Shop shuffle sparks worry Eastern Market might lose identity

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the price and size of a property under a purchasing agreement with Ventra Group LLC. It also corrects businesses located in FIRM-owned buildings.

Detroit — A steady turnover of shops around Eastern Market recently is reviving concerns about the direction of the much-loved Detroit landmark.

A new wave of new owners has bought an estimated 29 properties around the historic farmers market since 2017. Most have multi-million-dollar plans to revamp buildings whose maintenance has been neglected for years, sometimes decades.

If those changes become reality, it will turn the area into a much more crowded, affluent neighborhood, fueling concerns the market could lose its charm. 

First-time customer Lonita Steele, 19, of Ecorse, shops at Discount Candles in Eastern Market. The business recently moved to 1448 Gratiot after its previous building was sold and rent rates spiked.

“The area could become much more active ... beyond the weekend market ... seven days really,” said George Jackson, one of the new owners who also ran the city's economic development agency for years. 

In 2017, Jackson’s Ventra Group LLC entered into a development and purchase agreement with the city for a former water and sewer department building. The massive building near the former Roma Cafe takes up 6.2 acres, according to a city document. The sale price is $700,000, Jackson said. 

The building at 3500 Riopelle had been empty for over a decade, he said. Plans for the building will be revealed soon, and “food will be involved,” said Jackson, adding he expects to finalize on the deal for the building soon.

It is just one of the pricey makeovers intended for at least a dozen dead or underutilized buildings.

Big plans also mean skyrocketing rent. Earlier this year, a nasty battle erupted between the Russell Street Deli, a 30-year staple of the market, and a new owner, a group of investors led by Sanford Nelson, who has bought 17 Eastern Market properties. The new owner wanted $50,000 to repair part of the floor. The popular eatery opted to leave and went on a scorched-earth public relations campaign against Nelson’s FIRM Real Estate group.

Samantha Thomas of Detroit checks her cell phone in front of Discount Candles in Eastern Market. The business recently moved to 1448 Gratiot after its previous building was sold and rent rates spiked.

It remains unclear who will take over the space where Russell Street Deli operated, a spokeswoman for FIRM wrote in an email to The News. The restaurant, which closed Aug. 31, "still occupy the space and pay rent," according to an email from spokeswoman Rachel Partain.

Nelson was unavailable for an interview, according to Partain. The company, however, provided a statement: "As always, FIRM Real Estate is committed to preserving and renewing Eastern Market." 

Other businesses such as Farmer’s Market,  Mootown Ice Cream & Dessert Shop and Detroit Kung Fu Academy  also shut in FIRM-owned buildings, though the various store owners have said in the past it was due to wanting to retire or stop running a business.  Eastern Market Antiques is moving into a new location in another FIRM-owned building at 1515 Division, said John Truscott, a spokesman for FIRM.

Discount Candles knows the volatility that comes with the infusion of private investment. The retail shop has operated at the corner of Gratiot and Russell in some variation since 1960. The five-story building it was housed in sold for $2 million in December 2017.

Team leader Kay (no last name given) straightens out merchandise on the shelves at Discount Candles in Eastern Market.  The business recently moved to 1448 Gratiot after its previous building was sold and rent rates spiked.

The new owner, an entity linked to real estate investor Manoj Manwani, also began an estimated $1 million in renovations and stated early on it would need to charge higher rent to cover the upgrade costs. A new hookah lounge called Take Out Hookah Cafe will soon open in the space where Discount Candles operated.  Like Discount Candles, the new hookah lounge is also African-American owned. 

Discount Candles saw its $2,500 monthly rent hiked to about $8,700, said Star Lamar, owner of Discount Candles. Lamar goes by the name Star Gazer.

“We (were) in mourning for so long because of the fact we had to move,” Lamar said.

By May, the store was facing eviction. But Discount Candles found a ray of hope in Dan Carmody, the head of the Eastern Market Partnership, the nonprofit that manages the market. 

Carmody brokered a deal that enabled Discount Candles to find a new Eastern Market home. The store is now located at 1484 Gratiot. It's a building that was bought by Nelson’s FIRM — the same owner who got into the highly publicized dispute with Russell Street Deli.

FIRM has also set up two other women-owned businesses and also helped downtown Jose's Tacos to open another restaurant in Eastern Market. 

But there remains plenty of angst that some of the changes will ruin the area’s character.

“We don’t want to see it become big shops over here,” Discount Candles' Lamar said. “It’s the mom-and-pop shops, and it’s just so personal. Everybody loves Eastern Market. They just came because of the vibration, the way you felt when you shopped. It was family. Now everything is becoming about the big numbers.”

Meanwhile, the city is exploring is making the area a historic district, which would add another layer of government approval to potential changes to buildings. Part of the market area was added to the National Registry of Historic Places in 1978. The new effort by the city would label a much broader area as historic. 

Employee Francetta (no last name given) straightens out the displays at Discount Candles in Eastern Market. The business recently moved to 1448 Gratiot after its previous building was sold and rent rates spiked.

“We need a lot of this investment because a lot of these older buildings have some serious structural issues that need repair and need investment,” said Eastern Market Partnership’s Carmody. 

It’s too soon to tell whether the situation with Russell Street Deli is going to be the norm, many here contend.  

There’s already been a net number of new businesses, Carmody said, even when factoring in the businesses that have closed. 

“Already, we’re seeing some buildings that have been vacant for decades are filled with three or four of five businesses,” Carmody said.

Most of the new building owners have yet to reveal detailed plans or are just starting renovations. That includes six buildings near Riopelle and Adelaide bought by New York City-based ASH NYC, which owns the downtown Siren Hotel.

Another real estate firm, Detroit-based Basco, is the buyer of the former Busy Bee Hardware, which is at the corner of Russell and Gratiot. The new owner has begun renovations for the five connected buildings that will include residential and ground-floor retail. 

“Eastern Market has been evolving and changing for as long as I remember,” said Jackson, one of the new building owners. “Soon, we are going to see how many of these new visions are realistic.”

Twitter: @LouisAguilar_DN