Detroit stops Grosse Pointe Park foundation from demolishing building along historic land

‘They think they’re above the law,’ councilman says

click to enlarge The city of Detroit ordered crews to stop demolishing the former Grosse Pointe Park Department of Public Works buildings, which is partially in Detroit. - Steve Neavling
Steve Neavling
The city of Detroit ordered crews to stop demolishing the former Grosse Pointe Park Department of Public Works buildings, which is partially in Detroit.

Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration ordered a Grosse Pointe Park foundation to stop demolishing a building this week along a historic stretch of land in Detroit.

The Urban Renewal Initiative Foundation failed to get a permit to raze the former Grosse Pointe Park Department of Public Works building that is partially located in Detroit at the corner of East Jefferson Avenue and Alter Road.

Despite objections from the city of Detroit, the foundation is planning to build a $35 million performing arts center near the border of Detroit and Grosse Pointe Park.

At least one top Detroit official is opposed to the plan because it involves turning a historic plot of land into a parking lot.

Although Detroit doesn’t own the property, it’s within the city’s Jefferson-Chalmers Historic Business District. Any changes to the land must be approved by the city’s Historic District Commission (HDC).

In a scathing report in 2021, Detroit’s Historic Preservation Director Garrick Landsberg criticized the project as “historically inappropriate” and said it “destroys the historic character of the property.” He recommended that the commission reject the proposal.

Without permission from the commission, it’s illegal to modify the land.

The foundation requested approval to build the parking lot in 2021, but has since withdrawn the request.

Nevertheless, the foundation has continued to move forward with the plan to build the A. Paul and Carol C. Schaap Center for the Performing Arts and announced last week that groundbreaking is scheduled for April.

The historic plot is now bounded by a chain-link fence and blue tarp. Affixed to the fence is a rendering of the art center and gallery, with the words, “Opening: Fall 2025.”

click to enlarge A chain-link fence and blue tarp covers the historic plot of land in Detroit. - Steve Neavling
Steve Neavling
A chain-link fence and blue tarp covers the historic plot of land in Detroit.

“In addition to issuing the stop work order, at this point we are telling them they need to obtain necessary permits and approvals from BSEED (Building, Safety Engineering, and Environmental Department) and HDC before proceeding,” Duggan spokesman John Roach tells Metro Times. “The Law Department also has requested a meeting with GPP on this matter.”

Developed largely in the early 1900s, the commercial strip on Jefferson is one of the few remaining early 20th-century neighborhood commercial districts and contains architecturally significant buildings. It has been targeted for revitalization and is the site of the popular Jazz on Jefferson Festival. The district is surrounded by intact neighborhoods and includes more than 50 buildings, including two ballrooms, retail stores, banks, apartment buildings, and four churches.

Landsberg suggested the best solution for the land is a building that compliments the historic character of the area.

The Grosse Pointe Park City Council, which supports the project and sold the land to the foundation, has downplayed Detroit’s concerns and even insisted that Duggan’s administration is supportive of the project.

Responding to a Metro Times story about the project in December, Michele Hodges told other council members that they have done nothing wrong in helping the foundation clear municipal hurdles to build the center.

“Each time an analysis has shown we are compliant, and we are fulfilling expectations, and we do have the support of Mayor Duggan’s office on these matters,” Hodges insisted at a board meeting.

“It is very important for this community to be good partners to the city of Detroit and to always be operating in a legally, fiscally, and ethically responsible manner,” she added.

Roach says the mayor has never signed off on the project and doesn’t know why the council is indicating Duggan is supportive.

“The Mayor has not taken a position on this project,” Roach says.

click to enlarge A stop work sign posted at the Grosse Pointe Park Department of Public Works buildings. - Steve Neavling
Steve Neavling
A stop work sign posted at the Grosse Pointe Park Department of Public Works buildings.

The only current council member to question the handling of the project is Vikas Relan, who told Metro Times on Thursday that he is uncomfortable with how his colleagues have treated Detroit.

“There is respect you are supposed to show to each city, and we haven’t done that,” Relan says. “Since 2020, I’ve been asking questions about this, and no one wants to talk about it. They think they’re above the law.”

For decades, Grosse Pointe Park has had a complicated and contentious relationship with the city of Detroit. Until the 1960s, the suburb to the north barred Black residents from living there. Sixty years later, people of color still complain that they are disproportionately pulled over by police and treated suspiciously.

Near the border of the two cities, a developer is bulldozing affordable housing to make way for another parking lot.

In 2014, two blocks from the proposed art center, Grosse Pointe Park began blocking off Kercheval, a main road joining the two cities, by dumping mounds of snow. For the next two years, despite opposition from the city of Detroit, Grosse Pointe Park continued to raise blockades, from oversized planters to a farmer’s market.

Jay C. Juergensen, founding president of Jefferson East, a neighborhood organization that covers the historic district, says the handling of the project is representative of a troubling pattern of behavior.

“They really don’t have any idea about the message they are sending, and that is probably the most unfortunate part of this,” Juergensen said. “People don’t understand their privilege, so they take actions that are a little high-handed. My biggest frustration is that they are not willing to listen.”

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About The Author

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling is an award-winning investigative journalist who operated Motor City Muckraker, an online news site devoted to exposing abuses of power and holding public officials accountable. Neavling also hosted Muckraker Report on 910AM from September 2017 to July 2018. Before launching Motor City Muckraker,...
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