Owners of closed downtown Detroit bar claim city, police harassment

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — A contentious two-year court battle continues to rage between the city and owners of a shuttered downtown bar who claim city officials and cops targeted them because they're black, and to allow the son of a former Detroit mayor to purchase and develop the property.

The Centre Park Bar in Harmonie Park closed in April.

The owners of the Centre Park Bar in Harmonie Park, which closed in April, allege Mayor Mike Duggan and Police Chief James Craig violated the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act by conspiring to allow Dennis Archer Jr., son of former Detroit mayor Dennis Archer, to buy the property near Randolph and Gratiot.

The court fight is scheduled to continue Tuesday, with Wayne County Circuit Judge Cynthia Gray Hathaway scheduled to hear a motion to dismiss a charge of resisting/obstructing/assaulting a police officer against one of the bar owners. The charge stems from a July 2017 incident in which police and the fire marshal shut the bar down because it was overcrowded.

Attorneys for the bar say that incident is part of an ongoing effort to harass them. City officials say the bar owner tried to stop the fire marshal and police from evacuating the bar.

The bar's lawsuit has so far resulted in 230 federal court filings, in addition to multiple filings in Wayne County Circuit Court and 36th District Court.

"Because Archer has strong political connections or relationships with the high level elected officials of the City of Detroit, Plaintiffs believe that Defendant Archer has conspired with the Defendants to retaliate against the Plaintiffs, all in an effort to acquire the Property and to evict Centre Park," Centre Park Bar attorney Andrew Paterson wrote in the 2016 federal lawsuit.

Paterson further alleges harassment "because (the bar) is an African-American black owned business and the majority owner (Gwendolyn Williams) is an African-American woman and because a majority of its patrons are African-American."

Phone calls to  Dennis Archer Jr. and the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., which also was named in the lawsuit, were not returned.

The Centre Park Bar in Harmonie Park closed in April.

Activist Robert Davis, who has sued several governmental agencies, is also a plaintiff in the bar's lawsuit. He told The Detroit News he's involved because he's assisting Paterson, and is friends with the bar owners.

Detroit Corporation Counsel Lawrence Garcia said in a statement: "Robert Davis and Drew Paterson file lots of merit-less claims, and this is just one more example ... we expect the case will be resolved in the City's favor."

Davis replied: "When you witness first-hand a firefighter lie under oath in order to carry out the mayor's agenda, that is certainly not a frivolous lawsuit."

Davis was referencing what he said was conflicting testimony by a Detroit fire official during court depositions and hearings last year regarding the overcrowding violation. 

In a January 2017 response to the bar's lawsuit, city attorney James D. Noseda said police and city officials did not harass the bar owners, insisting the bar was ticketed for repeatedly violating noise and fire code ordinances.

"Their alleged beliefs are not well grounded (but) in fact, are impertinent, scandalous, wholly unfounded, and utterly preposterous," Noseda wrote.

The bar held motorcycle rallies and outdoor musical events that resulted in noise complaints from nearby businesses, including the Garden Hilton Hotel. 

"The noise from the motorcycles and an outdoor DJ were causing problems for our guests," hotel general manager Dave Kipfmiller told The News. "We had to offer refunds to our guests.

"They were having motorcycle rallies weekly last summer, and we had to call the police each time it happened, there was so much noise coming from the bar," Kipfmiller said. "Since the bar closed, the problems have stopped."

In August 2013, Williams and Kenneth Bridgewater leased a portion of the building at 1407 Randolph and spent $450,000 getting the structure up to code and renovating it into a bar, court files show. They signed a five-year lease with the building's owner, the Downtown Development Authority, which is set to expire Aug. 19.

The DDA in September 2015 asked developers to submit proposals to purchase properties the authority owned, including the Centre Park Bar building, to pave the way for a "Paradise Alley Cultural and Entertainment District."

"During the (request for proposal) process, and without seeking permission of Centre Park, Defendants DDA and (Downtown Economic Growth Corp.) unlawfully and repeatedly gained access to, and trespassed upon, the Property for the apparent purpose of allowing appraisers, and potential RFP bidders, including Archer ... to examine, assess and otherwise gain knowledge about the Property," the bar's attorney wrote.

The lawsuit also claims Archer told the bar owners it was "guaranteed" the DDA would choose his proposal and that he would be purchasing the property.

"Soon after Plaintiffs began exposing the unlawful and unethical conduct of the Defendants, Centre Park began experiencing unexpected visits to the Property from multiple police officers of the Detroit Police Department," the lawsuit alleges.

Garcia, the city's corporation counsel, told The News the Centre Park Bar's proposal to buy the property was submitted after the deadline.

"Their client's bid was submitted late, and it was appropriately rejected, as was that of two other bidders who submitted late," Garcia said. "They filed a baseless claim after a deliberate, public judicial proceeding considered all evidence and concluded that the Centre Park Bar should be prohibited from further disturbing people with excessive noise and outdoor entertainment."

In June 2016, the DDA chose Archer's proposal to purchase the building that housed the bar, and another building on Randolph Street, for $976,000, as part of the Paradise Valley revitalization project.

Davis said the police harassed the bar for two years, finally forcing the owners to close the bar after the Detroit Tigers Opening Day and file for bankruptcy.

"They assigned a cop specifically to watch the bar when they had events there in order to write BS tickets," Davis said. "(On July 23, 2017), they called the fire marshal to write tickets and try to close the place down. They arrested one of the co-operators of the bar (Bridgewater) on a misdemeanor ticket of disobeying an order."

During a February deposition in the civil lawsuit, Detroit Fire Capt. Kelvin Harris testified he was called to the bar by police to investigate overcrowding. Harris said he ordered the bar closed because it did not have a card displayed showing the building's capacity.

Harris said during the deposition he never actually counted how many patrons were in the bar — but during a preliminary examination in 36th District Court two months later, he said: "I had did a quick head count and by my determination, well, there were more people than the space would allow without having two exits, which is more than 49 people."

"The testimony DFD Captain Kelvin Harris provided during direct examination on this question totally contradicts the sworn testimony he provided during the civil deposition when asked this very same question pertaining to this very same incident," Bridgewater's attorney Robert Kinny wrote in the motion to dismiss the obstruction charges.

"It is clear from DFD Captain Kelvin Harris’ testimony that the prosecution failed to present evidence on each of the elements of the charged offense," Kinny wrote.

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN