Broadway tragedy averted 

Pressure helps save downtown Detroit theater from foreclosure

Chris Jaszczak has been on this little stretch off Broadway near Grand Circus Park forever. Like, living in the building's spacious second-floor loft since 1985. As in running his art and performance space on the ground level, 1515 Broadway, since 1987. In fact, he's lived on that block since December of 1979.

"When I came down here 31 years ago," says Jaszczak (pronounced JAZZ-ick), "I was talking about how it would become the kind of neighborhood that exists now. I felt it was inevitable, because I had traveled and seen the way things went with places like LoDo in Denver, Deep Ellum in Dallas, and I believed it was going to happen down here.

"I thought it was at the bottom — and it wasn't, it got progressively worse. It wasn't until 1987 to 1989 when it bottomed out."

The area was truly dismal, and dangerous.

"The opera house was last known as Grand Circus Theatre, and it was being demolished by neglect — abandoned, empty, decaying. The parking lot across street was an abandoned lot. The Milner Hotel was crack central. ... It was pretty bleak, particularly at night."

Operating a theater in a troubled neighborhood at a time when only the hardiest people would go downtown often involved convincing folks that it wouldn't be so bad to visit 1515. 

"People would read the reviews and call up and ask where we were, and I knew as soon as I told them there would be hesitation, trepidation, silence."

Which meant that a big part of Jaszczak's job back then was assuring people that they and their vehicles would be safe. Making sure that happened only added to his responsibilities.

But, somehow, he was able to hang on through all those lean years. The venue's longevity testifies to Jaszczak's vision of a community-supported space featuring local performers and artists. 

"I predicated this place on my belief that there's no shortage of talent in Detroit," Jaszczak says. "As long as you execute and don't overshoot, make sure you hit your audience, pay your bills after a show and do another one — that's how this place has operated. Other than the jeweler and the hatter, nobody's been here longer than me. I've always been self-supporting, and I've never gotten a grant, donation or subsidy."

It has been used as a theater, a studio, a sound stage and meeting hall, often breaking even. When it hasn't, Jaszczak paid the bills using personal income from his business arranging crews for large outdoor festivals, stadium concert shows and traveling exhibits. 

Unfortunately, that big-show income stream dried up for a time when several major shows were canceled a couple of years ago. 

A few years before that, he had mortgaged the building. But when his income dwindled, Jaszczak fell behind on the payments on his 11.25 percent interest mortgage. Though he tried to work with his creditor, Citibank, and cast about to local leaders and groups for help (fruitlessly), he was facing eviction.

"I paid all my bills and was current on everything until December 2009, when I first missed my mortgage payment," he explains. 

"As soon as it became apparent 2010 would be a troubled year, I started asking for mortgage modification. I also did something I had never done before: went to sources I felt could help me. All I needed was bridge financing. I went to the Economic Growth Corporation, the DDA, the CBDA, the Downtown Partnership. ... I couldn't get through the door — it was to no avail and it took several months.

"The circumstances just put me in a position where I needed help, some money to get caught up on my mortgage, because I knew 2011 was going to be good," Jaszczak says. "By the time the redemption period ended in June 2011, I was in a much better position, and I had no other debts, so as time has gone by, I was making increasingly better and better offers. I've offered in excess of the mortgage modification guidelines."

Jaszczak's attorney, Jerry Goldberg, says that the offers made to Citibank had been "more than reasonable," but the lender refused to entertain them. 

"Citi needs to sit down with him and let him stay in that home," Goldberg said last week.

What has made Jaszczak's situation even more galling is that his initial bet on the neighborhood has proved to be dead-on. In recent years, the area has experienced a stunning revival, with such neighbors as Small Plates, Detroit Beer Company, Michigan Opera Theatre occupying the renovated old Grand Circus Theatre, the two new stadiums, the new downtown YMCA and more springing up. 

Now, instead of being able to enjoy a rebirth he helped pioneer, Jaszczak was facing the grim prospect of being forced out.

 

Community pressure

Late last year, the plucky little space had become a hangout for members of Occupy Detroit, who were camped out in nearby Grand Circus Park. And when the occupiers had to leave the park, they began holding regular meetings at 1515.

Jaszczak, carrying on a commitment to community, never charged them for use of the space.

But as he faced eviction, the activists he hosted — along with others — organized an attempt to help keep him from losing what he spent decades building up. The campaign, "Save 1515 Broadway," was an effort to stop Citibank from proceeding with eviction, and to pressure Citi to reinstate Jaszczak's mortgage.

In their press release, organizers of the protest pointed out that Citibank, "a bank that has received tens of billions of dollars in federal taxpayer bailouts on express condition that they aid borrowers, would rather destroy a community institution than deal equitably with Chris."

A news conference was set for Wednesday and a rally for Thursday to bring attention to the situation.

Jaszczak said last week, "All I ask is that same rationale being used on me by the bank be used on them. I signed the contract with the bank, at an exorbitant interest rate, and I fell behind and was in violation of my contract — and the bank did what it could do.

"Well, the bank took billions of dollars from the federal government in 2008 and also entered into a contractual agreement to use some of that money to help people who were in exactly my position. They got the money. And the money they've used for mortgage modification in comparison to the money they got is minuscule. What criteria do they have that I don't meet?

"Unlike the majority of people in my position, I have revenue, income, work. I make money and have the ability to pay, and I have been making escrow payments for months. They got my account balance as recently as a month ago so they could see I had the ability to pay the amount I said I could in excess of guidelines."

In fact, Jaszczak even had a wealthy friend offer to pay the note and buy the building outright. Attorney Goldberg says that the offer was scuttled because of debris falling from the nearby Wurlitzer Building, which made getting fresh insurance for 1515 almost impossible.

Jaszczak asked, "Why won't [Citibank] accept our offers? The reality is that the building is worth more than I owe. The only explanation is they want to make more money, and can make more money by taking control of it and selling it. And, unfortunately for me, there's nothing in the legislation telling the bank they have to do it. Ultimately, it's the bank's decision."

The judge, who had consistently asked the parties to come to an understanding out of court, last month granted the bank's motion to take possession and evict Jaszczak. Luckily for Jaszczak, the ruling was left unsigned, giving him until early February to lobby the bank. 

And, fortunately, good news came this week, just before press time, as Citibank did a dramatic about-face as pressure mounted. On Monday, Citibank spokesperson Scott Helfman told us, "We are pleased that we were able to offer Mr. Jaszczak a loan modification to help preserve this historic building in downtown Detroit."

The news should gratify Jaszczak and his supporters, who include not just Occupy Detroit, but Moratorium Now! Coalition to Stop Foreclosures, Evictions & Utility Shutoffs, the People Before Banks Coalition, and Occupy Our Homes. 

Jaszczak said of the announcement, "That's what they told us. I haven't seen anything in writing, but I think we had an agreement in principle on Friday night. ... It appears that something will be worked out." 

Attorney Goldberg says, "I have the outline of the agreement. It's what we were hoping for. It allows this institution to stay open. In my opinion, Citibank did the right thing."

And, if the agreement is finalized by then, Thursday's planned gathering will be more of a party — celebrating what communities can do when they come together.

More by Michael Jackman

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