Kristen Vails swears she had no conspiracy to lure Steve Mason into investing in the 16th Street Plaza District when her organization awarded the Automobile Alley developer with the 2010 Urban Pioneer Award.
The Plaza District Association was still struggling to establish the district as a home for the creative class and was still lacking for restaurants. Mason, meanwhile, had revitalized the 1000 block of Broadway and a blighted stretch just east of Broadway into a mix of offices, restaurants and shops.
“That started our relationship,” Vails said. “He learned more about our district, got interested and started coming to our events.”
Mason joined with Aimee Ahpeatone in tackling two of the most challenged properties on the strip — a used mattress store and a run-down laundry. Those buildings are now home to DNA Galleries, Pie Junkie and Empire Slice House. Earlier this month, Mason added the district’s largest shopping center — 27,000 square feet along the north side of NW 16 — for $2.2 million from its longtime owner Charlie Shadid.
The shopping center just east of Indiana Avenue includes notable tenants Bad Granny’s Bazaar, Dig It and Urban Wine Works. The transaction also included a sports bar at 1708 N Indiana Ave.
“It’s been a very active four years,” Mason said. “In that time, we’ve seen restaurants open, including The Mule, Pie Junkie, Urban Wine Works and Empire Slice House. We’ve seen those places and others like DNA and the Guatemalan restaurant (Antojitos Guatemaltecos) all improve the district.”
Mason’s immediate plans are to start long-delayed repairs and an overhaul of the shopping center’s heating and air conditioning systems. Rachel Cope, who owns Empire Slice House at the former coin-operated laundry, predicts existing shopping center tenants will be pleasantly surprised with how Mason develops and manages the property.
“I sought him out,” Cope said. “I had been looking for a space to do a project in for a while, and I couldn’t find a place that fit the character we wanted,” Cope said.
“I heard that in the Plaza District they had a website up called Popularize that they were doing a contest with for this space.”
Cope was largely unfamiliar with the Plaza District. But she fell in love with the former laundry space and pitched a business plan to Mason.
The pitch initially was rejected in favor of another concept. But when it fell through, Cope and her partners took another shot at pitching their idea of a neighborhood pizza-by-the-slice restaurant to Mason.
Empire Slice House opened a year later at 1734 NW 16.
“It’s amazing that you’ll see families to college kids to older couples who travel 15 to 20 minutes away, or people bringing in people from out of town to our place,” Cope said. “We see a lot of regulars, people from around the neighborhood.”
Mason said he acquired the shopping center without partners because it’s an investment that requires what he calls “patient money.”
He wants to keep retailers like Dig It and Bad Granny’s Bazaar but their current leases come with rents that pose challenges for anyone hoping to profitably operate and maintain the shopping center. His immediate goals, beyond improvements, are to work with the retailers to help them improve their sales.
“Dig It and Bad Granny’s are important to the district in the same way a Pottery Barn would be important to the suburbs,” Mason said. “It’s important to value those existing businesses and find ways to help them increase their sales, and I think there’s a way to give them a 20 percent boost.”
Mason predicts such retailers will enjoy a long, successful future at the Plaza Shopping Center, while other space may be vacated by tenants that are no longer a good fit in the district.
Mason is not looking for more restaurant tenants, noting Oak & Ore, a craft beer restaurant, and Roxxy’s Ice Cream Social are set to open later this year across the street in a building being redeveloped by David Wanzer.
“If you look at retail centers in the suburbs, there are things that are missing here,” Mason said. “And that’s what I’m looking at.”
Change is coming to the Plaza Shopping Center. Cope advises the tenants to be ready to celebrate what’s ahead.
“I’m excited to see what happens,” Cope said. “Without Steve and Aimee (Ahpeatone), we wouldn’t have been able to do what we have. These tenants don’t know how good it can be, because it’s been the same way for them for so long. But they will be very happy.”