A2RS Investigates: Washtenaw Commons

Don’t get excited, I investigated this about as much as I investigate anything for this site.

I realized we haven’t talked about Washtenaw Commons (the strip mall across from Arborland) in a while. I think the last time was when I wrote about Frank’s Nursery and Crafts, a location of which anchored this land in an earlier time.

I had dinner at the Commons the other night, and took a little time to examine its former and upcoming tenants.

The original layout of this complex was several discrete, free-standing buildings — Frank’s, a big-&-tall men’s store, a thrift shop, a Norgetown cleaners (loooong gone), a drive thru bank branch. Most of the buildings were flattened – I think only the original Frank’s building remained. By now, Dollar Tree was well-established there. They demolished the outdoor section of Frank’s, relocated the big & tall, and added Olga’s Kitchen on the end. The effect: the alleys between the buildings were turned into usable storefronts.

The website can tell you what’s there now, but I was interested in what’s gone, and what’s coming. Let’s start with the blended, fruity elephant that has just left the awkward, metaphorical room.

A view inside the now closed but still pristine Jamba Juice Ann Arbor store. (C)A2RS.

The other nearest locations are both within Meijer stores, in Livonia and Shelby Township. SHELBY TOWNSHIP? THAT’S NORTH OF CANADA.

Shelby Township, seen here with Canada for comparison. NO COPYRIGHT INTENDED ALL RIGHTS BELONG TO THE OWNER

Jamba Juice stores tend to locate in areas with better foot traffic, so I don’t think this is the last we’ve seen of them. I would wager they will return to the street-level retail space in one the buildings that are being built right now on South University. In the meantime, both of the above “nearest locations” are inside Meijer stores, and the far-west-side Meijer at Jackson and Zeeb has at least one open unit up front. And it’s near the produce department, so… uh… synergy. See you there, Jamba? Maybe.

POKE FISH is the signage directly adjacent to the former Jamba space.

“POKE FISH, Sushi Burrito & Ramen Noodle.” (C)A2RS.

Blog friend Steve gave me the headsup there was new signage to look for. Precious little action on the space so it’s probably too early to guess when this will open. Everything can come in a tortilla now, but I feel like this was tried recently downtown and abandoned pretty quickly.

The other food concepts in here seem to be doing okay. Blaze’s prices have gone up about 50c from when they opened, but they have also introduced one-topping and two-topping prices, besides the “unlimited toppings” and “cheese only” pies they launched with. Check with your community schools and nonprofits for Restaurant Night fundraisers, Blaze seems to do them quite regularly.

Dickey’s BBQ, a chain, recently opened next to Blaze. People I know who have eaten there say it is fine, smaller portions but cheaper than Satchel’s, but offers all-you-can-eat soft serve ice cream for dessert, which honestly sounds kind of fun. I have an affinity for Satchel’s but one of these days I’ll try to get over to Dickey’s.

Walgreens has staked a claim to one of the spaces:

“Washtenhaw.” (C)A2RS.

I’m not sure why Walgreens wants a tiny storefront a couple of blocks away from their Washtenaw and Huron location — you know, the one you park at to walk to Whole Foods — but maybe they’re opening one of their specialty pharmacies here. If it is a regular Walgreens, it would be the smallest Walgreens store I’ve ever seen, but not by much. There’s a store a few blocks south of Disneyland that’s the size of a small bank branch or a convenience store.

Look at it. It’s the length of three cars and not much wider either.  This whole area is kind of a funhouse mirror. There’s a Target store right behind this Walgreens that’s as wide as a Meijer, or a Walmart Supercenter, but the building is only as deep as a small supermarket. You can walk to the back (that’s where the Jarritos are) in about ten seconds. Incidentally, if you’re going to Disneyland, you might as well get a Target RedCard and use it to buy Disney Gift Cards, you get them for a 5% discount off face value and it’s as close as you’re going to get to a discount at Disney.

Anyway, back in Ann Arbor, next door to the Undetermined Walgreens Space will be a dentist, which will come in handy when you drink too many smoothies and eat too much soft-serve:

#aesthetic. (C)A2RS.

I assume the other spaces will fill up soon with small service-businesses, like the ink-cartridge refiller and the spa that have also recently opened. But not Jamba Juice.

Ann Arbor, you blew it. We don’t DESERVE nice things.

Re-Marked

The 20-screen theater at Carpenter and Packard appears finally to have completed its glacially-paced rebranding to its current corporate parent, Cinemark.

The theater was originally built in the late 80s on the site of the University Drive-In. Showcase Cinemas opened with 14 screens, a concession stand of then-unprecedented size – at least four counters, and a lobby “art gallery”– matted and framed, mostly kitschy, mass-produced prints.

To keep up with industry trends, Showcase expanded in the late 90s. They built a larger lobby, with hot food options you could construct an unhealthy but comforting dinner from, and more natural light, facing Carpenter Road. This lobby led to the original fourteen theaters to the south, and six brand new theatres with stadium seating to the north. (I very vividly remember sitting upstairs in a lengthy wait line to enter one of the first showings of “Star Wars Episode I, The Phantom Menace,” in 1999. We were so excited to get new Star Wars stories then! We didn’t know about midichlorians, Gungans, or the machinations of the Galactic Senate.)

In 2006, the former lobby space was renovated and relaunched as CyGamZ, a networked-gaming competition space with high-powered PCs and game consoles. Like an arcade alternative, or a turnkey LAN party. Its joyous and photo-packed Facebook page is still very occasionally updated, despite its closure over eight years ago.

In 2009, Showcase gave up on CyGamZ, retreated to the Northeast U.S., and closed or sold all of its Michigan locations. Ann Arbor, along with Flint and Kalamazoo, were sold to Rave Motion Pictures, then a relative upstart in theatrical exhibition. (Their sister location in Westland was completely leveled.)

Showcase Cinemas Westland

[“Showcase Cinemas Westland,” (C)2011 Michael Lavander.]

Rave’s first act was to update the exterior paint and signage, while debranding the roadside sign just enough to not get sued, leaving it as the appealingly minimal “CINEMAS.” Below, here’s the sign in 2011.


Rave was acquired by movie behemoth Cinemark in 2013. Though the Rave exterior signage remained, interior livery including staff uniforms started displaying the Cinemark logo soon after — then the Cinemark logo made its way to the roadside sign. Here it is in 2016 with a teeny Cinemark logo:


By 2016, people were getting movies and showtimes on their phones, so they’d stopped putting up film titles and just added two blank panels, presumably in anticipation of outlot restaurants that still haven’t materialized.

Exterior, Cinemark Ann Arbor 20. (C)A2RS.

And now, it seems, the branding is complete, at least until Alibaba acquires Cinemark, in an effort to match the growth of its Chinese contemporary the Wanda Group, owner of the monolithic AMC exhibitor. (NOTE: This is speculation, not advice, and I am not a shareholder in any firm mentioned above.)

The Breadth of a Circle

Counting down the days to the November 27 closing of the Circle K store at the southwest corner of Packard and Stadium. Here it is when fuel was a dollar a gallon. The Eighties?

“Hop-In (year unknown),” Ann Arbor District Library, (CC BY-NC-SA)

This station and the Citgo across the street are the last two survivors of an era when Packard was positively lousy with fuel stops, particularly in Larrytown, where a Marathon, an Amoco, and a Stop-N-Go all offered fill ups.

“Stop-N-Go Service Station, 1974.” Ann Arbor District Library, CC BY-NC-SA.

I’m a little confused about the above photo. It is identified as the Stop-N-Go service station, but the pumps are clearly located in front of the building next door, which is now Packard Auto Repair. Here are both buildings today, and by today, I mean summer 2016:

There was an Amoco here too, also with a garage!

“Sam’s Standard Service Station, Amoco, 1971.” Ann Arbor District Library, CC BY-NC-SA.

Most of the fuel stations buildings have been subsumed by the eclectic mix of eateries, music merchants, and auto repair, but the Stop-N-Go was later a video rental, a fish tank supply shop, and is now a dispensary as seen above. (I’m nearly positive I forgot an interim tenant. A pizza place?)

“Cook’s Sunoco Service, 1971.” Ann Arbor District Library (CC BY-NC-SA). That’s the Big Ten Party Store behind them, now Morgan & York.

The Circle K site is getting a dramatic redevelopment while slated to remain a fuel station/convenience store. It is anticipated to reopen April 1, with more fuel islands and a new store building with closer parking. It is not expected to keep the significant buffer between the store building and the backyards of the Iroquois Avenue residents — the new site plan calls for a number of new trees, so hopefully they help insulate Iroquois from the sound and light you expect to emanate from a 24-hour convenience store.

“Schuon’s Gulf Station, 1973.” Ann Arbor District Library, CC BY-NC-SA.

For a while, the building had this cool window with rounded corners. I think this faces west toward Stadium Boulevard.

I assume Circle K chose 11/27 as the last day because it keeps them open through the end of the Wolverines’ football season season, and most specifically The Game. This is the closest gas station to the stadium, and like most area gas stations, they recently added beer to their offerings (but not, like, great beer).

Personally I’m crossing my fingers that the new station’s soda fountain has either Coke Zero or Cherry Limeade.

Maple Village Outlot exterior work

Something new happening at Maple Village — the outlot building facing Maple Road is being heavily revamped.

Wall of Maple Village outlot building, facing south. (C)A2RS.
Front of Maple Village outlot building, facing East. (C)A2R.S.

This building was once the auto and tire center for Kmart, a longtime Maple Village resident until its closure three years ago. After that, it was the last Radio Shack store in Ann Arbor until that chain’s bankruptcy and contraction.

Are they doing something new and dramatic, or did Radio Shack’s closure just give the management an opportunity to update the facade of the building? When I know, I will write something here, but don’t hold your breath waiting for me to ask someone.

P.S. I went to Sierra Trading Post recently. It was fine. Looked like there were some good deals there, but I was looking for a specific thing and they didn’t have any.

Larrytown Dairy Queen has closed for the season

Blizzards in a blizzard. (C)A2RS

Tonight I noticed that the big shutters are up on the windows at the Dairy Queen on Packard, just south of Stadium, signifying closure for the winter season — a particularly early closure by their standards.

This particular location is famous for staying open late into the fall, weeks or months after the Stadium location calls it a year. (I talked it up earlier this year, which seems like a mistake in retrospect.) I typically try to make it there on or near the last day of the season, for the novelty of it. On November 22, 2015, I was the stand’s final customer – a cold, dreary Sunday night when I brought frozen treats home to my family.

I don’t know how long the Dexter location stays open. It’s an outdoor stand like the Packard and Stadium locations, and I would imagine it weatherproofed itself a few weeks back. But I can tell you where you can go right now for a Dilly Bar.

The Ypsilanti location near EMU has plenty of seating, a full menu, and is open nearly year-round. (They usually close from around Christmas until February.)

If the Ypsi store’s too far, or if you’re reading this on New Year’s Day or something and need to get your Peanut Buster on, then you have but one choice: the Saline Dairy Queen on Michigan Avenue. It has an indoor counter, albeit minimal seating, and is open even on nights it probably shouldn’t be open.

 

State Street & Oak Valley latest

South of I-94 on State Street, work continues on Black Rock Bar & Grill. Here’s the exterior as it appeared this weekend, before the past two days of rain.

This site was a Chi-Chi’s for decades, before Chi-Chi’s succumbed to debt and a Hepatitis scare in the early 2000s. After Chi-Chi’s retreated to supermarket shelves and, um, Belgium, the space became a Japanese restaurant called Cherry Blossom for a brief time. Finally, a coat of blue paint on the adobe facade signaled the arrival of Passport, an ambitious world-cuisine concept from beloved campus Chinese take-out spot Lucky Kitchen. After Passport’s border closed, the space was blue and still until Black Rock arrived.

Black Rock originally opened in Hartland, about an hour north of this location, a few years back, and quickly expanded to several locations around Detroit and, in parallel, Orlando, Florida. A friend who has visited one explained to me that the name comes from a stone slab, heated to a high temperature and presented alongside your meal . Then, you use the stone and its retained heat to cook your steak, so each bite is “hot off the grill.” (They offer pre-cooked entrees also.)

Spotted at Oak Valley: the former Famous Footwear space near Target is Xfinity. In many Comcast markets, the local service centers are located in shopping centers and take the form of Xfinity Store, a casual shopping experience, rather than the traditional South Industrial waiting room where you may have gotten your new cable box from in the past. Here, they can also get you signed up for Xfinity Mobile, their wireless phone plan. (Although Xfinity branded, it is secretly Verizon, so you know it will be consistent nationwide, even in markets where other cable companies have the monopoly. I didn’t get a picture because it was grey and rainy tonight, sorry.

To answer a question frequently asked this summer: it doesn’t look like they did much of anything to the corner of Waters Road and Ann Arbor-Saline Road, except introduce a lane out of the parking lot directly onto southbound Saline Road. For decades, the only ways out have been either onto Waters Road near Target, or driving behind Chuck E. Cheese and getting onto Oak Valley Drive, so I guess I consider this an improvement, because what was all that stupid foliage doing there anyway? Time to pound sand, plants.

Finally, an update on the Hyatt Place lot. The hotel is now open for business (travelers), but the outlot building in front is still unoccupied and apparently available for lease. My owl friend Arbor Annie recently took a closer look and confided to me that the small, solar-roofed accessory structure by the street is a bike lock, and there is also one of those adorable water fountains that have one bowl for people and one bowl for dogs. Which, cool, but I still have no idea what this building is supposed to be. I can already tell that this will keep me up all ni💤

Updates from east side and downtown

Sorry about the lack of recent posts. Something something irons, something something fire. Here are some developments I noticed on Carpenter Road, and was told about at 4th and Liberty downtown.

Carpenter And Ellsworth’s shopping center is getting a new facade. This was snapped a few weeks back, the work has progressed since then. The stores that were previously open all appear to still be open.

The former Pier 1 Imports on Carpenter Road has been split into two storefronts. One of them is now open — an Aspen Dental location (a chain, like Subway, only for dentists, not Sandwich Artists).

The other store was still stripped to the walls when I took this photo, but there were literally people in there making plans, so expect something soon. Last year this was a pop-up Halloween store, so this is something like progress.

The photos below, from the Fourth and Liberty corridor, were provided by Lex, a Friend of A2RS.

Le Bon Macaron is an eastward expansion of a bakery and coffeehouse with previous locations in Grand Rapids and Lansing. Though their pride is their Macaron, the french sandwich cookie, they are sadly unaffiliated with the lead singer or any other members of the band Duran Duran. (“Le Bon” literally means “The Good” in French. I didn’t even have to look that up.)

La Taqueria arrives on Liberty in the back section of the former Selo/Shevel Gallery, a spot recently occupied by Maize & Blue Delicatessen’s ill-fated expansion into Shinolaville. People love tacos and if the bar is good and the prices decent, this should be a winner.

Drought is a Detroit-based raw juice company with six retail locations.
Lex has some thoughts on this particular store:

Although it’s nice that some Detroit-based businesses are successful enough to branch out to other locations, I can’t say that I will be utilizing the Ann Arbor location of “Drought” anytime soon. The premise is that there is a clean, stark store with a case of expensive juice. The juice isn’t made in the store. It’s literally just a case of juice. It comes in glass bottles, and most of the bottles seem to be around $9-13 each bottle.

Maybe I am just getting old, but I found the concept of having an entire empty store with just a case of juice to be incredibly bizarre. Another thing is this isn’t on Main Street, or even Liberty Street, it’s on Washington Street — not exactly a high traffic area. I wish them luck, of course, because I am not a jerk, but I just don’t think they’ll make it.

I welcome your thoughts via the usual channels.

Mahalo to UO

Today from @TreeDowntown, an account that didn’t make my radar before today but which is so relevant to my readers’ interest that I probably wouldn’t have started this if I’d known about it:

It looks like Mark Maynard was correct after all. Farewell Urban Outfitters – hate to see you go, but love to watch you move out.

Carpenter Road update with a couple of photos tomorrow or Saturday.

Buffett Is My Co-Pilot

Huge news today out of Knoxville as Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffett’s firm, announces a buy into Pilot Flying J, a chain of travel centers — not travel agencies, another industry nearly driven out of existence by online, but “travel centers,” which is a high-falutin’ word for truck stops.

Pilot and Flying J stores can be found lining the major interstates in the Midwest and throughout the country. The farthest away I’ve encountered one is in Arizona, near the Meteor Crater. The closest ones to Ann Arbor are in Dexter off of I-94, at either side of the Baker Road exit. Yes, there are Pilots on either side of I-94 at the same exit. The northern one was a Speedway fuel station years ago, albeit an oversized one that catered to truckers — Speedway sold their truck-stop business to Pilot a few years before Pilot merged with Flying J.

Today’s travel centers tend to have at least one restaurant attached, sometimes a whole food court. They cultivate brand loyalty among professional drivers with fuel discounts, wifi memberships, and free showers. Their convenience stores are more like mini department stores for the professional driver, selling everything from roller-grill hot dogs, to furniture and entertainment equipment for the little bedroom inside your truck, to cheap toys and local gift merchandise to pick up for your family on the way home.

This seems like a brave time for BH to get into roadside services, as the freight industry begins to experiment with electric and self-driving trucks. So why is Warren Buffett investing in Pilot Flying J? The answer, I suspect, is simpler than you might think.

Buffett chose to acquire Dairy Queen because he loved Dairy Queen, but that’s not the only thing he and I have in common. We also both love Cherry Coca-Cola. Buffett is famous for drinking several cans every day. BH is a Coca-Cola investor and last year, when Coke finally introduced Cherry Coke in China, they put a cartoon of him on the packaging.

Cherry Coke packaging from China, where Warren Buffett is also considered a rockstar. (C) The Coca-Cola Company

I used to drink a lot of fountain Coke. I mean, a lot of fountain Coke. The first time I ever visited a Flying J I bought a giant, ludicrous, 52oz. trucker mug to increase my Coke consumption. It was unsustainable; I have retired it and switched to smaller servings, mostly of of Coke Zero Sugar.

But when I’m out on the interstate, and even sometimes just on the west side of town, I still want a Cherry Coke from a Pilot or a Flying J, because they have the best cherry syrup in the known universe. It is bright red, super sweet with that wild-cherry flavor you usually encounter in second-tier bubble gums, and just a little viscous. They let you put in as much as you want. You could fill the whole cup with cherry syrup, although that would be really gross. It doesn’t have a medicinal aftertaste the way some other chains’ cherry syrup add-ins do (looking at you, Speedway). The right kind of cherry syrup makes all the difference.

Warren, if you ever read this, I am a fraternity brother of your cousin Jimmy and I would love to drink a Cherry Coke with you. We don’t even have to talk shop.

Small new stuff on the south side, State Street

Join me, won’t you, for a quick drive up a couple blocks of State Street?

If you live in Michigan, you have no doubt stored beverages on your patio or deck, in your garage, or otherwise taken advantage of the winter climate to rapidly chill them. And you know what it’s like – if it’s warm enough or you don’t forget about them for too long, it’s nice and cold. If it’s too cold for too long, they freeze up and burst. But once in a while you manage to dance the line between liquid and frozen, and when you open the super-cooled drink it instantly chills into a slush right in the bottle. There are YouTube videos about this but leave it to the innovative beverage scientists at Coke to reproduce this effect on demand: behold, the Arctic Coke Machine.

“Arctic Coke” cooler at Speedway, State and Ellsworth. (C)A2R.S

This skirting of the laws of physics is now available as a value-add for Coke, Sprite, and Powerade at the State and Ellsworth Speedway store. It is right next to 12 taps of ICEE beverages, including Coke, but I guess sometimes it’s worth extra to drink it out of a plastic bottle? Oooookay. At least you get the science-experiment part.

Ellsworth west of State Street. From left: Timbits, tenantless, Tireman. (C)A2R.S

Across Ellsworth from Speedway, at the northeast corner of the roundabout, a lot was accidentally left vacant when Tim Horton’s and Belle Tire crammed into the area behind the oil change place. Fortunately, this oversight is quickly being corrected. A sign at the Jimmy John’s driveway says “Join Jimmy John’s and Pearle Vision,” so count on Pearle showing up in this building when it’s finished, and possibly leaving Briarwood? Pearle is currently next to Apple; does Apple take the empty Pearle shell over and finally get that Somerset-size store? …nah.

Burger King and Hyatt Place signs adjacent to northbound State Street. (C)A2R.S

This small, lit “Burger King” sign recently showed up by the side of State Street. While the Hyatt Place sign behind it is right next to the new Hyatt’s driveway, this Burger King sign is not really next to anything. (I was near the gas pumps of the overpriced Mobil station here when I snapped this photo.) I believe it was placed here to advertise the presence of a Burger King on Victors Way, behind the Mobil station, but if you tried to turn at this sign, you would be a little lost, because the BK parking lot is not connected to the other parking lots. Not that this would stop Mark Borchardt (warning, language):

Burger King’s investment in a permanent sign, no matter how low-profile, leads me to think its distinctive Victors Way location is here to stay. That building in front of the Hyatt is currently being finished and now displays a “Retail For Lease” sign. No drive-thru. Still not sure what it’s going to be.

I haven’t spent much time in Briarwood lately, although I did photograph a small change to a big part of the mall last time I was there, and friend-of-the-blog Chris was good enough to remind me to mention it. When I first noticed it last month, I thought it was an oversight, or an odd joke — the winking neon “OPEN” sign, in the window of the hollowed-out shell of MC Sports.

Parking lot entrance of former MC Sports, currently Colby Bounce. (C)A2R.S

However, it turns out the space has been filled with a bouncery and minigolf establishment, Colby Bounce.

Mall entrance of Colby Bounce, Briarwood Mall. (C)A2R.S
“Colby Bounce” entrance with policy sign. (C)A2R.S

Which returns this space’s purpose to, once again, an ephemeral enterainment destination. Can movie screens be far off? Is “bouncery” a real word?

(pɹoʍ ןɐǝɹ ɐ ʇou sı ʇı ‘ou ؛uɹnʇǝɹ ɹǝʌǝu ʎןǝʞıן ןןıʍ puɐ ɟɟo ɹɐɟ ǝq ʇɔɐɟ uı uɐɔ ʎǝɥʇ ‘sǝʎ :sɹǝʍsuɐ)