Some Stuff to Taco Bout, Maynard Street, and Finally Getting Round to a Proper Squarewell

IN CORPORATE TACO NEWS:

Exterior of Taco Bell on Jackson Road. (C)A2R.S

Taco Bell has made a triumphant return to Jackson Road on the west side. None of its area locations are exactly what I would characterize as outdated, but this store closed for a dramatic renovation that has made it look like a real-life version of the Taco Bell mobile app.

IN LOCALLY-OWNED, INDIE TACO NEWS:
Chela’s is expanding downtown! Coming-soon signage spotted on Fifth Ave. between the old Jerusalem Garden space and Earthen Jar. I really enjoy the steak and chorizo combo tacos from their original location at Liberty and Maple, and the owner, Adrian, was very nice to my kids last time I took them, so I’m happy to see Chela’s growing.

On Maynard a couple of times last week, and took the opportunity to examine the small convenience store at the base of Tower Plaza. The most recent incarnation did not survive long, despite having an eye-catching brand with arguably the street’s best use of Microsoft Word’s “Word Art” zoom.

Set in Courier, no less. (C)A2R.S

There are a glut of similar stores in these two blocks, including two national drug chains experimenting with take-and-go meals, and the venerable Diag Liquor. Just across the street in Nickels Arcade, babo also recently threw in the towel. I’m not an expert, but I think you need to be able to sell booze if you’re gonna survive here.

Are those new network cables hanging from the drop ceiling? (C)A2R.S

I hope they’re coming up with an interesting new use for the storefront, and that they announce it really soon, so I have something else to write about. There’s no shortage of new neighbors. The new owners of Maynard House apartments literally taped a new name over the old sign. They didn’t even get Clippy’s help like the people across the street did.

“It looks like you’re attempting a hasty and generic rebranding campaign.” (C)A2R.S

Speaking of Nickels Arcade, they are currently celebrating their hundredth anniversary. The current merchants are hosting little exhibits of signage and collateral from tenants of yore. And the front door of each store tells you who was there before. Gonna stop typing because my thumbs are sore.

Closeup of Apples & Oranges’ door. (C)A2R.S

One last disappointing update. A few weeks ago I spoke at Nerd Nite Ann Arbor about starting this blog and some other previous projects in this vein, and I shared a few photos I had taken of Circle Cube, a golden sculpture that used to stand in one of the public areas of Briarwood Mall, but which I hadn’t seen since its renovation was completed a few years ago.

It hurts me to see you like this buddy. (C)A2R.S

Next morning, I got a hot tip from a current mall employee that CC was still on premises, still in the shipping crate it’d been packaged for sale in years before. I headed over at lunchtime and there it was:

A few days later I got word that CC had been destroyed and disposed of.

Nothing gold can stay.

Arbor Hills Crossing: Not Your Father’s Buick Dealer

(UPDATE: ANN ARBOR BUICK WAS ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE ROAD. A CADILLAC DEALER WAS ON THE SITE. I WILL CORRECT THIS AND FLESH OUT DETAILS SOON. A2R.S STANDS BY EVERYTHING ELSE. THANKS FOR READING.)

Have you been to Arbor Hills Crossing? If you haven’t been in town for a few years, you might not know what I’m talking about. Arbor Hills Crossing is an outdoor shopping center on Washtenaw and Platt, near Whole Foods Market and the county recreation center.

“Auto Firm Begins New Building Work,” Ann Arbor News, August 21, 1963. (C) The Ann Arbor News.
The Arbor Hills Crossing site is a composite of several sites that originally hosted Ann Arbor Buick (which eventually also sold Cadillac and Saab before its closure), a car and truck rental, an independently owned furniture store, a pet daycare, and a small shopping center that contained, at various times, a Stucchi’s ice cream, an Edward Jones investment office, and a Doughboys Bakery. (Doughboys was a beloved, long-gone locally-owned chain of bake shops.)

“Ann Arbor Buick – 3165 Washtenaw, June 1964.” (C) The Ann Arbor News.
Nearly all of the stores that moved into Arbor Hills Crossing were chains that had not otherwise been in Ann Arbor before. They include Brooks Brothers, Lululemon, Anthropologie, The North Face, Sur La Table, Madewell, and Evereve (a maternity store originally known as “Hot Mama”). Arhaus Furniture had been in Ann Arbor for a few years, at Arborland down the road, but left Arborland to move to AHC. Arhaus’ building at Arborland was eventually relabeled “Arbor House Furniture,” but the space has never been occupied since.

(Click through above to see the space in Google Street View. Go back to 2011 and before to see the old buildings I mentioned at the beginning of the article — except the Buick dealer, which was gone by the time Google began cruising Washtenaw.)

The locally-owned stores include longtime staple Running Fit, My Urban Toddler (baby clothing, supplies, and a playspace), and the restaurants. They include Bigalora (a hot-fast pizza place as is the current rage but with an exceptional tap and drink selection); Zola Bistro (from the owners of downtown breakfast spot Cafe Zola); and Mighty Good Coffee.

The Mighty Good Coffee shop was originally a Glassbox, a high-end coffee and juice shop. It, and its sister location at Washtenaw and South University, both closed suddenly a year or two ago when their backer pulled out. Mighty Good quickly acquired the locations and expanded. As far as I know, this is the closest thing to a failure this shopping center has experienced.

That’s pretty much everything I know about this place. I drove through the parking lot once without stopping. Honestly, I haven’t been able to afford any of these stores since I had kids. Feel free to tell me what I’m missing below.

-lrich’s and other dropped details

“-lrich’s.” Sorry for the aesthetic, shot through a bus window because I had a place to go. (C) A2R.S
The U has disappeared from the Ulrich’s sign on their building facing west. Seems suspicious. As I understand it, the Ulrich family owns this side of the block and a new Ulrich’s store will anchor the new building – perhaps they are saving a piece of the old sign to display in the new building, which is always a fun piece of trivia to link the old and the new. When the 14-screen Showcase Cinemas opened at Carpenter and Ellsworth, their lobby proudly displayed the sign from the drive-in they replaced; similarly, the marquee from the old Campus Theatre on South U was mounted on the wall in the South University Galleria when first opened. And every time a Carl’s Junior goes fully-automated, they stuff and mount one of its former workers in the dining room.

Party City has moved within Oak Valley Center, alert reader/fellow local blogger Anna Mae reports. It’s moved from the south end to the north side, near Chuck E. Cheese. PC is one of Oak Valley’s original opening tenants, I’m pretty sure, originally known as “1/2 Off Card Shop.” If you’re somehow not from Michigan and reading this, it is what you would call a “party store,” a paper-products shop specializing in supplies for group celebrations. (For some reason, in Michigan and maybe nowhere else, a “party store” is a convenience store that sells booze.)

Famous Footwear was also in Oak Valley for a long time, but recently closed. Its sister location continues to operate in Arborland.

Oak Valley has been not-quite-full for a while. I feel like it started when the independently-owned Crossroads Christian bookstore closed, and accelerated when MC Sports moved from Oak Valley to Briarwood Mall. Chuck E. Cheese is a reliable traffic bringer for kids of a certain age, Target expanded its store with something sort of like a grocery, and there are a lot of new apartments and condos nearby, so I wouldn’t worry too hard.

MC Sports went out of business just before I spun this site up and I don’t have a lot to say, except that I have many fond memories of the movie theater that was there for forty years before MC Sports moved in. (It was a standard 70s mall movie theater — cinder block walls, nearly flat floors, movie theater popcorn – but I still miss it.) I bought a few things at MC Sports, they were fine for a sporting goods store, and I guess they sold guns, if you’re into that.

(click through to play with the Street View time machine and see the Alamo when it was a Rave Cinema)

I’ve heard Alamo Drafthouse nominated as a possible new tenant for the vacated MC Sports, which would bring movies back to Briarwood in a format mostly untested in this area. Alamo’s downtown Kalamazoo location, their first in Michigan, seemed to be thriving until they were booted last winter from Portage Street by their new landlord. (Commenters on Alamo’s now-shut-down Facebook page swore the space would reopen quickly with a different exhibitor, but it’s been a couple of months.) Alamo typically seeks locations further away from other theaters, and the Emagine Saline is only about ten minutes away and a step into their niche, with a full bar and food delivered to your seat — though without the tables, the eclectic programming, and the heavily enforced child and phone rules that make Alamo a favorite in their markets.

Dairy Queen Signage “Upgrade”

Call it “Larrytown,” “LoBuPa,” “Satan’s Hollow,” whatever you like, the people of these neighborhoods love their soft serve and its associated mix-ins. Despite no indoor dining area, the Packard Road DQ opens at the end of February and stays open until usually at least Thanksgiving, maybe later if the UM-OSU game is at home that year.

(Above, the Packard DQ with original signage as Googlemapp’d in 2016.)

It opened February 28 with the same sign, but sometime in the past few weeks, the logo-cone came down and they crammed both the mid-2000s “DQ swooshes” and a “Dairy Queen” bar sign into that white section on the front of the building:

Dairy Queen store on Packard with current signage. (C)A2R.S

As roadside photo blogger Debra Jane Seltzer notes:

In the last couple of years, Dairy Queen corporate has been very actively going after their franchisees to replace their vintage signs with the ugly new swoosh DQ logo. They are also demanding building replacements as well. With all the costs to be paid by the franchisee. There have been many threats and a number of losses.

I know logos take a lot of time and thought, and each little element means a thing (for example, the blue swoosh means frozen novelties and the orange swoosh means grill items like hot dogs and burgers), but c’mon, son. You made the franchisee pay for two signs for that little store and just crammed them on the front. They’re not even centered. (The DQ stand in downtown Dexter, of similar proportions, has a similar signage job on the front.)

New Circle K on the way at Stadium and Packard – Plans Approved


Above, the Circle K, at Packard and Stadium, as it appeared in 2007. (If you click through to Google Maps, you can play with the dates and see 2011, 2014, and 2016 versions too.)

The City Council approved the redevelopment of the Circle K fuel station and convenience store at Stadium and Packard. The original building was constructed in the mid-1950s. Once a full-service gas station, it was a Hop-In by the time I moved to town (remember the “Big Bunny” fountain drinks? no? uh, me either).

Hop-In stores were once ubiquitous around Ann Arbor. There were Hop-In stores in fuel stations on Stadium near Westgate, Packard and Stadium (subject of this article), South University and Forest (the corner that was most recently Burger Fi — that corner is probably getting a post of its own sometime soon), and — without gasoline — North Maple Road, in the little shopping center just north of Miller (it’s independently owned and called “Maple In-N-Out” now).

The chain sold to Clark Retail in the 90s, at which point they were all converted to Clark’s “On The Go” brand. Not too long after, Clark sold its convenience store business to 7-Eleven, but not the Ann Arbor area stores. Those went to the Québécois convenience giant Couche-Tard. CT initially converted them to their Mac’s brand, before realizing that we were closer to San Dimas than Montreal, and branding them as Circle K.

(“Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” 1989)

CT owns and franchises convenience stores all over the world, and the grand plan is to make them all Circle Ks in the end, so on like five continents you’ll run into one eventually.

If you’ve been to other Circle Ks in the area (Prospect and Clark in Ypsi, Carpenter and Michigan Ave in Pittsfield Twp) you might have noticed they are considerably more up-to-date. It took a long time to get this one going because of the community – specifically the folks who live on Iroquois, directly south of the station. There is a lot of grass between the old building and the back of the lot, which makes it a little more bearable to live behind. Early plans for a new building moved it closer to the Iroquois street houses. A lot of people need to use a gas station, but nobody wants to live, like, ten feet from a gas station. It took a lot of back-and-forth but according to the report, “a majority of the neighbors” are okay with this. Circle K is Building A Wall and planting a net gain of 32 trees, including some to help dampen the sound and light leaking into their yards.

Anyway, other Circle K stores in the area have nice little faux-brick accents, walk-in beer coolers, and “Froster” (slushie) machines, so expect to see those in the new store. It will still have eight pump handles, but they’ll be covered by a canopy in the new station. I’m pretty sure this gas station actually performed auto repair services back in the day and was converted to a convenience store, so I would expect the newer, “70% larger” building to be thinner and not as square because it won’t be designed to contain two repair bays. It also will have fourteen parking spots, which… I’ve never seen fourteen people in that store, but okay. Maybe football Saturdays.

Here’s an illustrated PDF from the council site that goes into significant detail.

Bye bye, Babo

I have been encouraged by multiple readers to comment on the sudden closure of three Babo locations. Babo was a market/cafe from Sava, of popular restaurants Sava’s and Aventura, that eventually expanded to premium convenience stores in Nickels Arcade, Boardwalk Drive, and Depot Town — areas that could use take-and-go, ready to eat meals and high-end snacks.
I don’t know why they closed, but I’m always happy to guess. I’m sure the rent for the spaces was not trivial, and it was probably difficult to compete with other nearby convenience stores, most of them global chains like 7-Eleven and Circle K, on price. I really like baked kale chips, but they’re still too expensive for me to buy frequently as a filling midday snack.

Manpower may have been a factor too – it’s tough to find reliable and affordable employees when students leave for the summer — actually, it’s increasingly difficult during the school year, as greater numbers of U-M students from wealthy families arrive in town with enough money not to have to work. Eastern Michigan students are more eager to work, but downtown parking fees can make a significant hit on  your daily wages. 

Perhaps the #GoBlueGuarantee will bring more resident students who need part time jobs.

Downtown thoughts and opinions

I spent some time downtown this week, thanks in part to NerdNiteA2, so here’s what’s doin’ down that way.

Work is progressing on whatever they’re building in the middle of the Main Street block between Liberty and William. The eye doctor owns it, because of course he does, and it’s gonna be wonderful of course. I predict a Hard Rock Cafe. (I’m just kidding! I think! Maybe the M Den will move back in.)

Be Hair Now (the third best Oasis-named hair salon in town, besides “Don’t Look Back In Bangs” and “Whatev-hair”) has sadly disappeared from Ashley and Miller. The space is becoming a cycling studio. My daughter was in the car and cannily asked how they were gonna do cycling in a building so small. I agreed and told her to “imagine a bike, like, on a treadmill.”

It’s summer and the Beer Grotto has expanded its seating to the boulevard, that is to say, the area between the sidewalk and the curb. Not a moment too soon.

Finally, we went and got Blimpyburger, as a victory lap after my NerdNiteA2 talk. It was like ten after nine, and we walked right up to the counter and they still gave me crap for not immediately grabbing a tray, and made my brother apologize for not saying cheese when he was supposed to say cheese or something.

Look, I get the rules during lunch rush, when you are most efficient if you can keep a consistent routine, but giving people a hard time at 9pm when nobody’s here? Do you want to ensure nobody will continue to be here? I feel like they’re high on their own reputation. The weirdest part is that the whole “order right or we’ll roast you” routine is a relatively new conceit. I don’t remember it like this when I was a kid, or a student. It was when they got nationwide famous when this Ed Debevic’s routine started. Ed’s is just a website now, guys. Still love your fried broccoli, just maybe dial it down.

(If they ever read this, I’m sure I’ll get booed out of there ever after, and THEN where will I get my fried broccoli?)

Business is flat, businesses flat: A2R.S investigates M | city

(This is a photo-heavy post. Readers on dialup or 2G, please bear with us, it’s worth it!)

This past week, the University of Michigan held an open house at M | city, their connected-vehicle testing grounds adjacent to North Campus and UMTRI (the U-M Transportation Research Institute).
Representatives of the Chamber of M | commerce led walking tours of the grounds showing the various terrains of this microcosm, including highways, train tracks, and Kerrytown-style brick roads.


There was also a tent featuring exhibits from member companies that pay for access to the grounds. It’s a 24×7 operation, since manufacturers and equipment developers need to test their vehicles in all conditions and at all times.


Unfortunately, there were no vehicles on the roads during our visit. Understandable, since crowds of pedestrians are a risky test environment, but some of my fellow visitors were disappointed that they didn’t get to actually ride in an autonomous vehicle.


If you’re reading this here, though, I know what you really want to know about. The retail space.


Although street signage identifies it as State Street and Liberty, longtime townies (and probably some of the short-time townies) will instantly recognize downtown M | city as a bizarro version of Washington Street between Fourth and Fifth.


A fractured timeline where The Arena not only paid its taxes, but it bookends the block with Arbor Brewing Company.


Between them, Amadeus offers finer dining and Literati is the sole purveyor of culture. Dare one assume its coffee bar is open? Because I don’t see any other coffee places in this town.


Upstairs, Ingenex is the final survivor of the digital wars. Also, apparently there is a school across from these two bars.

Around the corner, Zingerman’s occupies a single unit with two windows and a door. Presumably its popular mail order business is cranking along in the nondescript storefronts across the street, behind a lonely but functional iron bench. (I sat on it, it worked.)

I think the thing that delighted me the most was catching a glimpse of this neighboring building’s roof across M | city’s pretend I-75:


You can almost imagine the K I N G E N G I N E E R I N G C O R P letters on it.

TV Warehouse is looking permanent on Packard

Several readers have noted that TV Warehouse has spruced up their space on Packard Road. The fresh coat of paint went up over Memorial Day weekend and has alleviated the “they’re a front for something” vibe I heard from a couple of area residents.


TVW originally opened a few years ago on South Industrial, right next door to the Ann Arbor PTO Thrift Shop, in a large building of many small storefronts and office spaces. You could be forgiven for thinking they were the TV department of the PTO shop. Their sets aren’t donated, though, they buy returned sets in bulk from big box retailers, test them, and sell the good ones. 

The original location sold only sets and HDMI cables (cables were cheaper than big box stores, but still not as cheap as, like, Monoprice). They did not have complementary items like game consoles or bluray players, though I’ve heard their sister stores do. This new location apparently also offers open-box appliances.

Out television is a 40″ Samsung I bought six years ago. We were hooked on “LOST” from the very beginning, and I pledged we would watch the ending in high definition. (I thought the ending was fine, but let’s debate this over a beer somewhere if you disagree.) I sweated the details and comparison shopped for weeks, and finally picked up our set from Sears at Briarwood Mall, for about $800 after tax (which was a pretty good deal for a name-brand set in 2011).

Our set still works almost perfectly – I correctly decided that set top boxes would supplant “apps” shipped in the TV’s firmware and that they weren’t worth the money. I’m still trying to stave off the notorious Samsung logic board problem by occasionally taking it apart and reseating connectors, but at some point this won’t be fixable, and at least I know a much larger and clearer screen will be a fraction of the price when I finally give up on this one.

This space used to be an auto parts store, part of Carquest, one of those association chains where the local stores have their own identity. I think this store had a machine shop and could fulfill other special orders. Carquest was acquired by a conventional chain of auto parts stores who already had a location around the corner on Carpenter Road, so this store was declared redundant and closed.

It’s getting difficult to find locally owned aftermarket parts. I think S-G on Liberty might be the last one. Not like I buy car parts all that much (maybe I’m part of the problem).