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Old towers hide violations and shadowy lives

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INSIDE FORGOTTEN BUILDINGS: Old towers hide a world of violations and shadowy lives

February 16, 2004



The stench of urine hangs in the frigid air inside the shadowy lobby of the David Whitney Building as Chazz, its caretaker, drags on a Newport.

He has surrounded his working quarters with plywood to keeprats away. A single light hangs over a mattress, illuminating the emptiness around him: chipping paint, a frozen puddle of rainwater, a clock with no hands.

Chazz has occasional visitors -- engineers checking the People Mover, which circles close by, or cellular antennas on the roof.

Until recently, he and the Whitney's succession of owners had no worry that property code inspectors might routinely call on the tattered, 19-story office tower, ticket books in hand.

That changed on a January afternoon when Eric Miller, a city inspector, arrived.

Miller was surveying the building when he noticed Chazz darting out of the lobby. Miller asked Chazz, who would not give his last name, to show him inside.

In the darkness and dust, Millernoticed a wan light off the lobby. It was coming from the doorway to Hilal Books, a crampedstore and perfumery fragrant with burning incense.

Miller asked the proprietor, Abdul Hamid Vaid, how he heated the shop. Space heaters, Vaid said. A code violation.

Miller also asked what Vaid does for water. The building has none. Vaid said he uses a bathroom in a nearby parking garage -- and pays $500 a month in rent.

"No one should be in there," Miller said, after leaving the shop. "It's not safe to occupy."

Before finishing his inspection, Miller logged a series of violations that were outlined in a letter dated last Monday and sent to the building owner, Becker-Whitney LLC, a subsidiary of Becker Ventures of Troy. The city ordered the space heaters to be removed and said the building must have a maintained sprinkler system. Mechanical systems, such as plumbing and electricity, also need repairs.

In addition, Becker-Whitney was ordered to clean up the building, control the rats and repair skylights and windows. The company could face fines up to $5,000 if it doesn't begin to comply this month.

Michael McInerney, president of Becker Ventures, said in an interview before the city wrote the letter, that he was unaware of any code violations.

McInerney said Becker Ventures has spent considerable amounts of money to maintain the building in the three years since buying itin hopes of developing the property. McInerney said no development is imminent.

In the meantime, Becker Ventures is providing financing of up to $1 billion to build Hard Rock hotels in Europe, North America and elsewhere, according to its partners -- the Rank Group, the London-based owner of the Hard Rock brand, and Sol Melia, a hotel chain based in Spain. Becker Ventures already co-owns a new Hard Rock Hotel in Chicago.

Tracking the culprits

As Miller continued his rounds for the day, he strode into the unheated lobby of the Capitol Park Buildingon Griswold, a couple of blocks away from Compuware Corp.

He climbed the stairs, walking past peeling paint, damaged plaster and cracked panes of glass before he encountered a tenant with a snarling pit bull.The tenant slipped out the front door with the dog, and Miller followed him downstairs.

Back in the lobby, Miller found that the building's only working elevator operates with a hand crank -- and with the help of a coat hanger. Miller isn't sure why.

George Batsikouras, who described himself as a helper to one of the building's owners, Sami Blaik, explained to Miller, "This building here, it's going to be under renovation."

Miller replied,"I'm not here to run people out. I'm here informing you of any violations you have. Let's get them corrected."

Miller ticked off the problems that he already had seen with the plaster, paint, windows and doors.

And that was before he had seen the 10th floor.

It was a wreck.

A swath of ceiling had buckled. Old appliances, a discarded toilet and water heater, a mattress and dog feces were scattered about.

His inspection complete, Miller got in the elevator to head downstairs. It lurched to a stop between floors. He noticed there was no inspection certificate, no weight tag, no emergency phone-- all violations.

A group of business partners, including Eli Ozeirey of Secaucus, N.J., bought the Capitol Park more than 15 years ago for just over $200,000. Today, it is owned by Ozeirey, his brother, Victor Ozeri of New York, and Blaik of Dearborn. It is listed with Exclusive Realty of Detroit for $5.6 million.

Ozeirey said they've received several offers of $2 million but are holding out. He said they expect to decide whether to sell or redevelop the building within 18 months.

Ozeirey said the building is cleaner than when he bought it, and the roof is redone.

But last Monday, the city informed the owners by letter that they must immediately remove anyone living there. The owners also were told to remove graffiti and paint on the exterior, repair the broken windows, fix the elevator and deal with the falling plaster, all code violations.

Ozeirey said the city should not bother him.

"As the people ran from Detroit, I hung out and suffered -- suffered and didn't make a living," he said, noting that he used to run a store called Colonial Merchandise Mart in the building. "I stayed for the entire blight time.

"I'm not a bad guy. If they want to mess with me, I'll fight them -- and I'll win."

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

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