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Russell Industrial Center tenants fighting to stay

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit -- A group of about a dozen tenants of the Russell Industrial Center arrived at Detroit's Buildings Safety Engineering and Environmental Department Thursday morning to ask that they be allowed to keep working in the space they rent while the building's owner makes city-demanded repairs.

Tenants told assembled media what they want from the city: an abatement to continue their work as their landlord addresses the violations that have piled up at the 2.2-million-square-foot facility.

City officials cited combustive walls, illegally installed plumbing and heating systems, and a lack of inspections in the order for tenants to leave.

Mark Guatto, owner of Studio 6 Design, is a furniture builder who has worked out of the Russell, 1600 Clay, for 28 years.

"We're not protesters, we're workers," Guatto said from inside the lobby of room 412, Property Maintenance, where the tenants gathered until pulled into the meeting they'd requested.

"This came so quickly," Guatto said of the week-long timetable to vacate the premises before the city locks it, "that I don't think anybody has a Plan B."

Guatto said he had a city fire inspection just last week, and that he addressed the issues mentioned.

"We've played by the rules," said Adam Thomas, a glass blower with a space in the center. "We're being lumped in with 2.2-million-square-feet of problems and now we can't do our jobs."

BSEED Director David Bell, said the issue is one of protecting lives, not harming the livelihoods of affected business owners.

Bell said that "while (he) can understand the frustration" of the tenants, "my job is to make sure that they live."

Tenants' real beef, Bell argued, should be with their landlord, who "did very bad things" to the property, in violation of city code, along the way racking up "$20,000 in fines.

"And it'll be more unless things change," Bell said.

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.

The center  is among the dozens of Detroit properties owned by entities linked to Dennis Kefallinos, a longtime Detroit developer. His Boydell Development Co. owns the Russell Industrial through the subsidiary Clay Street Group LLC. Kefallinos told The Detroit News on Tuesday the city issued a "couple violations" a few weeks ago over some construction issues. Kefallinos could not be immediately reached on Thursday.

Bell said everyone would have seven days from when a non-functioning elevator is fixed to move out.

Bell cited a fire at a similar space in Oakland, California, that killed some 36 people, as reason for the city's concern with the center.

Russell  rejected that comparison.

"This is nothing like the Oakland building," Guatto said, citing the brick build as a reason why a fire of that nature was unlikely.

"Russell was built to be fire resistant," Thomas added.

Tenants said moving out wouldn't be easy or practical, for themselves and others.

Some tenants have done expensive buildouts or have expensive, not-easily-moved equipment inside. Some tenants aren't even physically in town to move. And all said they're losing money every day they're more focused on their next move than on fulfilling orders or seeking out new business.

"There's plenty of space," Scott Sprague, owner of Scott Sprague Photography, said. "Just move tenants (out of problem areas) to another part of the center."

Sprague said he had tens of thousands of dollars of inventory on site, a plight other tenants said they share.