Retailers in downtown site face eviction after 30 years

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

Detroit – — A group of shopkeepers who survived 30 years of retail decline on downtown's Woodward Avenue have been given court-ordered eviction notices just as the area booms with new upscale life.

The small retailers were based on the ground floor of the Himelhoch building, which is surrounded by hundreds of millions of dollars in investment that has meant the rebirth of historic buildings such as the Broderick Tower and the adjacent David Whitney Building. The M-1 Rail streetcar, slated to open next year, will have its Grand Circus Park stop in front of the Himelhoch's Woodward Avenue entrance.

The seven-story Himelhoch is home to 72 rental apartments available to low-income residents, and for 31 years, most of the ground floor was leased by Larry and Dianne Mongo. The husband and wife ran everything from beauty shops to restaurants in the Himelhoch. With partner John Enot, they were spending thousands of dollars to open two small restaurants in the coming weeks.

Thirty years ago, the Mongos sublet space to two other small retailers, Rosa Blakely and Millie Windham, both of whom opened dress shops. The two businesswomen still have shops at the Himelhoch.

The grand total rent paid by the three businesses: $2,500 a month. The Mongos had 21/2 years left in a 30-year lease that locked in that rate until they received the eviction notice on Monday.

"You could easily get $50,000 a month to rent that space right now, probably more," said Scott Griffin, who is president of Griffin Properties and Griffin Restaurant Group in Southfield and follows the local retail scene.

Representatives from Fourmidable in Bingham Farms, the owner of the building, did not return calls for comment, nor did their attorney.

Tensions began between the retailers and Fourmidable about two years ago, according to documents provided by the Mongos. There has been debate about whether the lease was still valid, as well as terse communications over a burst water pipe that flooded the ground floor and caused major damage to merchandise.

The final straw was a stop payment order placed by the Mongos on a rent check, said the Mongos' attorney, Edward Bajoka. The Mongos attorney says it was canceled because their checkbook was stolen while on vacation in Mexico, which resulted in them asking the bank to put stop payment orders on other checks as well. Fourmidable went to court, successfully terminated the lease and obtained an order for eviction, Bajoka said.

For decades, the retail scene on downtown Woodward steadily dwindled. Two years ago, a surge began thanks to major investments by Dan Gilbert, founder of Quicken Loans Inc., and many others who have restored and populated dozens of once struggling buildings.

That has meant the rent for retail space downtown has nearly doubled, to about $22 a square foot, according to several commercial real estate analysts.

"It's not the bad times that killed us, it's the good times," Larry Mongo said. The Mongos also operate the popular Cafe D'Mongos downtown.

The Himelhoch building is named after a once upscale ladies' department store that went out of business. Retailer Millie Windham remembers the store well because she said she was denied a job there because she was African-American.

Larry Mongo and his wife Dianne leased most of the ground floor space in The Himelhoch building for more than 30 years. The Mongos’ lease was terminated after conflicts with the building owner.

"But I have been here many years now and I made history, I lived history," Windham said on Friday. For years she ran a shop called B'Anna. Last year's burst water pipe flooded her shop and she closed it. She then partnered with the other longtime Himelhoch shopkeeper, Rosa Blakely.

"I've been blessed to be here," Windham said. "I wanted so much to see this area come back and I knew it would. I knew it when so many people laughed at that. But I have faith. No one can't take that away."

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