Plans still aloft

Mum’s the word … apparently, that is the mantra of the forces currently involved in the much-ballyhooed yet at-times snakebitten Merchant’s Row project in downtown Detroit. The blockbuster development seeks to fuse six adjacent and abandoned buildings on the west side of Woodward, across the street from the old Hudson’s building, into a $35 million, 168-unit loft development and automated 264-space, European-style high-tech parking garage. The project would have an estimated 28,000-plus square feet of first-floor retail space.

According to Brian Holdwick of the Downtown Development Authority, which is loaning $4 million to the project, the developers are hoping to break ground this spring, and things should be completed within 18 months of the groundbreaking.

The genius of the project is that no buildings of architectural significance will be destroyed. This is the type of historic reuse that has long been absent from the Detroit vision, which has traditionally adhered to a credo that the past must be plowed under in order for the future to occur — as seen across the street, where Compuware headquarters has replaced the Hudson’s building. Advocates of the Hudson’s demolition repeatedly cite Compuware as support for their cause; but for the Hudson’s demo, they argue, Compuware would never have gone up.

That may very well be true, although, at least from a purely spatial perspective, Hudson’s actually sat next to the Compuware site, and the two buildings could conceivably have co-existed. Moreover, that the site of the former Hudson’s building is now an unsightly, expensive and inactive parking structure (slated to open in April of last year ... still closed) gives one pause. Nevertheless, the Farbman Company’s “lofts on woodward” which opened just up the street last year got the ball rolling, and the Merchant’s Row project has picked it up and run with it, despite considerable obstacles.

The first such obstacle, according to certain insiders within city development agencies, was a “cloud” on the title to the former Woolworth’s building, a key component of the project.

By virtue of a complicated statutory procedure that is beyond the scope of this column, the property was put up for tax sale due to unpaid real property taxes. Following the expiration of a redemption period and appropriate notice to the holders of interest, the state would obtain clear title, which would then be transferred to the Merchant’s Row developers.

According to court records, on or around Sept. 11, 2001, just prior to the expiration of the tax redemption period, an entity that purported to own the property showed up and paid the property taxes in full, thereby obtaining title and throwing a wrench into the state’s and the developer’s plans. The company that cleared the title, however, was not the former owner of the building, but rather an entity affiliated with Peter Adamo, a curious figure who has been described as a real estate speculator from Clarkston. Adamo was also implicated in one of Detroit’s more notorious illegal-dumping cases, along with Philip Stramaglia, Stramaglia family members, and several interrelated corporations. They were fined a record $36 million in 2002 in a case pursued by then-Attorney General Jennifer Granholm for illegal dumping of construction waste on several sites in Wayne, Macomb and Barry counties, the largest being an industrial building on Harper Avenue which was allegedly controlled by Adamo.

A request for comment through Adamo’s attorney generated no response. Others involved refused to comment on the title dispute. Just as this column was going to print, however, I received a call from Steve Ogden at the Sterling Group.

Although he refused to comment on the title litigation, he expressed optimism the issue would soon be resolved to allow for a groundbreaking this spring.

Unfortunately, another dispute surfaced involving the plan’s proposed demolition of a 20-foot-wide building in the middle of this historic district; that would jeopardize the historic tax credits necessary to make the project financially feasible. A subsequent modified design by which the replacement structure is to be set back from Woodward has resolved this hurdle, and, according to Holdwick of the DDA, “won’t hurt the project.”

Despite my best efforts to show this project in a positive light — while highlighting some of the obstacles to a project of this magnitude — other than the limited comments of Holdwick and Ogden, most of those in positions to comment responded to queries with a deafening silence.

Cindy Ciura of Schostak Brothers / Kern-Woodward Associates promised to get back to me but quickly went silent. The Sterling Group, including Gary Torgow and Joanne Thomas, also refused to comment, with the latter going so far as to say they did “not want to be affiliated with an article like this” (whatever that means). Others, including former Michigan Economic Development Corp. CEO and newly installed GM Worldwide Real Estate majordomo Doug Rothwell, who was involved from the state end of things, also refused through an intermediary to comment, deeming it “inappropriate” since he is no longer at the MEDC. Others intimately involved chose to remain mum and punted to the above-cited individuals. One interested observer who will comment, however, is David Farbman of the Lofts on Woodward project, who is eager to see Merchant’s Row break ground.

Farbman considers the Merchant’s Row project a “huge development for the lower Woodward area, as it takes an up-and-coming mixed-use area with limited residential lofts, and transforms it into an established very cool and hip downtown residential loft and entertainment district.”

Farbman adds he is “hopeful that the Kern Woodward Group breaks ground soon, as further establishment of this district is crucial to the overall success of not only their Campus Martius development across the street, but downtown Detroit as a whole.” Campus Martius promises a high-density mix of residential, retails and office facilities as the linchpin of a new downtown.

Farbman’s attitude reflects an interesting concept: Even though they are competing for tenants, during such an embryonic stage in the development of downtown as a residential district, all of these projects ultimately benefit from the success of others. Many will argue that people won’t move downtown until they have a convenient drug store, video store, dry cleaners and grocery store. Others will argue that the retail won’t be a trailblazer until there is an established core of residents. The true dilemma in downtown Detroit is of the chicken-and-egg variety, and you need all of the developers to buy into it, to take a leap of faith, on the premise of “if you build it, they will come.” Once that occurs, the theory goes, retail is sure to follow. Let’s hope that’s the case.

Casey Coston follows development for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]
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