:40 p.m.

I think Washington is about the same as it was the difference really is the student apartment buildings are new and the university building north quad where the old high school used to be. Add the addition of the Blue Tractor and that is the difference I see. And I have been here since the 70's. There is a lot that I miss from the old downtown atmosphere


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 3:16 a.m.

Totally agree.


Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 1:42 p.m.

Paula, What do these business owners think of the high rises that will be built in that area?


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 3:07 a.m.

@Tom Whitaker and Hendrix: Excellent comments. Downtown is becoming Disneyland for rich students and the businesses that cater to them, including more chains. Sure a few new boutique restaurants are sprinkled in, but everything new is being "marketed" to those rich kids, pushing out anyone over 22. Where is that balanced approach to housing, AA city council? With all the student warehouses, AA is becoming far less attractive to anyone over 22, even if they built more condos tomorrow for "adults" over 22. Personally, I think AA has reached a saturation point with monster student high rises and out of town "developers" who don't care about the impact their buildings have on the surrounding neighborhoods and houses.


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 12:45 a.m.

@Navy - yep, don't need an MBA for that one.


Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 9:38 p.m.

Hmm, I wonder - a high density building with 415 rooms, filled with kids ready to spend their parents money? I wonder what business owners think. I should probably go to business school to figure it out.

Tom Whitaker

Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 9:12 p.m.

The downtown element of the master plan calls for diversity in downtown housing options. In the last 5 years, we've only seen housing for students. Most of this new housing is fully furnished right down to the TVs, so there is little need for the students, even those with money, to spend it on anything but food and entertainment. By contrast, more established working adults are looking to buy real estate rather than rent. To fill their homes, they buy furniture, art, and accessories, as well as spend on their upkeep and improvement. They are the ones that run the large tabs at the finer restaurants on Main Street, buy antiques or higher-end jewelry at the Arcadian or Schlanderer's, or buy lawn furniture at Downtown Home and Garden. I'm only making the point that we need a diversity of people living downtown if we're going to have a balanced business climate that supports retailers of durable goods, service providers, and finer restaurants---not just bars, fast food outlets, and 7-11's. Those beyond the age of 25 or so are not generally going to be attracted to high rises full of students. They are, however, attracted to the neighborhoods surrounding downtown, or the more sedate buildings like Sloan Plaza, One North Main, or the new proposal for North Main Street/Kerrytown. We should support and encourage these other housing options, but unfortunately, recent zoning decisions made by the city have resulted in an out-of-balance housing situation that may only serve to chase adults, 25 and up, away from downtown and its surrounding neighborhoods.


Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 6:36 p.m.

As a business owner, I think the high rises are destroying the character of Ann Arbor; sure it's bringing more people downtown, but it also brings in a lot of out of town money that does not care about their footprint on the community. The buildings are generally McSkyscrapers that do not add beauty to the city and block the sun from their neighbors. City Council needs to rethink zoning laws so these things are not so tall in the future. If only there were a way to block the soulless chains popping up downtown. I am more interested in Ann Arbor being a culturally diverse community that offers something different; that in itself is an attraction. Another CVS, 7/11 or Subway underneath a 14 story McSkyscraper is not attractive nor a long term benefit for the community. But if more & more of downtown is dictated by outside interests who don't care, this won't matter. We live here, we should set the standards to reflect our community, as we will have to live with it.

Lizzy Alfs

Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 2:44 p.m.

a2citizen: In my recent conversation with Sava, she was very excited about the high rises. She's anticipating the opening of The Varsity and what it will do for her business at babo. For business owners, more density usually equals more business, so I find many are supportive of development.


Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 1:34 p.m.

Wonderful story and so true. While the Arbor and BT appear to be in the 40s(and kinda started this all) it is great the see the success they have had to bring the street together. Now with the Sava young lady it just keeps getting better and better. Really, the most unique street in down with the mix of historic and new construction and living. The DDA provided a nice(albeit small) parking deck there which really helped to fuel the area as well. Great job!

Leah Gunn

Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 10:59 p.m.

The Fourth and Washington parking structure was replaced on site by order of City Council. Underground levels were added, but the foorprint is small for a parking garage. However, it was City Council's decision, not the DDA's.


Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 1:29 p.m.

Way to slip in a Mark's Carts plug for an article about East Washington.


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 3:15 a.m.

Personally I don't see what all the hype is about for "Mark's Carts."


Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 1:01 p.m.

It should be noted that this transformation was done with little or no involvement of the mayor and his DDA.

Peter Baker

Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 1:16 a.m.

Increased parking and a continued push for the vibrancy of downtown don't factor in to this?


Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 3:28 p.m.



Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 12:50 p.m.

We really need more trendy, expensive and mediocre restaurants. Also another row of 14 story monstrosities would really add to that part of down town.


Tue, Mar 5, 2013 : 4:50 p.m.

Barzoom, I have doubt that you live downtown, and by that I mean west side or west of main certainly does not count. Here is something to think about, would you rather the expansion of student housing encompass all of Ann Arbor dropping the cost of houses in the area down. Just a bunch of management companies owning all the properties around you. The town is growing people are staying and offices are opening up. I personally work for the university and am in my late 20s (not what the area caters to), to me this town having these resources is the reason why I live downtown and work downtown. 14 story monstrosities and restaurants breeds a community. People are able to live closer to activities in town, live closer to work, actually have a life in town. Do I think every restaurant is great (no), but would you rather see a space go unused and disregarded? (probably not). I am not sure why you want to complain about businesses opening, you should celebrate it. East Washington, was what I would consider boring and really just a disconnect from the rest of Main, State, and Liberty. Now with Babo I walk there to pick up odds and ends offerings that Diag and White Market never had , this would not be my whole grocery list but when I need something to complete a meal I have a local business and not walk to Kerrytown. Blue Tractor and ABC are a great business to have around the food is always good and the beer is always cold. Blue Nile and Mark's Carts is always an experience. Maybe the lack of diversity is caused by people such as yourself the A2 naysayers.


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 3:14 a.m.

Restaurants come and go all the time. What is the average life span these days? AA really has far too many restaurants and too little retail diversity in the commercial downtown area. Too bad it's all geared to rich students and their parents. There are actually adults over 22 who live in AA, surprisingly. I think AA city council has forgotten this.