West Cross Street business owners envision higher-profile future for their "forgotten" district

The West Cross Street business district in Ypsilanti is only about a half-mile from downtown Ypsi and Depot Town, but it sometimes feels like it's a world apart.


Located right across from Eastern Michigan University (EMU), West Cross is one of three concentrated districts offering different dining and shopping options in the city, but it hasn't established itself as a destination in the way the other two have. Some business owners on West Cross feel their district is lacking, especially in comparison to the well-defined areas of downtown and Depot Town.


"In a lot of ways, I think (West) Cross Street is forgotten," says Rois Savvides, who has owned Tower Inn Cafe, 701 W. Cross St., since 1997.


Many of the business owners who would like to see improvement on West Cross believe it would benefit from having a more distinguishable identity. They agree that EMU is a big boon, but each of them have their own ideas about how the district could be improved.


What draws businesses to West Cross?


West Cross business owners acknowledge a mixture of pros and cons to their location. Savvides and his wife, Nathalie, met when they were students at EMU and went on their first date at Tower Inn, right across from campus. A handful of years after they graduated, they wanted to buy a restaurant, and they ended up purchasing Tower Inn from its previous owners.


Since students and staff are the restaurant's target market, business and general foot traffic tends to slow down in the summer when fewer people are on campus. But the slowdown happens every year, so Savvides knows to prepare for it.


Business has been steady at the Wurst Bar, 705 W. Cross St., since it opened at the beginning of 2012. Locals comprise the bulk of the restaurant's clientele, especially at night, when most students aren't even around because so many of them commute. Operating partner Jesse Kranyak thinks the Wurst Bar would have been just as successful in downtown or Depot Town, but overall he's happy on West Cross.


West Cross' newer business owners have a more enthusiastic view of the area. Prafulla Kharkar and his wife, Shivani, opened Veg-O-Rama, 533 W. Cross St., in November. Their ultimate dream is to create a multinational franchise offering affordable vegetarian and vegan food options. Kharkar admits it might be a "tall claim," but the success of Domino's Pizza, which grew from a single location in Ypsi to an international chain, is one of the reasons Ypsi was an appealing location for the Kharkars' first restaurant.


The couple chose West Cross because they found an appropriately-sized space in an area where they could cater to almost any age group, between EMU students and staff and the families in the surrounding neighborhoods. Since most vegetarians in the U.S. are young adults, Kharkar was especially interested in providing affordable, healthy food to the "young minds at work" on campus. He thinks Veg-O-Rama's location positions it for "cross-pollination" due to the amount of commuter students who might eat while they're on campus and then spread the word in the cities where they live.


"I think this is a very unique location from that perspective, where we address the local people and also the people who are commuting to this place because of the college and other areas," Kharkar says.


Jon Eslinger, Danielle Milner, and Christina Collins of DO:BETTER searched the local real estate market for about a year before they moved into their space at 731 W. Cross St. in April. They chose to base their brand studio, which helps businesses and organizations assert their identities, in Ypsi because they thought their skills fit well within the area.


Eslinger says brand strategy is "not a big platform" in this area, compared to big cities like Chicago and New York City. DO:BETTER aims to fill in that gap by offering branding services for entrepreneurs, startups, and small businesses. Eslinger says the partners' space on West Cross fits "the most perfect version" of what they want their business to be without needing to invest in renovation work, which they likely would have had to do if they chose a location in downtown or Depot Town.


"There's a nice mix of people, both professional and folks who are still students and learning, who are very open to new ideas and new things," Milner says. "I think we see that come through our door all the time, which is really exciting."


Envisioning the future


Over the last decade or so, Savvides and Kranyak have witnessed growth on West Cross, with new businesses moving in and old facades getting fixed up. But they both believe the district's biggest challenge is parking. Savvides worries that the lack of parking deters people from patronizing his restaurant and other businesses.


Kranyak is looking forward to having a relatively modernized block whenever a new business moves into the vacant space next door to the Wurst Bar, where an EMU bookstore used to be. He hopes the new tenant establishes another unique restaurant and bar with a different style of food. He believes one or two more late-night options on West Cross will help the area become more of a "one-stop shop," where people will be inclined to stop at one business for dinner and then swing by another business afterwards for drinks or dessert.


"Energy creates energy, so that kind of draws in more people," Kranyak says. "It's a much better concept than that of competition, I think."


Savvides agrees that the business owners shouldn't see each other as competitors. He would like to revive the district's merchants association, which dissolved in the '90s, so business owners can work together to promote their district. He believes it would be beneficial to increase communication among business owners through regular meetings because they're all facing the same issues. Other business owners, like Kharkar, would like to encourage more collaboration as well.


"I feel in general that there should be more community participation from the businesses to improve the visibility of West Cross Street," Kharkar says.


Kharkar thinks First Fridays Ypsilanti (FFY), a monthly self-guided art walk, would be a good way to draw more foot traffic to West Cross. He would like to see all of the businesses in the district participate, but Veg-O-Rama is one of only a few who currently do.


Kranyak would like to see FFY take more of a foothold on West Cross too. He says he's noticed that business at the Wurst Bar is slower when there's a FFY event going on because FFY directs foot traffic to other parts of town.


"It may not impact us very much in a positive way if we were involved, but it does impact us in a negative way when we're not," Kranyak says.


In general, Milner believes all of the businesses from West Cross to downtown and Depot Town should be engaged to make sure they feel like they're a part of the same community. Even though the three districts have separate boundaries, she thinks it's important to remember that they're better together.


"I think the space between is where the opportunity is to create more consistency or more interaction between what people know as Depot Town, or what people know as downtown, and then what people have referred to as 'the forgotten area,' which is really (West) Cross Street," Milner says. "I think that's the space. It's not far. In a larger city, to walk a half a mile isn't a big thing, but sometimes we see them as very distinct opportunities, and we could all benefit by bridging that space."


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.
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