Rubin: CPA Building is doomed — but who’s to blame?

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

The CPA Building on Michigan Avenue is scheduled to be razed next month at the expense of its New York-based owners but apparently against their wishes.

Though the owners’ local spokesman says the demolition comes at the urging of neighboring merchants, the most prominent businessman on the block says the universal sentiment was to keep the quirky, six-story triangle upright.

The building, once home to the Conductors Protective Association and now a decaying wreck with one hand missing from the clock on its angular face, may have simply run out of time.

“The city wasn’t willing to wait any longer,” said Greg Newman, a principal at Keystone Commercial Real Estate LLC in Farmington Hills.

Newman is the local representative for Sequoia Property Partners, which spoke of plans to restore the building but never presented any.

In the eyes of preservationists, Sequoia is the villain. Sequoia, doing business locally through a subsidiary called BFD Corktown LLC, blames the city.

The city’s lawyer, Butch Hollowell, said in a statement Wednesday afternoon that masonry is falling from the building’s facade, floorboards have deteriorated, and a court order dated Nov. 3 required the owners to either fix the building or make it go away.

The owners opted for B) make it go away. Asbestos removal is scheduled to begin Thursday, according to owner David Holman of Den-Man Contractors in Warren, and the long-empty building should begin to crumble — or at least, crumble faster — in mid-December.

The CPA will then become even more of an oddity than it always appeared to be. Rather than another case of an owner hoping to turn a historic building into an empty lot, this would be the city forcing the demolition of a noteworthy structure.

The 11,000-square-foot building was already scheduled for extinction when Sequoia paid $900,000 for the entire block between 14th and 15th streets in May 2014. Still, Newman asked, what’s the hurry?

“Look at the building across the street,” he said, that being the Michigan Central Depot. “It’s been more blighted for much longer.”

Once gorgeous, now decrepit

The CPA Building dates to 1924, when train travel was so prevalent that the conductors’ union merited its own edifice.

By 2003, when Philip Cooley bought what would become Slows Bar-B-Q, the only occupants were the neighborhood business association and an outpost for Mormon missionaries, meaning the latter-day tenants were the Latter-Day Saints.

The building had been on the market for 11 years — and on the city’s hit list for seven — before the sale in 2014. At one point, it had been spattered with turquoise paint. At another, according to Curbed Detroit, a wall was shattered by a white SUV.

“It’s a gorgeous building,” said Cooley, whose sweat equity began the resurgence of his stretch of Corktown. “There’s no reason it should be in the condition it’s in.”

Sequoia sparred with the city repeatedly, attempting to gain a stay of execution, and said it had plans to lease retail space on the first floor with apartments or lofts above.

But the company never offered specifics, Cooley noted, or even much more than the most basic generalities.

“Any of the developments that are happening around here, they’ve been very vocal,” he said. “We haven’t seen a thing on that property, other than a lot of confusion and a lot of neglect.”

Wrecking ball off, and on again

Holman, the contractor, said the owners actually scheduled the demolition for last year but called it off.

The job should take two or three weeks, he said, using heavy equipment rather than explosives, and it will require closing the right westbound lane of Michigan Avenue.

Newman said the owners’ plans remain unchanged, if also unspecific: a mix of retail and residential.

There are rumblings of preservationists making an 11th-hour effort to stop the demolition, and grumbling that the out-of-town owners don’t have to live with their decision.

For now, spindly bushes are growing through the sidewalk, and sandbags weigh down the base of the temporary fence that keeps pedestrians safe from any plummeting slabs of limestone.

To the west, toward an abandoned car repair shop, stand enormous piles of brown dirt.

When the building is gone, the dirt will fill the basement — but Cooley will tell you it can never fill the gaping hole on the block.