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Landmarks keep rotting as city codes gather dust

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DETROIT'S BUILDINGS: Landmarks keep rotting as city codes gather dust

Thousands of violations; zero heard in court

February 16, 2004



Ed Granchi was on his way to work downtown last fall when a piece of facade tumbled off the Wurlitzer Building and crashed onto the sidewalk 20 feet away.

"Right in front of my eyes," said Granchi, who manages the Brewery on Broadway.

City inspectors have documented dangerous conditions at the Wurlitzer for at least four years and have threatened to tear it down. But the 14-story building just keeps rotting, a hulking symbol of blight.

In preparation for the 2006 Super Bowl, city officials say they're finally going to get tough on owners of ramshackle downtown properties such as the Wurlitzer. But code enforcement hasn't always been such a high priority.

The Free Press has found that for four years, until last summer, the city didn't even have a law in place for maintenance standards on commercial buildings.

A court tossed out Detroit's property maintenance code on a technicality in 1999. The city replaced the code last July. During the four-year void, the city stopped inspecting downtown buildings for violations such as shredded awnings, broken windows and graffiti.

Only the most dangerous properties -- forlorn buildings with crumbling facades and doors open to trespassers -- would catch an inspector's attention, city records show. But enforcement was rare.

Since November, the city has tried to turn aroundits lax history of code enforcement. But the Buildings and Safety Engineering Department has run into a hitch at 36th District Court.

Inspectors have written more than 5,500 citations in three months. But not one ticket has been heard in court, said Amru Meah, director of Buildings and Safety Engineering.

"The courts are not supporting my tickets," he said. "I'm issuing violations but they can go nowhere. There's no hammer."

Court officials say they learned about the tickets in late December, before they had an opportunity to reprogram their computer system to process the citations. Now the court says it will begin dealing with the backlog.

Marylin Atkins, chief judge of 36th District Court, said the court wants to work with the city.

"We are in the middle of downtown and we want the entire city cleaned up as well," Atkins said. "We're going to get it done."

Detroit itself owns some of the most dilapidated buildings, aproblem that city officials concede makes it hard to lead by example. Occasionally, the city has threatened owners with demolition -- but in most cases never followed through on the warnings. "It's pretty obvious it's been ineffective," said Michael Taylor, who oversees property maintenance enforcement for the city's Buildings and Safety Engineering Department.

History of deterioration

Despite more than $1 billion in splashy recent developments -- including Ford Field, Comerica Park and Compuware Corp.'s new headquarters -- decay still pervades downtown streets.

The reasons for the relentless blight are many and complex -- the rush to the suburbs and a precipitous population drop, a collapsing tax base and the difficult economics of redevelopment.

Against that backdrop, property owners have let buildings languishfor years.

"Unlike any other big city in the United States, Detroit turned its back on what was at one time its source of great pride," said Camilo Jose Vergara, a sociologist, author and photographer who has documented decay in Detroit and other cities. "And then it just let time and gravity take its course."

When the Michigan Court of Appeals declaredDetroit's property maintenance code to be invalidin1999, the decision was based on the fact that the city had adopted the code without publishing it in its entirety. After the ruling, inspections of commercial buildings for maintenance violations virtually skidded to a halt.

Inspectors got renewed authority to cite maintenance lapses when the Detroit City Council adopted the new ordinance last summer, and began issuing tickets in November.

Even before the law was revoked, there was little code enforcement downtown, say current and former city officials.

"This department did not clearly recognize the importance of property maintenance," Meah said.

Smaller properties took precedence

The city also failed -- downtown -- to vigorously enforce its dangerous buildings ordinance, which allows it to tear down properties that are vacant and open to the elements or trespassers.

It came down to a question of money and priorities.

For years, city leaders have focused their energy on ridding neighborhoods of thousands of abandoned buildings, as Detroiters demanded that Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his predecessor, Dennis Archer, do something about blight and drug houses, especially around schools.

Furthermore, there has never been enough money in the city to demolish every hulk. The city's demolition budget for the current budget year is $8.9 million -- barely enough to cover the costs of tearing down a couple of tall buildings downtown.

City officials acknowledge that property owners knew the city's threats to demolish a downtown building were idle because Detroit lacked the resources to go after violators.

Property owners also avoided the threat of demolition by tacking for sale signs on buildings, because the city historically has not torn down properties listed for sale or lease with a licensed broker. Dozens of dingy buildings downtown bear for sale signs.

A for sale sign, with a phone number, hangs from the front of the United Artists Building on Bagley,owned by Olympia Development, an Ilitch Holdings company.

Callers who dialed the number reach Ilitch Holdings and were told the building is "no longer for sale or lease."

Al Sebastian, spokesman for Ilitch Holdings, later said that the person who answered the phone was mistaken and that the building is for sale. "We are a business and we will entertain bona fide offers on that structure."

Chuck Mady, chief executive of Exclusive Realty in Detroit, has listings on 50 empty buildings downtown. Few, he said, are realistically priced,as owners wait in hopes of a continuing rebound that will drive up values.

The buildings, Mady said, are "owned by old money, waiting for Disney World to move to Detroit."

Dreams of renewal

Property owners have another way of avoiding demolition -- they promise that redevelopment is imminent. Invariably, the city backs down, according to dangerous building files on several properties.

Consider the Michigan Central Depot, a 17-story eyesore just west of downtown.

Building inspectors have recommended it be demolished since at least 1994. But the threats stopped after the owner, Control Terminals Inc., a subsidiary ofthe Detroit International Bridge Co., said in 2001 the depot would be restored.

The bridge company owns the Ambassador Bridge and is part of CenTra Inc., businessman Manuel Maroun's trucking and transportation company based in Warren.

Initially, CenTra said the depot would be redeveloped for an international trade and customs center. But the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, stalled the plansbecause they could have involved moving federal agents into the building. CenTra is now working with the Detroit Police Department to convert the building into a new police headquarters.

In the meantime, the depot sits surrounded by a fence and razor wire. Every window is gone or broken. On Feb. 4, city building inspectors cited the property for defective exterior walls and being open to the elements, among other findings.

Mickey Blashfield, CenTra's director of government relations, said CenTra pays the depot's property taxes and goes to great lengths to keep out thrill seekers and scavengers. CenTra has hauled tons of debris out of the building and has marketed the depot to potential tenants. But until CenTra has a tenant and a deal to develop the property, Blashfield said, the companywill not spend significant amounts of moneyon it.

Blashfield said the company isnot acting asa speculator.

"I did not come in to buy low and sell high," he said. "I'm not looking to make a buck and move on. Does that make me a bad person, that I didn't throw good money after bad to make it aesthetically pleasing? I'm waiting for the economics to justify it."

Flying building parts

Paul Curtis, a Detroit lawyer who owns the Wurlitzer Building, kept promising to redevelop the property, even as inspectors warned that it was a danger.

Building inspectors began documenting dangerous conditions there in October 2000.

Months later, Curtis told the Buildings and Safety Engineering Department that he would restore the Wurlitzer.

Last year, building inspectors returned to the Wurlitzer and ticketed it for violations such as tiles falling off the facade and a defective fire escape.

Again, Curtis told agency officials that he would renovate the building.

In a letter to the agency, Curtis described his plans as such:

"These conceptualizations are being included in order to let it be known that this owner has not just sat back and watched the property but has been active in seeking a total rehabilitation of the property."

City records show Curtis paid $211,021 for the Wurlitzer in 1995, and a real estate broker says he wants $2 million. He owes $46,835 in delinquent taxes for 2002.

Curtis did not return repeated phone calls to his office. Reached at his home, he accused the Free Press of invading his privacy and hung up.

Today, the building is on the city's list of properties to be torn down. Curtis has been ticketed, and a hearing will be scheduled when 36th District Court begins processing code enforcement tickets.

Meanwhile, the building's neighbors wonder what will shake loose next.

Jerome Kladzyk, kitchen manager at Small Plates-Detroit,said delivery people keep an eye on the Wurlitzer's dangling piece of fire escape as they come and gofrom the alley. He said it would be "devastating if something did fall off and hit somebody. That's just asking for it."

The United Artists building

The Ilitch family also has avoided demolition at one of its downtown properties, the United Artists building on Bagley.

Inspectors documented problems there in the years before and since an Ilitch company bought it in 1997. Theinspectors found it open to trespass in 1998. Two years later, they found a wrecked marquee, a defective fire escape and a wide-open door-- all violations. They also warned that brick was about to come tumbling down and asked the Public Works Department to barricade the sidewalk and remove the loose brick.

City Council eventually ordered the building demolished in 2001, but an Ilitch lawyer asked for a reprieve and said it would be refurbished.

On Feb. 4, city inspectors found the building had a defective canopy and defective window sashes, graffiti, and no current report on the condition of the building's exterior walls on file with the Buildings and Safety Engineering Department. Owners of buildings five stories or higher must have the properties' exterior walls inspected once every five years, at their own expense. As of May 2003, the building was back on the demolition list.

Sebastian, the spokesman, said in a prepared statement: "Our history in the City of Detroit is one of restoration, as is evidenced by the Fox Theatre and the Hughes & Hatcher Building, as well as others.However, it is not possible to save every building in the city because it's not economically feasible for every structure."

Sebastian said Ilitch Holdings monitors its buildings regularly to ensure public safety.

Other Ilitch family holdings include the Detroit Tigers, the Detroit Red Wings and Little Caesars Pizza. Ilitch Holdings, which oversees the family's business interests, had revenues of more than $800 million in 2002, according to the Ilitch Holdings Web site.

City guilty, too

The city itself owns several blighted buildings downtown, among them the Statler hotel and the Metropolitan and Lafayette buildings.

City officials said they try to market their properties for development -- but have found no takers for the Lafayette or the Statler. The Metropolitan will be converted into lofts, city officials say.

"We really don't have the money to bring everything up to code," said Kathleen Royal, executive manager of the Detroit Planning and Development Department's real estate division. "We do the best we can with the resources we have."

Royal noted that the city acquired dilapidated properties through tax foreclosure, while private owners bought theirs.

"They have taken on the responsibility," Royal said. "It is their property and it benefits them to maintain their property. They keep us from being able to sell our property when they do not keep up their properties. All parties need to do the best they can."

Contact JENNIFER DIXON at 313-223-4410 or [email protected]

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