Mike Zelinski is watching the sun set on the business he has run for the last 24 years. “I feel like I’m getting screwed,” he said. Zelinski, 54, and his brother Steve own Z’s Place, a popular tavern and eatery on the corner of Woodward and West Warren avenues in Detroit, one of five businesses being forced to close to make way for an $18.5 million Welcome Center being built by Wayne State University.
“It’s the 100 percent corner,” explained Jim Sears, the assistant vice president of facilities, planning and management for WSU who is overseeing the project. “We wanted to be right there out front announcing our presence to Detroit.” Wayne State officials also considered land it already owned on the corner of Warren and Cass as a location for the building, but settled on Woodward and Warren because of greater visibility, said Sears.
The four-story structure, to be completed August 2002, will corral various student services, such as financial aid, advising and admissions, into a one-stop experience for current and prospective students. The center will also be home to a 30,000- to 35,000-square-foot Barnes & Noble campus bookstore.
It is only one of a handful of projects on the drawing boards for an expanding WSU. A 705-space parking structure is currently being constructed at the corner of Warren and Cass that will set aside 3,500 square feet of retail space. Beginning Aug. 1, a 360-bed dormitory will rise on the Williams Mall that will feature a cafeteria and 1,200 square feet of retail. And as early as spring of 2002, construction will begin on a second dormitory of roughly the same size on the site of the Helen Newberry Joy building, which the Welcome Center will render obsolete.
But as he surveyed a bustling, late-afternoon dining room in a white undershirt and soiled white kitchen apron, Zelinski leaned on the bar and outlined his frustration. “For 20 years, we’ve paid taxes and fees of every kind you can imagine,” he said. “Wayne State does not pay any taxes, does not pay any fees.”
“How would you feel? You’re upset,” said Lee Gaddies, who has owned Alphabase: a Cybercafe above Z’s for four years. Gaddies, who has plans to franchise his business in Atlanta, Des Moines, Iowa, and San Jose, Calif., said, “It’s like Microsoft not having their world headquarters.”
Nevertheless, Wayne State received court approval to invoke its powers of eminent domain, which allows government entities the right to seize private property for public use. The five businesses signed an agreement acknowledging Wayne State as the new owner of the property on June 1, and so the Welcome Center ball rolls on.
As such, the corner has become a focal point of controversy in a community still lacking in many services.
“Stupid is an extraordinarily mild word to describe a place that has virtually nothing to offer students in the way of extracurricular activities,” said William Madden, a former WSU chemistry professor and one-time Z’s regular who had just received the news the business is closing. “This university seems blind to the fact that they have an absence of (service) infrastructure around them.”
“They need restaurants,” said Katherine Bass, an employee of the Detroit Public Schools Board of Education who was having lunch at Z’s on a recent afternoon. “The area will be functional only for the students. There are too many other businesses in the area for (WSU) to only be concerned with their own.”
Even the news of the retail spaces being provided by the new parking structure drew cynical comment. Reacting to the university’s initial proposals for the spaces, which included a Laundromat, drug store, and WSU T-shirt store, a guest editorial written by J. Hartman in Wayne State’s student-run newspaper read, “I live in this neighborhood. After five years of driving to the ‘burbs for necessities, I think I have a pretty good idea about what we could use in this dilapidated neighborhood.”
Nabelah Ghareeb, the assistant vice president of business relations for Wayne State who is in charge of determining the retail makeup, was unavailable for comment.
A commuter campus
Most Wayne State students come to class from the suburbs or from other parts of the city. They park, they go to class, then they get in their cars and go home. The numbers tell the story. During the winter semester of 2001, the latest figures available, only 1,424 of the 28,161 undergraduate and graduate students that attended Wayne State — a mere 5 percent — lived in campus housing. (An additional 286 people who lived in university housing included faculty and staff, spouses and family members.)
The lack of students living on campus is one of the main problems with attracting retailers to the area, according to Kurt Metzger, research director at the Center for Urban Studies at Wayne State. “You’ve got a campus, but you don’t have concentrated residential, so it’s very hard to attract businesses,” he said. “Businesses need a 24-hour neighborhood population.”
Consequently, because of this lack of retail representation, he said, “I don’t think there’s the draw to make (students) want to live here.”
But Charles Brown, vice president for Student Development and Campus Life at WSU, points out the university is taking active steps to improve life on campus and keep students on campus. He gave as an example the fitness center, completed last September, which he said is used by up to 8,000 students per week. “We are trying to build a vibrant community,” he said.
Brown came to campus 11 months ago from the University of Alabama, and admitted that unlike other campuses, where people congregate or eat on a central strip, “we don’t have that kind of ambience around campus.”
What Wayne State does have is a few clusters of retail businesses — mostly diners and fast-food restaurants, bookstores, copy shops, taverns, and dollar stores — in the campus area. It also has the Student Center Building, which contains amenities such as a coffee bar, an ATM machine, and a public microwave.
Brown justified the need for the new dorms by pointing out a survey administered last fall to more than 5,000 freshman students. The study found that 35 percent of the students said they would live on campus if provided housing. Another 35 percent said they were uncertain, while 25 percent said no.
According to Director of University Housing Denise Torres, more than 400 applicants for housing were turned away in fall 2000 alone, as housing was at capacity. Pursuing a “build it and they will come” philosophy, the university’s goal, according to Sears, is to increase the residential population of the campus area by 5,000 students in the next 10-plus years.
Additional students living in and around campus will mean more business for area retailers — a niche that has already seen some growth in recent years. For example, Avalon International Breads opened a bakery and café in the Cass Corridor, and in University Plaza, on Warren west of the Lodge, area residents have use of a Spartan Foods grocery store that is within walking distance.
There is also the potential offered by the university’s planned Research and Technology Park to consider, a high-tech business and research corridor that will connect the northern reaches of campus to the New Center. The park is expected to generate up to 60 new businesses and 1,800 jobs, as well as a windfall of housing and eventual retail development, in what project leaders envision as a coffee shop and loft apartment-studded community called New Amsterdam. But it is also a long way from reality. Bill Nowling, the information officer for Wayne State in charge of the park, said that in addition to the technology companies, “you’re going to have other businesses that want to come in and take advantage of what’s there. There’s potential for the whole gamut.” He listed restaurants and parts suppliers as examples, but added, “we don’t have a specific plan. We think (retail development) will come along naturally.”
As a trend, it is retailers that follow residents to an area, explained Ernie Zachary of Zachary and Associates, a group of urban planners and development consultants headquartered in the Garfield Building on Woodward, above a Rite Aid pharmacy. “Retail will continue to be incidental, supportive of residential,” he said.
He explained that the Wayne State area, particularly the Cass Corridor, began its revitalization process when a handful of individual developers began to appreciate the area’s economic makeup. With the Medical Center, WSU, downtown, the Cultural Center, and the New Center, he said, “here was the highest concentration of employment, probably in the metro area.” As a result, housing renovation and demand near campus have created some of the highest property values in the city, although students still lack quality housing and service options. Zachary thinks WSU, which he said for years turned inward from the decaying city surrounding it, may finally be catching up with the curve with the location of the new Welcome Center. “I think opening up to Woodward is a good idea.”
Metzger added, “dorms or some kind of student housing would be helpful. You can’t expect (students) to buy big houses in Woodbridge.” He said that in the 11 years he has been at WSU, he has noticed only the addition of a few restaurants. This follows a trend, not particular to Detroit, in which higher-end businesses, such as nightclubs and expensive restaurants, move into blighted areas before services do, and have the effect of attracting well-heeled customers that don’t live in the area.
Of the events unfolding on the corner, Metzger lamented that the university hasn’t shown much interest in pursuing an urban mission. “They need to be more involved, out there, showing more interest in the city, and I don’t think they do that.”
The 11th hour
Meanwhile, back at the corner, five business owners had the choice to either relocate or close up shop for good by July 15. The university, as part of the eminent domain clause, is offering $1.6 million to be split among them. The amount an individual business gets is dependent on appraisal figures as well as the owner’s plans for their business, said Louis Lessem, vice president and general counsel for Wayne State, who added “there are some other agreements I’m not prepared to discuss.”
“I would imagine it will end up in court sometime next year and will be determined by a jury,” said Zelinski of the buyout figures. He has been offered $18,725 for fixtures and equipment, according to court documents, and will receive additional funds upon closing. But he is wary. “My guess is that my estimate of what I am worth and Wayne State’s estimate of what I am worth will not be equal,” he said.
William Townley, a partner in the Alphabase cybercafe, told Metro Times the business is discussing with university officials the possibility of opening up shop in the new Welcome Center, but if that doesn’t happen there are plans to relocate to another location near campus. In either case, it will be opening a new business on Gratiot near 15 Mile.
Zelinski, on the other hand, has no plans to relocate Z’s Place. “If I go a mile from here, I’m not relocating, I’m starting over,” said Zelinski, who will focus his energies on Z’s Villa, the restaurant he owns in the New Center area. “Everybody who comes in here is already here. They walk.” He estimates that his lunch crowd, comprised mainly of students and of employees from the nearby Detroit Public Schools headquarters, Cultural Center, and Medical Center, pays 90 percent of his bills.
“It’s sad to see Z’s Place go,” mused Steve Zelinski, who has three kids.
“It’s a melting pot, like a Cheers. I know of no other place around here that’s like that. This city needs that more than anything.”Sven Gustafson is a journalism major at Wayne State University. Send comments to [email protected]