Residents in low-rent area near arena fear upscale trend

Handing out and posting information about an upcoming Detroit City Council meeting, volunteer Mark Hall, right, talks with resident Brooks Harris, 37, who live in the Berwin apartment building on Henry Street on Sunday.

Residents in two low-rent apartment buildings one block from Little Caesars Arena could be at risk, again, of losing their homes due to plans aimed at making the neighborhood upscale. 

The Berwin and Bretton Hall apartments buildings are month-to-month rentals where residents pay $300 to $400 a month. The apartment buildings, on the same block on Henry Street, are among the dwindling number of inexpensive apartments in the Cass Corridor neighborhood. Last week, the Detroit City Council was told the by the real estate arm of the Ilitch family, Olympia Development of Michigan, that they planned to overhaul the block with the addition of a large commercial building where the four-story apartment buildings are located, said Detroit Councilwoman Raquel Castaneda-Lopez. 

More:Board-ups begin on vacant Ilitch buildings in Cass Corridor

Over the weekend, Castaneda-Lopez and several volunteers visited the apartment buildings and spoke with residents about the buildings and a development plan to overhaul the block. 

Castaneda-Lopez said she visited residents in the buildings to introduce herself, gather feedback from them and address questions.

On Tuesday, Detroit's City Council could vote on whether the block should be designated a historic district. That would pose obstacles for any potential demolition plans for the buildings. It also creates guidelines for renovations.

Castaneda-Lopez said she learned several months ago that Olympia owns the buildings.

“I met with Olympia Development prior to the report being issued for the historic district in anticipation that the historic designation would be recommended, to get their feedback and thoughts about preserving the Cass-Henry block," Castaneda-Lopez said. "During the conversation we discussed the three occupied structures, now two, and the importance of preserving their affordability, and they shared that they owned the buildings.”

Without a historic designation, Castaneda-Lopez said, the developer could demolish many buildings on the block. Even with a historic approval, she said, there are no guarantees that the buildings will remain apartments, or be affordable. 

"My priority is protecting and preserving our communities and making sure that residents know what's going on and are able to play a role in that decision," she said. "I support the historic designation. The most important thing to remember is that this is about people's lives and people's livelihood. My office is committed to making sure every Detroit voice is valued."

She said she hasn't seen anything in writing from Olympia. 

Several residents from the apartments said Sunday afternoon they hadn't heard of the plans. But there have been many rumors since the buildings were part of $8.1 million sale in Oct. 2016 that involved a buyer who took steps to conceal its identity in public records, residents said. 

About five years ago, an attempt to sell the Henry Street apartment buildings ran into a community backlash when residents were told they had 30 days to leave. That deal was squashed and the potential buyer was never identified. At that time, a series of land sales were already underway amid speculation the new arena would be built nearby.

Castaneda-Lopez said she met with Olympia several months ago, prior to the release of the report dealing with the historic designation and that’s when they told her that they own the property. Council offices were told about the plans for the commercial building last week.

The block is being led by Olympia Development of Michigan, the real estate arm for the host of businesses controlled by the Ilitch family.  The Ilitches own the Little Caesars pizza chain, which is headquartered in downtown Detroit. The Ilitches own the Detroit Red Wings hockey team, whose home ice is Little Caesars Arena, the $380 million sports and entertainment venue that is operated by the Ilitch's Olympia Entertainment. 

Representatives for Olympia Development did not return requests for comment Sunday or Monday. 

Olympia Development owns plenty of land around the arena and is working on a plan to transform 50 blocks surrounding Little Caesars Arena into dense, walkable neighborhoods filled with new residences, offices and retail. That plan is called District Detroit.

The Henry Street apartments are part of an ongoing battle between local preservationists and Olympia Development plans for the 400 block of Henry, which is bordered by Cass Avenue to the east and Second Avenue to the west. 

Olympia Development owns three empty buildings, two on Cass and one on Henry, that it originally sought to demolish. But preservationists have successfully lobbied the City Council to delay those plans for more than one year. The issue is before the council on Tuesday.

Twitter: @LouisAguilar_DN