Capitol Park Artists Get the Boot

Company town.

Feb 12, 2014 at 12:00 am

Last March, when Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert stood before a group of 400 business leaders and city officials and unveiled his vision to revamp downtown Detroit, his pitch hinged partially on Capitol Park.

“Capitol Park is envisioned to be the center of a new arts district, with galleries and cafes on the ground floors and residential apartments above,” the book accompanying the announcement said. “It will provide a venue for emerging artists to display or perform their work and a welcome green refuge for residents who live around the park.” The long-term goal, it said, would be making Capitol Park a “lively, flexible venue for art installations and performances within the park.”

Inside the walls of 1217 Griswold, a residential building that flanks the west side of Capitol Park, that dream was already a reality. A thriving artist community had taken up residence in the last two decades, hosting performance art, exhibitions, concerts and more while putting down roots and making the spaces uniquely their own. These were exactly the type of people Gilbert and Bedrock Real Estate Services claimed to want — they said as much in a welcome letter to residents last Halloween when Bedrock bought 1217 Griswold.

Less than three months later, the same residents received another letter from Bedrock: They had 30 days to get out, as the fire marshal said the building is unfit for residents, citing safety concerns.

While the roughly two dozen residents certainly understand those concerns, some who spoke with Metro Times don’t understand how Gilbert and Bedrock seem intent on tearing down the arts community the residents had built up.

Margaret Cassetto, 28, lives at 1217 Griswold with her boyfriend. She works for the Sphinx Organization, a nonprofit that promotes young black and Latino involvement with classical music. The building, in their humble estimation, has been a booming arts community. Residents host monthly shows for touring bands, artists hold exhibitions inside their spaces, and there’s a small skate park constructed inside one of the lofts. 

Cassetto says Capitol Park is a far cry from the “lonely” plot of land described in the placemaking book from Gilbert’s group. Along with residents of the public housing complex across the street, there’s already a community in existence.

“We’ve had, like, a pretty vibrant artist community for awhile, before we were here,” says Cassetto’s boyfriend, Carlos Garcia, a musician and artist who operates a multimedia lab at the University of Michigan during the day. 

He says Gilbert’s plan to make Capitol Park an arts district is “super ironic.” “You really can’t make that up,” he says. 

The building, a mainstay of the city’s burgeoning electronic music scene of the 1990s, was described by Model D Media in March 2010 as such:

“Ten of [1217 Griswold’s] 2,600-foot lofts were filled with 23 people in their late teens/early 20s who shared an interest in electronic music. On weekends, the building became a destination point for the electronic underground: sound systems on each floor offered techno, house and ambient chill-out soundscapes.”

The loss of the building for the local arts community is enormous, Cassetto says. 

“This space is not a simple residential area space,” she says. “For me this is a gallery, an arts studio, a music studio, a theater, an office, rehearsal space, a meeting space. So I’m not just simply looking for a bedroom with four walls, a kitchen and a bathroom. You’re asking me to pick up and relocate these multipurpose spaces, and you can’t just turn around and find those things at your disposal.”

But 1217 has problems. The Jan. 28 letter to residents says Bedrock was unable to land a permit for residential occupancy from the city after an inspection found a “number of issues that do not allow us to continue to safely have tenants occupy the building.”

According to the city’s fire marshal report from Jan. 10, provided to Metro Times by Bedrock, the building faced a myriad of issues: no fire extinguishers visible, a sprinkler system not in service, no fire escape, no maintenance records for any of the systems, and more. 

In the middle of the fire marshal’s comments, an all-caps sentence reads: “THIS BUILDING, AS IT IS, DOES NOT APPEAR TO BE SAFE FOR ITS CURRENT OCCUPANCY.” 

Bedrock told residents in the Jan. 28 letter, “Many of the issues will require major renovations which cannot be completed while the Building is occupied … Although Bedrock recently acquired the Building in its current condition, we are concerned for your safety and we cannot take a chance on your well-being given the inspection results and existing conditions at the Building.

“Given the foregoing, we find ourselves in the unfortunate position of having to terminate your month-to-month tenancy at the Building … We understand that having to move is a huge inconvenience, particularly during this time of the year, and we are committed to making your transition as smooth as possible.”

Residents were told they could receive a discounted stay at Gilbert-owned Greektown Hotel for as long as 30 days following the Feb. 28 move-out date. Bedrock also offered 1217’s residents $2,000 for relocation and moving expenses. 

It’s unclear what Bedrock intends to do with the building, but the company says it is “contemplating some retail use on the grade level along with a likely residential use for the remainder of the building. We … expect to have a more detailed and certain plan over the next 4-6 month timeframe.” 

The company invited current residents “to apply for an apartment if and when the necessary renovations are completed.” 

Garcia calls the offer a bluff. If the building is repurposed as a residential facility, it’ll likely be out of reach for the majority of 1217’s residents, he says.

“They know full well that pretty much everyone here is not going to be able to afford the rent of whatever’s going to be put here,” he says.

Cassetto says:  “The people who are most in need” of what Gilbert proposes — a walkable environment with an emphasis on the arts — “are already here and are being removed.”

Other longtime residents agree.

Gabby Buckay, a painter who has lived inside one of the building’s spacious 2,500-square-foot lofts for 16 years, says she moved here because it wasn’t like every other place in every other big city. “It was like a total weirdo place,” she says.

But once the letter arrived, not only was Buckay skeptical of Bedrock’s offer of financial assistance, she was disappointed at the prospect of an organic arts community being disbanded by its self-proclaimed proponent.

“It’s like the classic, boring gentrification story,” she says. “It’s like … you had an opportunity to do something different.”

It’s unclear whether Bedrock even knew 1217 was occupied when it purchased the property. “A Placemaking Vision for Downtown Detroit,” the Gilbert book of grand ideas says. “Today, only one building, a Section 8 housing project for seniors, is actually in use [in Capitol Park].” (Relatedly: Broder & Sachse Real Estate, a firm that has completed extensive renovation work on Gilbert’s buildings, purchased that building last year and soon after informed the low-income residents they had until the end of next month to vacate.) 

Residents of 1217 says two weeks after the purchase, Bedrock security guards were in front of the building monitoring activity, apparently surprised to see people exiting the building.

Cassetto says they asked one resident, “What are you doing here?” He said, “Uh, I live here?” The security guards said, “Oh, people live here? We thought this place was abandoned.” 

Asked about the incident, Bedrock tells Metro Times they were aware of 1217’s residents when they closed on the building, and security guards monitor all of the company’s properties.

And the placemaking book’s claim that “only one building … is actually in use” in Capitol Park? It’s a misunderstanding, Bedrock says. The statement was intended to be communicated as “only one senior house building complex [is] in use in Capitol Park.”

Cassetto says she hopes the evictions of 1217 Griswold and the senior housing project across the park spark a dialogue that’s been missing from the conversation about downtown in recent years. Gentrification, opportunity, whatever you call it, there are real issues brewing at the nexus of downtown life, work, and play, for both old residents and new.

“It is purely for the people who are not here, who seek to cash in on the opportunity,” Cassetto says about the opportunity offered by Gilbert. “And the consideration, from start to finish, has nothing to do with the people who are already here.” 

Garcia echoes that sentiment. “It’s essentially becoming a company town,” he says of downtown and Quicken. “Like, where we own the company, we own the housing, we secure the streets.”