'We believed in downtown and want to be part of its comeback,' said 1214 Griswold resident Debra Miller, left. (David Coates / The Detroit News)
Detroit — The $100 million-plus renovations for a proposed arts district in downtown’s Capitol Park are underway and so is the displacement of the low-income tenants, many elderly or handicapped, who reside in two buildings.
Their relocation has become fodder in the ongoing debate that the gentrification of downtown and nearby areas is excluding too many current residents and businesses.
Dan Gilbert, founder and chairman of Quicken Loans Inc. and one of the largest private owners of downtown property, acknowledged the growing concerns.
“That is a tough, difficult question. It has to be dealt with in humanitarian way,” Gilbert said in a Wednesday interview.
A group of seniors in 127 units in a notable early 20th-century building must leave in five weeks. Some have chosen to fight relocation.
In another Capitol Park building, 20 residents, mainly young struggling artists, have 30 days to leave their lofts because the city found the facility too dangerous for occupancy.
They are among the dwindling number of downtown residents who pay cheap rent. Now, in some cases, rents have jumped by $3,000 more per year for the same unit, as the area becomes more desirable. Residents in both buildings say they can not afford those prices and will have to leave downtown.
“We are ready to keep fighting,” said W.H. Griffin, one of the senior residents at odds with the new owners of 1214 Griswold. The senior citizens must leave March 31.
“Most people have lived here for years; we believed in downtown and want to be part of its comeback,” said Debra Miller, a six-year resident of the building.
On Tuesday, the city issued an order to halt construction at 1214 Griswold after residents complained to city officials about the dust and other debris. Some have enlisted a lawyer to negotiate with the new owner about stopping work until they leave. Some are still looking for a way to stay.
A spokeswoman for the new owners said in an email that “there is currently a delay with the building permit for 1214 Griswold. The owners are already working with the city to resolve the issue and expect only a minor delay in the construction schedule.”
Last year, the 1214 Griswold building was purchased by a limited liability corporation that lists Richard Broder as its managing partner. Broder is chief executive officer of Birmingham-based Broder & Sachse, a commercial and residential real estate firm. The 127-unit, 12-story building is designed by Albert Kahn, the architect most associated with Detroit when it was growing and prosperous.
Capitol Park, site of Michigan’s first state capitol building, is a major front in the block-by-block battle to revitalize downtown. Renovations are starting in various buildings surrounding the triangular park, bounded by Shelby, Griswold and State streets. Three buildings are part of an $85 million redevelopment plan that’s getting taxpayer subsidies. At least three other buildings have been bought and the new owners vow major upgrades.
“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,” according to “A Placemaking Vision for Downtown Detroit,” the big plan unveiled last April by Gilbert and other business leaders.
Proponents of gentrification say the city, plagued by empty buildings and shrinking population, needs to attract new residents and major investments. But there appears to be a rising criticism that the improving parts of Detroit are not benefiting all residents. Those complaints can be heard in public debates about the $650 million plan to renovate Cass Corridor into 45-block entertainment district anchored by a new home ice for the Detroit Red Wings.
“There is definitely the perception that the shiny, improving parts of Detroit are not intended for longtime residents,’’ said the Rev. Darryl Gaddy, pastor of Victory Fellowship on the city’s east side.
Residents of the 1214 Griswold building rely on federal aid to pay their rent, which can be as low as $130. Many use walkers and electric mobility scooters. In March 2013, residents received a one-year notice that their Section 8 voucher, a federal rental assistance aid, will expire March 31, 2014.
The new owners have assisted the residents. They signed an agreement with the nonprofit Neighborhood Service Organization to help them find new places to live, and pay some relocation costs and possible security deposits.
Yet several residents said delays in getting Section 8 vouchers and other red tape has meant almost half of the residents are still in the Griswold building.
One is Cynthia Cooper, 61. She has found another Detroit apartment but has yet to work out all the details to move. Earlier this month, Cooper broke her ankle after slipping on the icy sidewalk in front of the former United Way building next to her building. Last year, the state approved a $6 million loan for the former United Way building.
Across the park from the seniors the 20 mostly young residents of 1215 Griswold were given 30 days to vacate their lofts. They have to leave by March 1. Most are paying $500 a month in rent for 2,300-square-foot spaces in a building with no working elevator and some boarded-up windows. Even a studio apartment in most downtown buildings is more than $500 a month.
Last year, an associate of Gilbert, James Ketai, purchased the building. Earlier this year, the city found numerous violations that made it too dangerous for occupancy and ordered it be vacated immediately. The residents are being given $2,000 for the move and if necessary, a discounted rate at the Greektown Hotel for up to 30 days at the end of the month.
Some are still rankled by the relocation. “I find it ironic Capitol Park is being touted as the place that must be fixed up so Detroit can attract the creative class,” said Margaret Cassetto, a resident at 1215 Griswold. “This place operates on raw creativity.”
Gilbert said the residents’ safety must not be risked. “Imagine the passionate reaction people would have towards us if we let them stay and someone was injured,” he said.