Ilitches buy big on an impoverished Cass Corridor block

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

Detroit — A big chunk of one of Cass Corridor’s last down-and-out blocks — where homeless people gather day and night around a center serving some of the city’s most vulnerable residents — has been bought for $1.4 million by entities linked to the billionaire Ilitch family.

Ilitch Holdings Inc. also has “verbal agreement” to buy the Neighborhood Service Organization’s Tumaini Center at 3430 Third and is helping the nonprofit fund a temporary “sanctuary garden” next to the center that serves the city’s chronic homeless, said Sheilah Clay, president and CEO of Detroit-based Neighborhood Services Organization, in a Thursday email to The Detroit News.

James Carey, operation manager at the Tumaini Center, stands in front of the building. The center is moving and the surrounding empty lots have been sold.

The Ilitches are also helping fund the nonprofit’s plan for a bigger facility on the east side, which would mean the closing of the Cass Corridor facility, Clay said.

For years, the 3400 block of Third Avenue near the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard has been defined by the scores who congregated around the Tumaini Center and the surrounding empty lots. The street was often strewn with trash and some of the homeless had set up tents in the lots.

Two weeks ago, construction crews began to clear the lots, including removing at least one tent, according to Tumaini Center staff. Last weekend, fences were erected around the empty lots. Some of the lots are owned by the city of Detroit and others, about half of the block on Third and Fourth, had various private owners, according to city property records.

A spokesman for the Ilitches’ Olympia Development of Michigan said they purchased the privately owned lots.

“The property is being secured in advance of potential future development and in close cooperation with the Neighborhood Services Organization,” Olympia Development spokesman Ed Saenz confirmed to The News.

The privately owned lots were bought in a series of sales dating back to 2015 to as recent as last month, public records show. The total sales price adds up to $1.4 million. One of the lots had sold for as low as $400 last year, another sold for $24,000 two years ago. The city still owns nearby lots on Third, Fourth and Peterboro.

The temporary sanctuary garden will be built on the city-owned lots south of the center, Clay said.

“This is an interim development but will provide safe outdoor space for the people we serve with direct access to the building,” Clay wrote in an email.

Clay didn’t give a timeline when the sanctuary garden would be built.

The Tumaini Center is about six blocks northwest of the new Little Caesars Arena and about two blocks south where new $429,000 condominiums are being sold, just part of the billions in development around the homeless service center.

Little Caesars Arena is the $830 million sports-and-entertainment complex that’s home to the Detroit Red Wings and Pistons. The Ilitches own the Little Caesars pizza chain and the Red Wings. Its Olympia Entertainment manages the new arena, which is also expected to become the top concert venue in the region in the wake of the announced closing of Joe Louis Arena and the Palace of Auburn Hills.

The LCA is expected to be the spark of 50 blocks of new development around the complex, and entities linked to the Ilitches own a sizable portion of those 50 blocks.

“This can be a win-win for everybody,” said James Carey, operations manager of the Tumaini Center. “We understand when new investment comes in and they want to development the empty land, that’s good for the city. And it’s good for us, too, if there is a plan to continue to serve the people we need to serve. And there is a plan.”

The Tumaini Center serves more than 1,000 each year as a shelter that will accept people, on any given day or night, under almost any condition, including those battling substance abuse or mental illness issues that other shelters may turn away, Carey said.

The clients can stay as long as they like, though there are no beds, only chairs in the small center. There are showers, a nurse on standby, emergency food, counseling services for housing and other needs, as well as allowing clients some storage access and receiving mail at the center.

“We serve the people that most have given up on. Here, we offer them a path to recovery,” Carey said.

It’s one of the reason’s the block outside the NSO center is a gathering point for many — they simply have no place else to go.

One of the people who hangs out in front of the NSO service center is Jacqueline Hence, 34. She deals with mental health issues that have meant she has lost her Section 8 housing and she comes to NSO for guidance and help in finding a new residence.

“This place — it is what it is — but without it, I don’t know what I’d do,” she said.

The NSO plans to build a 100,000-square-foot homeless services center off Mack Avenue, just east of Gratiot Avenue on the site of the former Detroit Police Seventh Precinct.

The new space will include 75 one-bedroom apartments, with construction on the new facility slated to begin in January.

If NSO secures all the necessary funding, an estimated $20 million, the new shelter will replace the Tumaini Center shelter on Third, and the Cass Corridor property will be sold to the Ilitches, Clay said.

The spokesman for the Ilitches’ Olympia Development would say they’re working “in close cooperation with the Neighborhood Services Organization to support NSO’s efforts to provide services, outreach and assistance to some of our community’s most vulnerable citizens.”