Vacant storefronts have been prevalent in downtown Ypsilanti for years, but two blocks of Washington Street are slowly but steadily undergoing a total transformation.
Ypsilanti Downtown Development Authority director Joe Meyers describes the process as a waiting game. He believes many of the vacant storefronts have had to wait for the right business and business owner.
When Dave Curtis closed down the former Pub 13 and Savoy/Club Divine in 2010, about 40,000 square feet opened up on North Washington Street and created a significant void in the middle of downtown Ypsi. One of the two buildings eventually became the home of Bona Sera, while the other building recently acquired new tenants in Beal Properties and two forthcoming businesses.
"It’s been a challenging 10 years for this block, but this block is definitely more than on the upswing," Meyers says. "It’s firing on all cylinders at this point."
He points out eight businesses that have opened on North and South Washington Street in downtown Ypsi within the past two years, and another seven businesses expected to open on the same two blocks within six months to a year. Some of the spaces need substantial renovation work since they had fallen into disrepair or had sat vacant for years.
Paint and Pour plans to do a soft opening at 5 S. Washington St. on Oct. 21 and a grand opening on Oct. 27 to coincide with ypsiGLOW. The paint party business, where patrons can sip a drink while their instructor guides them through the painting process, has three other locations around southeast Michigan. Paint and Pour decided to move from its studio in Ann Arbor to its new studio in Ypsi.
"As a vibrant and growing city, we feel that Ypsi has a lot to offer, and we are excited about becoming part of the downtown family buzz," says Paint and Pour owner Michael Patino.
Andrew and Marcela Epstein hope to open their Mexican restaurant, Dolores, at 6 S. Washington St. sometime next month. Andrew Epstein grew up in Ann Arbor and Marcela Epstein grew up in central Mexico. They met in Los Angeles, where they bonded over their love of authentic Mexican food, and eventually moved to southeast Michigan. They ended up buying their building in downtown Ypsi because it was inexpensive, freestanding, architecturally appealing, and located in the heart of Ypsi's creative downtown district.
The building, which formerly housed the Elbow Room, needed so much renovation work that the inside infrastructure was completely gutted and remodeled. The couple plans to promote the restaurant as a "scratch" Mexican kitchen with a wide variety of tacos, homemade salsas, and Latin-inspired cocktails.
"I have an obsession with tacos, and also mezcal and tequila, which we’re going to feature," Andrew Epstein says. "But on the other side of it is trying to be an entrepreneur, trying to do something that’s good for Ypsi, that’s good for us [as a family], that’s good for everybody."
The Epsteins want to do interesting things with the space other than just serving food and drinks. They would like to host concerts as often as they can, as well as other entertainment, like an independent film festival.
They're starting the process of hiring staff, including a kitchen manager and an assistant front-of-house manager. They plan to begin renovating the three-bedroom and two-bedroom apartment units above the restaurant during the winter.
A block away, another family hopes to open a hybrid club, bar, and restaurant called 17 North at 17 N. Washington St., where part of Club Divine was located, by the end of the year. Since the space has been vacant for almost 10 years, it needs some renovation work, but it can't begin until the health department inspects the space. The business likely will do a soft opening in December, followed by more of a hard opening after it obtains a liquor license.
One of the owners, Melinda Ann O'Neill, says 17 North will focus on the business' club aspect, with frequent entertainment like concerts and comedy shows. Her son, Bradley Angle, will manage the club and bar, while her twin sister, Miranda Reams, will manage the restaurant. O'Neill and her husband, Jim, will help oversee the entire business.
O'Neill says her family "is ingrained in the area" because she and her twin sister were born and raised in Ypsi and many of their relatives, including Reams, still live there. Since the family has such strong ties to Ypsi, she says it was an easy decision to invest in the city, especially in the downtown district. She looks forward to having multiple venues to drive increased foot traffic in downtown.
"I absolutely love the thought of being kind of on the foundational level of that growth in downtown Ypsilanti," O'Neill says.
An escape room business called Decode Detroit, which invites participants to play an immersive strategy game in which they outwit an artificial intelligence, has plans to open at 16 N. Washington St. sometime next year. The business currently has a location at 4072 Packard St. in Ann Arbor, which was intended to get a sense of people's interest in escape rooms. One of the business' owners, Patton Doyle, says it's been so successful that he and his business partners decided to buy a building where they could open a more permanent location. The opening of the new Ypsi location will be dependent on the structural work that needs to be done on the inside of the building, as well as the renovation work that will transform the first floor into a fantasy world.
"Ypsilanti feels like a perfect mix of all the things we’re looking for," Doyle says. "One of our core missions is to use puzzle adventure games to introduce people to unique areas of southeast Michigan, or unique shops in southeast Michigan, so being part of the downtown Ypsilanti scene was a great advantage to us."
Doyle believes he and his business partners got fairly lucky with the condition of the building, considering it had sat vacant for about 10 years. The second floor of the building will eventually become a single-unit multi-bedroom residence after the structural issues are addressed.
Renovation work is expected to begin in the coming weeks at three other new Washington Street businesses. Back Office Studio will offer co-working space for business professionals at 13 N. Washington St. when it opens its doors. A business called Plush Party Palace Girls Spa plans to host customized parties with spa services for young girls at 14 N. Washington St. And Michigan Advocacy Program is currently in discussions to purchase and renovate 15 S. Washington St., which has sat vacant for almost 30 years.
Potential effect on downtown
Meyers expects the new businesses to add to the diverse offering of existing businesses in downtown Ypsi. Within the past two years, those two blocks of North and South Washington Street have also gained Go! Ice Cream, Razor King Barbershop, Hinton Real Estate Group, Home Sweet Home Care, GoWork, Ypsilanti Oil Company, and Beal Properties.
"It’s going to be an eclectic block where you can get ice cream, and then go paint and have some wine with your friends, and then go to an escape room, and then head off to one of the many bars," Meyers says.
Brian Brickley, who has owned Tap Room at the corner of Washington and Michigan Avenue since 1994, says he's excited to see new businesses proliferating in his corner of downtown Ypsi. He views new businesses not as competition, but as additions that will bolster the downtown district overall.
"I would just like to see viable businesses that bring something interesting to town and obviously bring people to town," Brickley says. "I don’t have any real preference other than that, that it’s something that’s interesting and viable and where improvements are brought to the property."
Brickley says he'd like to see the return of the "synergy" that once existed on Washington Street. He remembers a time when people could come to downtown Ypsi and spend a whole night going from bar to bar or restaurant to restaurant.
"We always do better when more businesses — even if they’re also bars and restaurants — are open in the area," Brickley says. "The goal should be and probably always has been to make downtown a destination."
Brianna Kelly is the project manager for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.
All photos by Doug Coombe. Washington Street map courtesy of Joe Meyers.