Like many streets in downtown Ann Arbor, South University Avenue has lost its retail.

The area was prosperous in the 1980s, but declined in the late ‘90s, shifting from a retail focus to the bar and restaurant scene it is today. The street is the heart of undergraduate life — or at least it has the potential to be.

The area is still growing and changing — this year seeing more than four new establishments open and two new apartment buildings have opened over the past several years.

Today, it plays host to a mix of bars, locally owned establishments, housing, franchises, reduced retail venues and restaurants.

Over the past several decades, businesses such as Good Time Charley’s bar and restaurant, the Middle Earth gift shop, and Pinball Pete’s arcade — all established in the late ‘70s to early ‘80s — have seen plenty of establishments come and go, while changing themselves to meet the demands of each generation.

Charley’s is one of the places that has changed the most over its tenure on South University. A gas station occupied the location until 1979, and at certain points of the building’s history it was a pizza parlor, a bar and an arcade.

“During the ‘80s it was one of the most popular places on campus, and so they expanded in the ‘90s next door where Underground Printing is right now, so that was also Good Time Charley’s,” Adam Lowenstein, the current owner of Charley’s, said.

The pizza parlor later eliminated, the kitchen was moved back and the arcade was removed, with the original owners choosing to concentrate on the bar and restaurant aspects of the operation.

Lowenstein and his business partner Justin Herrick, who acquired Charley’s in April 2007, have expanded on that focus. He said their goal for Charley’s is to maintain food sales while expanding bar revenue.

“Having a bar/restaurant here we always felt was a prime location, especially on the corner of South University Avenue and Church Street.” Lowenstein said. “It’s really where we feel the heart of student life is.”

Middle Earth owner Cynthia Shevel said she hasn’t seen her business model change much during her time on South University Avenue, but has observed a lot of change on the street since her store moved in there during the mid-1970s.

“There was a far more diverse retail environment at that point — there was a very high-end houseware store called the Artisan Shop, there were several women’s clothing stores, there were at least two or three shoe stores, not so many restaurants, there was a movie theater across the street,” Shevel said. “And by the late ‘80s, almost all of that was gone. ”

Shevel added that, for Middle Earth, which early on moved between several different areas of downtown, South University Avenue has worked out well.

“We cater largely to students and University people; we get a lot of foot traffic,” she said. “It depends on what you sell, but for what we sell, it is a good location.”

For Pinball Pete’s, founded in 1983, the story is a little different. It started off with three different locations around Ann Arbor, but by 1996 was consolidated under one roof on South University Avenue.

The property — originally an old Victorian house — had to be almost entirely remodeled.

“One of the obstacles I remember is that it had five chimneys in it that we had to remove,” said Ted Arnold, one of two co-owners. “So that was quite a process.”

A decade later, in 2006, Pinball Pete’s moved across the street to its current location.

“We’d never done anything quite like this,” said co-owner Mike Reynolds. “We’d done a basement before, but this was pretty big. It was a lot for two guys to try to take on. And obviously the rest is kind of history. We’re still here.”

Arnold added that for Pinball Pete’s, the area has been beneficial mostly because of the large amount of foot traffic.

“We’ve kind of got to be right in the heart of it, because we’re not something that people search out anymore.” Arnold said. “We like to consider ourselves one of the landmarks on the street — us, the Brown Jug. We’ve seen a lot of things come and go.”

As the executive director of the South University Area Association and a former business owner, Maggie Ladd has spent more than 20 years on South University Avenue.

For her, the years have been marked by a decline in retail, an increase in an ever-shifting gamut of restaurants — the street once held a McDonald’s, a Burger King and a Taco Bell, but is now trending more toward Asian restaurants — and reforms in the zoning code.

South U goes vertical

A 2006 change to the city code aligned South University’s zoning regulations more with the rest of downtown, allowing buildings up to 150 feet tall in a bid to increase high-density commercial and residential building development.

“Nobody wanted to develop in the area because the zoning was so restrictive,” Ladd said. “As soon as that changed, we immediately saw that people were interested.”

Within months of the zoning change, the Zaragon Place apartment complex, which opened in 2009, was approved by the city. It was followed by the Landmark apartment complex, which opened in 2012.

“We’re kind of on the cusp of a change in the area, because of the new buildings that have gone up, the Zaragon building and Landmark,” Ladd said. “It’s always difficult to say which comes first, the chicken or the egg, but I think we’re on the cusp of change.”

And that’s not the end: there are plans to open an additional high-rise above Pizza House on Church Street.

Thus far, both restaurants and retail industries alike have seen new businesses join the street. Merritt, a self-described “cause-based fashion brand” opened up on South University Avenue in November.

“This is the heart of campus,” founder Dave Merritt said. “It’s a great street for building awareness as a new storefront. When you’re talking about starting from scratch, not a lot of people knowing you, it’s really important to be in front of people.”

Mike Gradillas, general manager of The Blue Leprechaun, echoed the sentiment. The bar was formerly Touchdown Cafe, and reopened in 2008 under the new name.

“South University is a great place to run a business,” he said. “I mean, you have an endless supply of kids, a pool of people.”

Gradillas, who has been working on the street on and off since 1999, added that among all the changes, there are still constants.

“A lot of things have changed, a lot of businesses have come and gone, but the general feel has been the same — the sense of community, the sense of cooperation between the people that work in the businesses, that’s stayed.”

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