A strip mall's friends

Jul 31, 2002 at 12:00 am

There’s hope yet for residents enraged that their dilapidated shopping center is soon to be demolished, even though it’s not even abandoned. It may not be history, because it may be history.

City Council on Monday adopted three resolutions to stall demolition of the Lafayette Park Shopping Center while committees investigate the possibility of designating it a historic landmark. The shopping center is not the work of famed German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who designed nearby townhouses and apartment buildings. But van der Rohe intended for a shopping center and the nearby school to create an integral urban development, a cutting-edge concept when it was envisioned 40 years ago. “When you look at the underlying urban history,” says Bill Worden, director of the city’s Historic Designation Advisory Board, “you’re looking at a whole, not pieces of a whole. It’s extremely important on a national level.”

The development was once the subject of a documentary.

Former city parks planner Harriet Saperstein says the center is a vital element of the city’s most racially and economically integrated area. City Council also stated in a resolution that it would fight any attempt to rezone the property from commercial to residential, following rumors that the center’s owner, The Habitat Company of Chicago, may want residential units on the site.

Meanwhile, council members are scratching their heads after learning last week that the Section 8 housing complex across the street from the center was boarded up by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and its residents were relocated. Turns out that on July 16, the city bought Rochdale Courts apartments, 44 efficiency units for low-income seniors, from HUD for $10. City Planning Director Henry Hagood signed the check. Councilwomen Sheila Cockrel and Maryann Mahaffey say the sale was illegal because City Council did not approve the purchase. Hagood apologized to council last week, saying he did not realize he was breaking protocol, despite the fact that he was a department director under former Mayor Coleman Young. Cockrel says HUD plans to spend $390,000 to take down Rochdale Courts. A secretary at HUD’s local office informed News Hits that the entire staff was out of the office and could not be reached on Friday, but according to a HUD official in Washington, D.C., who asked not to be named, the federal agency foreclosed on the property when its owner, Cygnet Management, defaulted on the mortgage.

Cockrel wants answers before any demolition takes place. “How could the city purchase it without council’s approval? Why, when there is a waiting list for affordable housing and senior housing, why would you tear it down? Why is HUD evicting low-income people?” Cockrel and others are suspicious about the moves to expedite demolitions on either side of Lafayette, near Orleans. “They are claiming there’s no plans for the property. Bull,” says Cockrel.

A couple hundred protesters gathered at the shopping center last week to hear politicians and community leaders denounce evictions of the businesses located there and to discuss ways of saving the mall. Carol Weisfeld, vice president of the Riverfront East Alliance, said she’s spoken by phone to Dan Levin, CEO of The Habitat Company and cousin to Michigan legislators Sander and Carl Levin. In 1991, Dan Levin was named a director of the Washington, D.C., lobbying group National Multi Housing Council. “I said, ‘Mr. Levin, you have no idea of the power this community has when people get angry.’”

“We want to make Dan Levin’s life so miserable that he can’t wait to sell this shopping center,” she said.

Mahaffey says she knows that new businesses have tried to rent space in the half-full center and have been turned down. Cockrel says the whole deal reads “like a Fellini movie … Don’t tell me somebody doesn’t have an agenda. The question is to peel back the layers and see if we can find it and effect it.”

Lisa M. Collins is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail [email protected]