Tenants scramble with Russell Center closing

Holly Fournier, and Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

Confusion reigned Tuesday inside the Russell Industrial Center, the sprawling complex of artist studios and workspaces that was ordered to close after Detroit officials claimed ordinance violations and other issues.

“We’re trying to see what’s really going on, whether we have to move or not,” said 25-year-old Ferndale resident Brad Wall, who owns Wall Woodworking and rents space on the second floor. “We’re freaking out. We have no idea what’s going on.”

Notices posted Monday on every door of the former factory at 1600 Clay ordered tenants to vacate until violations were corrected. In a statement explaining their order, city officials said the owners of the center repeatedly failed to follow guidelines when erecting multiple commercial and residential tenant units.

“They have erected walls using combustible materials, illegally installed plumbing and heating systems in numerous units without the proper permits, inspections and approvals,” Detroit buildings department director David Bell said in the statement. “During a recent inspection, the smell of natural gas from the multiple illegal installations was so strong, DTE had to be immediately called to correct the leak.”

Though the facility is zoned as a factory, Bell added, the owners illegally allowed artists, antique furniture resale, photography and music studios, residential units, a counseling center and fitness space to operate there. Earlier this month, the Russell Industrial Center was the setting for Detroit’s annual Dirty Show of erotic art, burlesque and performance art.

A spokesman for Mayor Mike Duggan said late Tuesday city officials hope to meet with building owners on Thursday. Tenants have a week to vacate, he said.

Despite the order to vacate, Russell tenants on Tuesday showed few signs of preparing to move. Instead, facility project manager Eric Novack walked the halls and urged occupants to call city officials. Artists and business owners adopted a wait-and-see outlook, their hopes pinned on a decision reversal.

“They’re frustrated. They’re concerned. They obviously want to be here,” Novack said. “They have orders to fill and families to feed. They’re going to be out of a job.”

Groups gathered in the hallways and inside studios, eyeing equipment and formulating Plan B.

“I’m kind of dumbfounded, trying to figure out what to do,” said glassblower Adam Thomas, 33. “This is my job. If I don’t have a shop, I’m unemployed.”

The Ferndale resident stood Tuesday inside a massive studio he shares with other artists. He looked at a red-hot furnace filled with liquid glass. The furnace was built in place and is not removable, he said.

Detroit officials on Monday ordered that the Russell Industrial Center close following a city inspection that claimed ordinance violations and other issues.

“It would take months” to move out, Thomas said. “We could take (it) apart and salvage parts, but then we would be starting over.”

Russell Industrial Center officials denied Tuesday that tenants were living in the building. “People brought in leases and showed me pictures of their spaces,” Novack said of tenants’ attempts to prove they lived elsewhere.

Novack said the shutdown order came as management worked to correct previously cited safety violations, including the sprinkler system, insufficient exit signs, combustible materials and a shortage of fire extinguishers.

A building owner said the city gave little warning that the massive artist enclave would be ordered to close. “They emailed me yesterday, that’s it,” Dennis Kefallinos, a longtime Detroit developer, said Tuesday. His Boydell Development Co. owns the Russell Industrial through the subsidiary Clay Street Group LLC.

“I don’t understand, there have been artists studios here for 20, 30 years,” he said. He added that while there are around 150 tenants, nobody lives there.

The city issued a “couple violations” a few weeks ago over some construction issues, he said.

Earlier this month, WDIV-TV (Channel 4) reported on failed fire safety inspections at the Russell Industrial Center. It pursued the story as a result of the December fire at an Oakland, California, artist collective that killed 36 people.

The Russell Industrial Center is among the dozens of Detroit properties owned by entities linked to Kefallinos that are need of repair or are vacant. Kefallinos said he has ownership in a “lot of empty buildings” that he’s “eventually working slowly to open.”

One building he has ownership stake in is the vacant Roosevelt Hotel in the shadow of the former Michigan Central Station in bustling Corktown. The Roosevelt was fire-damaged and empty when a Kefallinos entity bought it in 2010 for $37,500 at a county foreclosure auction. New windows were installed, but plans for a boutique hotel have yet to come to fruition.

In 2007, Kefallinos’ Boydell Development bought a former Wayne State University pharmacy school building known as Shapero Hall in Lafayette Park. The purchase price was $2.3 million. The goal is to convert the eight-story building into micro-apartments. Three years after announcing the plan, the development is still in its early stages.

Kefallinos said he aims to keep things affordable. “Some developers are going for $2 a square foot,” he said, referring to the formula for rent of residential spaces. “Sometimes we go for 50 cents a square foot.”

Some rent at Russell Industrial Center is as low as $400 for 1,000 square feet, he said: “We wanted to make it available to artists, to help make their dreams come true.”

The plant was designed by Albert Kahn in 1915 and first housed J.W. Murray Manufacturing Co., which made stamped metal parts for the auto industry. It later served as the Michigan Stamping Plant before Harry and Leona Helmsley, famous for their chain of hotels, became owners in the 1970s. More recently, Wintor-Swan Associates bought it to house an advertising circular printing business. That venture failed and, in 2003, the Clay Street Group purchased the entire complex.

Since then, Russell has become a haven for artists and small businesses, and its spaces have hosted film shoots, including “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.”

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Twitter: @HollyPFournier

Staff Writer Mark Hicks contributed.