Better The Union U Know

Profile, Michigan Union, April 2018. (C)A2RS

Saturday’s U-M Graduation ceremony brought the end of the Winter 2018 term, and with it, the closure of the Michigan Union for two years of renovation. Although the ground level of the Union was renovated only five years ago, and the first floor’s University Club was closed only a couple of years ago to introduce another franchise to campus, U-M has decided to make sweeping changes to future-proof the Union complex.

North entrance to the Michigan Union. Doesn’t look like much, does it? (C)A2RS

One of the most dramatic plans is to open up this north entrance to the Union. Expect more windows and lots of natural light. This will complement the new LSA Opportunity Hub next door and make the most of Michigan’s six to eight weeks of sunlight each year.

This digital sign was set to a poignant black to commemorate the closing of the Union, totally not turned off to save energy, and why would you even say such a thing? (C)A2RS

They also plan to improve accessibility and eliminate some of the multiple small flights of steps, like the ones you see right after you enter that north entrance. This historic building is riddled with twisty steps and tiny landings that hearken back to a time when everything was designed for bipeds.

Interior entrance to Michigan Union. Only three more stairs to go! (C)A2RS

The sign above the second set of doors at the end of the third set of steps tells the story. The ground floor of the Union, at its close, was host to a Barnes & Noble campus bookstore, a convenience store operated by U-M Dining, the Computer Showcase, a U-M Credit Union Branch, and a passel of quick-service restaurants. Open computer stations ringed the edges of the dining area, although their numbers have dwindled as personal devices have become more common. (Incidentally, the only part of the Union to remain open during this construction is the Union Computing Site, which is actually located in a basement area shared with West Quad.)

Ext. Subway, still serving until the very end, Apr 2018. (C)A2RS

The Subway franchise in the basement of the Michigan Union is the Busiest Subway Restaurant in North America, a title held by the Subway franchise at Michigan State, Notre Dame, UC Irvine, and basically any R1 institution. Go ahead, ask any of them.

Ext. Second Subway Counter, Apr 2018. (C)A2RS

The Second Subway Counter debuted as part of the 2012 Renovation and, if we’re being honest, has seldom been used since. I imagine the stock explanation is that the original counter has been streamlined and optimized to meet increased demand, but honestly, have you seen Wendy’s Twitter?

Ext. Wendy’s, Apr 2018. Note Freestyle machine at right. (C)A2RS

And here she is. A chain based in the heart of Buckeye Country is the only mass-market burger joint in the heart of Ann Arbor. It is a fitting bookend to the heartwarming story of the Columbus Domino’s and could only be more poetic if it turned out Urban Meyer was a partner in the franchise.

Ext. Panda Express gone dark. (C)A2RS

Panda Express premiered following the 2012 reno, but was only the latest in a string of local and franchised “Asian cuisine” takeout concepts within the Union. Previous purveyors of parabolic-pan-fried protein with sweetened sauces and sticky starches included Bangkok II, about which I don’t recall much more; and Magic Wok, which continues to thrive in Northwest Ohio, Downriver, and, uh, Bahrain.

Ahmo’s Gyros, Apr. 2018. (C)A2RS

Ahmo’s is the Issa family’s successful pivot away from convenience stores into dining and is something like a local fixture now. This Ahmo’s location did street tacos on its other counter and I think also offered a fro-yo bar.

Ext. U-Go’s Convenience Store, Apr 2018. (C)A2RS

This U-Go’s used to offer sixty cent fountain refills if you brought your own cup, which was apparently too cheap to last forever. They also had tons of other ready-to-eat snacks and a bulk section. Now that this is gone and By The Pound has moved to South Industrial, People’s Food Co-Op is about the only place you can purchase precisely 1.25 pounds of yogurt pretzels.

Exterior, Barnes & Noble College Bookstore at Michigan Union. (C)A2RS
Ugh, I can see my reflection in the chrome sign stand. I should have shot this more off-center. (C)A2RS
UMCU Branch at Michigan Union. Way back in the day, this was a video arcade. (C)A2RS

UMCU loses a convenient point of presence with the Union’s closure – a full0-service branch right on central campus. Remember when those video teller consoles with the vacuum tubes were gonna be the future of banking? They mounted iPads in front of the video monitors a few years ago, and I haven’t seen them in use in a while at all.

Front entrance for the Computer Showcase at the Union. (C)A2RS

Like several of the other stores mentioned in this article, the Computer Showcase has another location on North Campus. But unlike the others, the Showcase will maintain a presence nearby during construction. The first floor of the Shapiro Library (“The UGLi”) has been fortified with point-of-sale infrastructure and secure storage to host computer and peripheral sales, which makes me kind of glad I don’t work for the Library, because the only thing that would be more fun than a gadget store in my building, would be a gadget store that silently deducts the payments right out of my check.

Display window for U-M Computer Showcase at the Union. Through it you can view the Tech Repair service desk and ITS walk-in support desk. (C)A2RS

That takes care of the Ground Floor – this leaves only two retail establishments upstairs, Starbucks and Au Bon Pain.

Main entrance to Au Bon Pain at Michigan Union. (C)A2RS

I have no idea whether Au Bon Pain is working out for campus. I do know that, since this location opened, the chain has been acquired by Panera Bread, which has had a location at North U and Thayer for years. These two stores seem a little bit close together to me…

Exterior, Starbucks Coffee at Michigan Union. (C)A2RS

…although this Starbucks franchise replaced Amer’s Deli a few years ago and seems to always be working, despite three other locations (State & Liberty, South University Galleria, and Ross School of Business) within two blocks.

I should have gotten a photo of the Billiards Room, I realized this weekend it’s gone for good:

A2RS Predictions:

  • The Union is scheduled to reopen for Winter term 2020, and I expect Wendy’s, Subway, and Starbucks to be back and largely unchanged when it returns.
  • I expect the bookstore to be smaller, with textbooks stored offsite.
  • I’m pretty sure that an unmanned convenience store will be attempted. It could be an Amazon Go or a Market Twenty Four Seven.
  • Jamba Juice, calling it now. Could be a corporate store, might be a franchise operated by Picasso like the one in UHospital.
  • I do not expect the tap room to return to the Union, though that would be pretty cool.

Go ahead, tell me what I screwed up, that’s why I keep the comments turned on.

One Reply to “Better The Union U Know”

  1. Nice. I was thinking that some pre-reno documentation should be done but I wasn’t motivated to do it. Glaring to me in your pics is that the recent renovations were just spot fixes; the lighting and hallways show that the most recent general work was done through the ’80s and is due.

    The Billiards Room miss is not a worry — yeah, would be nice to have a pic yourself, but it’d be similar to other pictures from years/decades gone by. That latter point is why I consider it a tragedy, but I’m three decades too old for my opinion to guide their plans. A shot of the dining area along the north edge would have been nice, since that has been in constant evolution and any time-waypoints for it are unique.

    I’d love to see a lot of the rest of the pre-reno Union, but that’s outside the scope of this blog. I have great fears about whether the quirks I love in the historical fabric will survive. Per your comment about the many random short staircases (on all floors, btw), I suspect much will not.

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