Streetwide demolition forces closure of 32-year-old Ann Arbor restaurant China Gate

Wednesday, June 12, 2019 - 3:01pm

China Gate located at 1201 S. University closed their doors for the very last time on Monday, May 27.

China Gate located at 1201 S. University closed their doors for the very last time on Monday, May 27. Buy this photo
Sarah Kunkel/Daily

“Thank you for giving us the opportunity to serve you for the past 32 years,” read the white and red sign placed in the window of one of Ann Arbor’s oldest Chinese restaurants, China Gate. The restaurant located at 1201 S. University closed their doors for the very last time on Monday, May 27.

The popular Asian eatery began serving classic dishes such as chicken lo mein, szechuan pork and sweet and sour chicken in 1987 under acclaimed “Chef Jan,” with most of the original serving staff remaining with the restaurant until its closing. For less than $15, students and local residents alike could enjoy a filling meal accompanied by a selection of ’80s hits playing in the background.

Many students initially became aware of China Gate’s closing after a post was made on the Facebook page “Overheard at Umich.” There are almost 500 comments and 800 reactions attributed to the post.

“Horrible news, Wolverines,” the post said. “After 32 years, China Gate will be closing permanently at the end of May.”

University of Michigan alum LeAnne Wintrode remembered spending much of her time there, citing China Gate as one of the more affordable restaurants on campus.

“I have so many memories of life events that are tied to eating there, and I feel very nostalgic for the first time in my life when I was a regular there,” Wintrode said. “I had several first dates there, because, as a poor college student, I couldn’t afford ‘fancy’ restaurants in Ann Arbor, but I could eat at China Gate and feel like a grown-up … With China Gate closing, I’m losing an eatery, but more importantly, I feel like I am losing my memories.”

According to the sign posted in the window of China Gate, the restaurant’s closing was due to a proposed redevelopment resulting in the termination of China Gate’s lease. Owner Melissa Jan told MLive she was not expecting her lease’s renewal application to be denied.

"We asked for renewal, but our landlord informed us that unfortunately based on their current redevelopment plans, that they will not be renewing our lease,” Jan said. “We were kind of surprised at first.”

The developer, Hughes Properties, is planning the demolition of the entire 1000 block of South University to put up a 13-story apartment complex of “prestigious luxury student housing”  called Vic Village South. Earlier this year, the company constructed the 12-story apartment complex Vic Village North, located along the north side of South University, featuring over 57 apartments with 261 beds for a monthly rate between $975 to $1,700.

Construction on Vic Village South will begin at the end of 2019, according to Sean Havera, vice president of construction at Hughes Properties. Vic Village South and North will be across the street from each other, meaning businesses such as South U Pizza, Underground Printing, PNC Bank and Oasis Grill, will be relocated with PNC moving to Vic Village North and Oasis Grill into China Gate’s original location.

“When you look at the area where Vic Village North is at and where Vic Village South is at, those are probably the best student housing locations anywhere in downtown,” Havera said. “So, the projects will actually complement each other.”

Havera said there are plans for retail space or small restaurants in Vic Village South, but they have yet to be finalized. The plans also include a mix of floor plans for the building, including some “affordable units” among the 132 dwelling spaces.

“14 units will be affordable units,” Havera said. “They’ll meet the requirements that are set forth by the county and the city, meaning the rent the rates will be set according to the formulas that they provide."

In 2018, almost 20 small businesses closed their doors. Popular 25-year-old bagel eatery, MD Bagel Fragel was purchased by a new owner, while cafeteria-style pizzeria Pieology closed due to “unfortunate circumstances.” Others include student favorite, Quickie Burger, and local bookstores Aunt Agatha’s Mystery Bookshop and Common Language Bookstore. Out of the twenty restaurants closing, nine were open for more than 25 years, but only two were open for two years or less.

Recent LSA graduate Hayley Petit expressed dismay over the closing of China Gate and many other local restaurants in Ann Arbor, citing these losses as a source of the city’s decline in authenticity.

“That was my favorite Chinese place,” Petit said. “I think there’s been a lot of loss of originality in Ann Arbor recently due to the increase of more expensive businesses moving into the downtown area, I’ve been in A2 for four years and I’ve seen so many smaller businesses get bought out.”

In a previous Daily article, assistant professor of urban planning, Harley Etienne mentioned the increase in the number of developments like Vic Village are a possible cause for the mass closure of small businesses, as rent prices become unreachable.

“I’d say it’s unaffordability, the cost of doing business here,” Etienne said. “The land is just too valuable. It’s really difficult to pay their property taxes and compete given their profit margins, and so it’s a real concern. But when you add, I think most of the businesses that I’m talking about were renting spaces, in spaces like along South U where they were displaced by new construction, new student housing, new condominiums. And if you’re unable to find a new affordable space in some other part of Ann Arbor, which is already very challenging, then you’re faced with the prospect of closing.” 

As mentioned in The Daily article, these displaced businesses could be helped by the city if publicly owned buildings were rented out at below market rates, but Ann Arbor is often limited from doing this. The University owns a lot of prime real estate within the city, and since the University is not required to pay property taxes, the city has less money to use for subsidizing rent for local businesses.

Similarly, LSA senior Alex Alajbegović said the closings might be related to the University’s student income level, which could create grounds for realtors raising the rent cost for students.

“I’m sure the city is capitalizing on the University taking in more money from out-of-state students and just, like, making money off of that,” Alajbegović said. “I guess we can only see how the city is impacted in the future.”

Though China Gate will not remain at their South University location, the owners posted on the restaurant’s blog they hope to find a new destination for their beloved restaurant.

“Come to say goodbye and order your favorite dish, if we have a chance to serve you again, we will update you at chinagateonline.com,” China Gate posted. “Thank you again for your support and loyalty over the years.”

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