With the proposed redevelopment by the Mullins Group and Core Campus of Chicago of much of the 500 block of State Street, including the University Inn property (technically with a Frances Street address) and a building at 529 State St., the campus area stands to lose several longstanding and well-loved locally owned restaurants. Kabul Afghani and Mediterranean restaurant, Hüsnüs Turkish restaurant, and Buraka East African Cuisine are at street level or basement level below the hotel. Also located at the street level are Campus Candy and an outlet of Jimmy John's sub sandwich chain. Roast Public House occupies 529 State.
Markos Regassa, owner of Buraka, says he is "feeling sad, of course." Regassa started Buraka as a Library Mall food cart 21 years ago and opened his brick-and-mortar location in the basement level at 543 State St. 13 years ago, while retaining the food cart. He's not sure where he might move the business right now, although he would "like to find an appropriate spot downtown." The bulk of his patrons come from the University community and downtown, says Regassa, and they "made [Buraka] and support it." He does hope to relocate, though, and also hopes that the Buraka cart will continue operation.
Regassa feels the proposal will likely go through: "The mayor is happy. I think it will go." He notes he has nothing against the development as such, other than the necessity of moving and/or closing will hurt his business.
While moving back into the new retail space after the new building is constructed is theoretically possible, Regassa says the estimated one-and-a-half to two years of construction is a long time for a business to remain closed. He also worries that the rent in the new building could be "too high -- that's already a problem with downtown. They're pricing us out of the market, almost."
Resmine Atis, daughter of Hüsnü's owner Hüsnü Atis, says that her father is "heartbroken -- that's his life. He's been there 34 years. The people who come in to the restaurant are like family."
Atis says a representative from Mullins came in about two weeks ago to discuss their plans, but that they had no specific timeline for possible demolition. The message was "don't rush to get out of here," she says, but the uncertainty itself is "stressful for my dad." Atis wishes there could be a way to let longtime renters of space in the block to come back after redevelopment with the option of paying the same rent as they do currently, "but I assume they'll raise the rent, and chains will come in." Hüsnü Atis has been a good tenant, she notes, and "those are hard to find."
Her father isn't ready to retire, says Atis, and is considering looking for a new space to rent or possibly a small place to buy.
Hamed Zafari, of Kabul Restaurant, says that there was talk of a project like this coming in a few years ago, but everything that would mean didn't quite hit him until now. Zafari's father opened Kabul on State Street 22 years ago. "I was 18 at the time," says Zafari, "I've been here my whole adult life."
Zafari also cites an uncertain timeline, saying that representatives from the developers mentioned that demolition could happen as far out as a year and a half from now or as soon as January.
The 500 block is the sweet spot on State Street, in Zafari's mind. "I like the 500 block. It draws faculty and students. We've done very well with university conferences in the summer. Also in the summer, families that you might not see otherwise like to walk up and down State Street. It's close to the ramp [at Frances Street], it's easy to get to. I love this spot." And like the other restaurant owners in the block, Zafari speaks warmly of the loyalty of his customers.
He has started looking for a place to move Kabul, but it's tough. If there is not an existing restaurant in the space, he says he's looking at build-out costs of $100,000-$150,000: "That's too much of a hit. It's already been a rough couple of years, and between [paying for] goods and rent and taxes, it's been a challenge. It would be better to move into an existing restaurant. I'm looking, but there are limited options."
Moreover, new spots all have their pros and cons. "You need to decide where you want to be. Downtown? Middleton? East? You have to do your homework," says Zafiri, because "you get one shot. We've been blessed with this location."
But, he says philosophically, "You never know with these things, it could open your eyes to new opportunities."
Roast Public House, which opened at 529 State St. late in 2012, is in a slightly different position from these veteran restaurants "because we're so new," says co-owner Henry Aschauer. He says that he had "no idea this was coming" before being informed of the proposed plan last week: "We're kind of in shock. We're trying to get all our ducks in a row." He adds that he would like Roast "to stay in Madison."
The building proposed at the site will be a large (200-300 unit) apartment complex intended for students, with commercial space and parking. On State Street, it's proposed that it be four stories, with the building rising 12 stories set back from the street.
The scenario might remind some campus-downtown area diners of the redevelopment of the old University Square. That one-story shopping center had developed over the years into something akin to a local restaurant incubator. After it was torn down, some of its remaining restaurants relocated, some succeeding (Paisan's, Rising Sons Deli) others not continuing long (Caspian Cafe, Baker's Too).
The new building featured a slickly designed but remotely located second-floor food court that featured outlets of chains like Sbarro and Quizno's. The food court was in operation about two and a half years before it was shuttered in May of 2011. Its space is currently empty.
A community meeting to discuss the proposed new development of the University Inn and adjacent sites will take place April 29 at 7 p.m. at the Pyle Center, Room 325, 702 Langdon St. The project will first be presented to the city's Urban Design Commission on May 8.