Pete Baker says numerous people have stopped by the future home of Lowertown Bar and Cafe on Ann Arbor's North Side, "just begging" for the establishment to open soon.
According to Baker, one of three partners in Lowertown Bar and Cafe, that speaks to a larger need for more walkable gathering spaces scattered throughout Ann Arbor. Baker, who also runs the design studio FinalFinal
, says the location of Lowertown Bar and Cafe's future home at 1031 Broadway St. originally drew his attention. Baker's partners in Lowertown Bar and Cafe are Hubert Raglan and Joe Bollinger, owner of Sic Transit Cycles
, which used to occupy the Lowertown Bar and Cafe site.
"There's easily 13,000 people living within a half mile, three quarters of a mile of the place," Baker points out, but to find a bar or café, residents have to either go downtown ("or at least Kerrytown") or to the University of Michigan's North Campus.
Baker suggests that Ann Arbor could use more neighborhood stores, bars, and coffee shops throughout the city, not just on the North Side.
The front of Lowertown Bar and Cafe.
"I think the city's emphasis or accidental emphasis on downtown being pretty much the only viable, walkable, commercial district in town has been really holding back the city," he says. "... It's really hard to get a business off the ground here when the only place you can do it is the 16 square blocks between campus and Main Street."
For example, Baker notes that the area between downtown Ann Arbor and Stadium Boulevard is almost exclusively residential.
"But then right in the middle you've got Jefferson Market
and everyone holds that up as just, 'Wow, that's so cool. Why don't we have more of this stuff?'" he says. "And we don't have more of that stuff because we've designed it that way."
Baker notes that many Ann Arborites pride themselves on living in a "standalone city," not a suburb or bedroom community to Detroit. But he says the city has created bedroom communities within its own borders.
Inside Lowertown Bar and Cafe.
"That creates a really different vibe," Baker says. "It makes us car-dependent, it makes us a little less neighborly, and it doesn't allow for the accidental collisions of things. We've got a beautiful city here that is trying desperately to be more walkable and more bikeable. But we put so much effort into making it bikeable. What if you didn't even need to ride as far because you were just going down the street? What if you didn't need a car in this town?"
Baker wryly admits that he and his partners "will be the first ones to say that we don't know what we're doing as far as running a bar [or] running a coffee shop." But he also views that as an asset for Lowertown Bar and Cafe, which is currently aiming for a soft opening in early December.
"We're starting off pretty slow," Baker says. "We're not expecting the world. We want this to be a sustainable thing that lasts a long time."
Once construction is complete, Baker says Lowertown Bar and Cafe will be a coffee shop during the day, "transitioning into [a] beer garden and cocktail bar in the evening and on weekends."
Lowertown Bar and Cafe co-owner Pete Baker.
"This is not a fancy bar," he adds. "This is not a many-leather-bound-books kind of place. It's a creative industrial repurposing, basically."
The building that will house Lowertown Bar and Cafe used to be a mechanic's garage. Baker describes the renovation process as "kind of a combination of maintaining some of that original character" while "trying to make it more hospitable to people existing in it."
Because the building is too small to add a kitchen, Baker is hopeful that another business owner will open food trucks nearby. He says he'll also allow patrons to order food delivery directly to the bar.
"And certainly in the summer, when the [Huron River] is bumping, we will be an active participant in stuff going on at the cascades and at the DTE project by the bridge there," he adds. "Our liquor license lets us sell things to go. So we're looking at doing kayak kits and stuff for people to take with them. ... There will be a pretty nice, festive vibe on the corner there."
Lowertown Bar and Cafe co-owners Pete Baker and Joe Bollinger.
Baker is eager to get his doors open and to start serving customers. At the same time, he's modest about his ambitions.
"If next year we're clicking and … we're serving the neighborhood, then we're good," he says.
But, he adds, he'd like Lowertown Bar and Cafe to be a place that makes "people feel like it's worth staying in this town, maybe, after what got them here."
Natalia Holtzman is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor. Her work has appeared in publications such as the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, The Millions, and others.
All photos by Doug Coombe.