An empty five-story building looms over Clark Park in Southwest Detroit. Boards cover the insides of the first-floor windows. Trash and weeds are scattered on the front lawn.
Not long ago, the 88,000-square-foot structure — originally a YMCA — bustled with activity. Students from Western International High School, which sits across from the former YMCA, played basketball and swam there. Adults used the facility’s weight room and enrolled their kids in swimming classes.
“I learned to swim there when I was 4,” says Chris Silva, who grew up in Southwest Detroit and now resides next door to the vacant building at 1601 Clark St. Silva’s four children followed his footsteps, learning to swim at the Y before it pulled out of the neighborhood about 18 months ago.
But since the Y fled, the building has languished. Some say it is quickly deteriorating.
Last summer, Silva saw vagrants in the building.
“The doors were wide-open, and people were sleeping in there,” he says. “To see such a beautiful place basically being neglected, it’s really hard.”
Many fault the Y for leaving. But the community is also frustrated with the current owner, Clark Street Enterprises.
In 2001, Clark Street Enterprises bought the building from the Y for $400,000, according to Bob Goodfellow, a company consultant. Clark Enterprises planned to renovate part of the facility into lofts, says Goodfellow. But he says that project was not feasible because of the building’s unique structure. The old Y has 170 dorm-like rooms, community bathrooms, a gym, a track, a pool and low ceilings in some areas to accommodate handball courts.
Dennis Kefallinos, who co-owns Clark Street Enterprises and several loft developments in Detroit, admits that his company has done nothing with the structure, which was vandalized twice in the past few months.
“We don’t have a concrete plan for the building,” he says.
But he and Goodfellow would like to lease the space to a neighborhood group that could open it to the public.
“If someone has a plan, I would have no problem bringing it up to standard,” says Kefallinos.
This idea sits well with some residents.
“We want it used for the community,” says Amy Israel, a Southwest Detroiter who’s been talking to residents about what they would like to see done with the former Y.
But the community has grown distrustful of Kefallinos because of his apparent neglect of the building.
Goodfellow insists that the owners have tried to secure the building.
Rumors abound about the building’s property tax status. According to Detroit City Treasurer Clarence Williams, Clark Enterprises paid its 2003 property taxes, which amounted to about $18,000, in August. However, the 2001 and 2002 taxes were not paid because the property was tax-exempt, according to the city assessment division. When the Y owned the building it did not have to pay property taxes because of its nonprofit status. However, when the property was sold to Clark Street Enterprises in 2001, the nonprofit status no longer applied to the private development company.
Goodfellow says the city is well aware that a private developer owns the building. He also says that the company is being assessed for past taxes, which will be paid.
“We are committed to the neighborhood and the area and to developing the property,” adds Kefallinos.
Finding a tenant
Unable to afford maintenance costs, the Metro Detroit YMCA sold the 1927 Albert Kahn-designed building to Kefallinos’ company. The community was generally supportive of the sale, says Deb Sumner, real estate manager of the Southwest Detroit Business Association, a nonprofit development group.
“Before he [Kefallinos] bought the building, a group of us met with him and [he said] he was going to create a loft living development and was open to the community working with him to utilize the recreation facilities,” says Sumner.
The community was eager to see Kefallinos buy the building because residents didn’t want it sold to another suitor, the Detroit Rescue Mission.
Residents feared that the Rescue Mission, which provides temporary shelter and other social services to the needy, would drag down an area that is struggling to come back from years of decay.
The sale to Clark Enterprises nixed plans for a new neighborhood YMCA, according to YMCA of Metro Detroit communications director Joanna Slatterlee. She says that had the Detroit Rescue Mission purchased the building, the YMCA would have continued its programs there, paying the mission $1 a year to lease the space. Revenue generated from the programming would have been used to build a new YMCA facility blocks away, she says.
“That didn’t happen. We honored the community’s wishes and sold it to a private developer,” says Slatterlee.
According to Kefallinos, the YMCA had agreed to lease the building for three years from his company. But about 18 months ago, the Y left.
“They had internal problems. It wasn’t profitable for them,” he says.
“The occupancy arrangement wasn’t as beneficial with Kefallinos as it was with the Detroit Rescue Mission,” says Reid Thebault, YMCA of Metro Detroit president and CEO. The Y had to pay $180,000 a year to lease the building and for repairs, he says. After the Rescue Mission controversy, many members left the Y. Thebault says they struggled for 18 months to rebuild membership.
“We were not successful and bled red ink and decided to vacate,” he says.
But there is a chance that the Y will eventually return to the neighborhood — at a different location.
“That is our long-term goal,” says Thebault.
Currently, there is only one Y in Detroit. A second one is scheduled to open downtown in 2005.
“We can’t stop with downtown,” Thebault says.
As for the vacant Y building in Southwest Detroit, Clark Street Enterprises still is looking for a nonprofit group to lease the space and open the facility to the public, says Goodfellow.
“We had a couple inquiries,” he says, but nothing came of them.
Time is of the essence, says Norman LoPatin, who owns LoPatin Development Co. in Bloomfield Hills. LoPatin walked through the building last month at the request of Silva.
“I think it is a magnificent structure … in great shape and built to last forever,” says LoPatin.
But vandals have broken some windows and stolen copper piping, he says.
“It is getting to a stage where it is deteriorating rapidly,” LoPatin says.Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. She can be reached at 313-202-8015 or [email protected]