Earlier this week, an article in the Detroit News broke a story about Ilitch Holdings purchasing the Detroit Masonic Temple in the Cass Corridor neighborhood. For those unfamiliar with Detroit power names, the Ilitches own pretty much all the major entertainment and sports real estate in the city, as well as the Little Caeser’s pizza business. It’s no doubt that when the Ilitches put in money in an area, the neighborhood will transform.

The Cass Corridor (not to be mistaken, or replaced by, “Midtown”) definitely needs some major uplift.  Perhaps the Ilitches will bring enough resources to bring the beautiful Masonic Temple to its fullest grandeur. Question for me is, how is the neighborhood going to change with the Ilitches as its newest resident?  I used to live in the Cass Corridor, and the news gives me mixed feelings. I don’t mind big developers who want to put resources in a cash poor area, but this kind of transformation usually comes with the heavy, unrelentless hand of gentrification. Since leaving Detroit, I have been given the opportunity to observe how various paces of gentrification is playing out in urban communities like Brooklyn, DC and Philadelphia. At times it is very quiet, taking its time over a span of 15 years, like the neighborhood I stayed in Brooklyn. Or, it takes place in the jolting changes  in areas of northeast DC, where people (non-residents) wouldn’t even give it a second’s thought to go to those neighborhoods three years ago.

The Cass Corridor can’t remain what it is currently, where vacant lots and abandoned buildings remain and where the police dump homeless folks, drug addicts and other people falling through the system’s cracks. Nor do I advocate for the presence of the Ilitches, whose impact may repeat the kind of gentrification that occurred under the shadows of Detroit Tiger’s Comerica Park stadium, erasing historic Brush Park, a once-predominately black neighborhood now largely replaced with cookie cutter new urbanism architecture.

It would be shameful if we can’t recognize the neighborhood in five years. The kind of “gentrification” the Cass Corridor needs is the kind that we have few models of, and the closest thing I can point to is the type of development that Avalon Bakery has brought into the Cass Corridor.  The owners set up shop on a blighted city block, fostering five more local businesses to open their doors on the same street. Today, there are people walking, bustling, biking, taking care of each other on the block.

The Cass Corridor is also hotbed of amazing community initiatives that are doing more than just transforming the way the neigborhood looks. The Cass Corridor is home to Detroit Summer, Back Alley Bikes, the Cass Corridor Neighborhood Development Corporation, a slew of community gardens, and the historic Detroit Chinatown. I hope that these community entities will get together to put some stakes in the ground, and secure a strong community structure.

More for full text of article:

Hope for Cass Corridor
Ilitch takeover of Masonic Temple may spur development of decaying area
Robert Snell and Louis Aguilar / The Detroit News – Tuesday, August 28, 2007

DETROIT — Ilitch Holdings Inc.– the billion-dollar family empire of sports, entertainment, pizza and real estate in downtown Detroit — hopes to venture into a long-abandoned stretch of the city: the Cass Corridor.

Ilitch’s Olympia Entertainment is negotiating to take control of the iconic Masonic Temple, a city landmark mired in so much debt its owners, the Masons, face losing the building. The deal could be announced within a week to 10 days, said Bill Betz, president of the Masonic Temple Association, which would continue to own the 16-story landmark.

An Ilitch-run Masonic could be an energizing development for an area trapped in poverty and decay, according to city, business and neighborhood officials. It is the one spot left in the city core that could most benefit from a business titan who revived the Fox Theatre area 20 years ago, they say.

A Masonic deal could be transformational, Betz said.

“In five years — the whole neighborhood — you won’t recognize it,” he said.

Security and money from entrepreneurs willing to back projects near an Ilitch endeavor will likely follow the Little Caesars Pizza owner into “the Corridor,” developers and city officials said.

Ilitch Holdings spokeswoman Karen Cullen would only say “discussions are continuing.”

For now, though, much of the Cass Corridor looks forgotten and mean. Across from the Masonic is Cass Avenue Park, where on a recent afternoon a group of bare-shirted men with grocery carts full of personal belongings sat in a circle, sharing a bottle wrapped in a paper bag.

‘Lots of things happen’

The Ilitches would not be the first major players to enter the Corridor, specifically the southern part, defined by Cass Avenue between the 1-75 service drive and Martin Luther King Boulevard. Other influential developers have purchased blighted properties with intentions to restore them to housing and small businesses, adding to the few already there. There’s a dog day care center and renovated housing that advertises DSL access.

“Obviously a lot needs to be turned around down there,” said George Jackson, president of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, the quasi-public city agency promoting Detroit development. “But it’s the logical place for growth if you want what’s happening in Midtown to merge with all the growth that’s going on downtown.

“With the Ilitches jumping in there, it becomes very interesting. Because when they set up shop in an area, lots of things happen.”

One thing that could happen is the Masonic becomes a solid, steady venue for entertainment again.

But only after the Ilitches pay off the Masonic’s outstanding bills, Betz said.

The Masonic association’s debt grew in recent years as other Masonic organizations relocated from the Gothic-style building to the suburbs and entertainment bookings plummeted.

The association, which would still own the building under the deal that’s being negotiated, owes about $242,000 in delinquent property taxes and unpaid water and sewer bills, and faces possible foreclosure in March.

There are parallels between the Masonic venture and Ilitch’s work over the past 20 years that created a sprawling sports and entertainment district along Woodward just south of Cass Corridor across I-75. And while the company has similar deals with Cobo Center, Joe Louis Arena and Comerica Park, all of which they do not own, the company essentially controls all commercial business at those locations and reaps the revenue.

Slide worsened in 1980s

In the 1970s, the Cass Corridor was filled with Appalachian families and still had an area called Chinatown, said Patrick Dorn, executive director of the Cass Corridor Neighborhood Development Corporation, which rehabilitates and builds affordable housing nearby.

Those with enough money left and the neighborhood started to decay once property owners started selling to negligent owners, Dorn said. The slide worsened in the 1980s when the city made the area home to social service providers such as homeless shelters.

“That was the finishing touch,” Dorn said.

“Whenever you have isolationism where there’s nobody there, except people you wouldn’t want to meet in the dark, you’re not going to be the first one to put money in.”

The neighborhood is exceedingly poor, especially compared to the rest of the city. Median household income is $8,317, far below the city’s median household income of $29,526, according to the U.S. Census.

It is the second poorest census tract in the city, and arguably the poorest populated area.

Joel Landy, a 30-year resident of the Cass Corridor, says he’s been a part of more than $20 million in investments there and he intends to invest at least that much in the near future. He owns more than 45 properties ranging from small storefronts to multiple housing units to empty lots.

On a recent drive through Cass Corridor, Landy pointed out brothels and drug havens as well as restored buildings and new retailers.

“It looks pretty tough but there’s so much opportunity and many beautiful buildings. I welcome the Ilitches because they’ve been a great force. I just hope they look around the area and notice what else needs to be done in the area,” Landy said.

Other prominent developers such as Dwight Belyue have also recently purchased properties in Cass Corridor the past few years. “You know, when the Ilitches set up shop in the Fox, that area didn’t look all that different from Cass Corridor,” Belyue said, who owns the Belmar Development Group. He and Seattle developer Mike Dunne bought three apartment complexes on the corner of Cass and the I-75 service drive that were known crack and prostitute dens.

Betz, the Masonic president, said a deal to transfer management of the Masonic is imminent, though he refuses to identify Ilitch by name despite a Ilitch Holdings representative confirming the company is in negotiations.

“All the pieces of the puzzle, I believe, are in place,” Betz said.

The temple has two theaters, which seat 4,400 people and about 1,550, respectively. A third theater sits unfinished on the temple’s seventh floor.

There also are two massive ballrooms that host weddings and meetings, and a vacant 10-story office tower that could house lofts or apartments, Betz said.

  1. Motorvilleboy

    The area around the Fox Theater was indeed a ghost town when Ilitch took it over in the 1980s. What had largely kept it alive though was the Theater’s prior owner, Chuck Forbes. Forbes owns the Fillmore (State) Theater, Elwood Bar and Grill and Gem and Century Theaters as well. He did the heavy lifting to keep the theaters and the neighborhood alive when nobody else was interested, keeping the lights on and the pipes unfrozen during its darkest times.

    Ilitch worked with the Young administration however to muscle Forbes out of the Fox so that he could begin his own empire building in the neighborhood. As I recall, the rehab of the Fox ran about $12 million, at least $8 million of which came from City coffers. Yes, Ilitch moved Little Caesar’s offices into the Fox Building, but that was the last truly good thing he did for the City. The rest was largely taxpayer-funded and of more intangible than solidly economic benefit to Detroit.

    Along with forcing his way into the Fox, Ilitch bought and leveled one historic building after another around the Fox, and would squash more of our architectural heritage if not for public outcry. Most recently of course was the Madison Lenox Hotel, razed for his benefit by the City as a “dangerous building”. It was no more dangerous at that point than it had been for the years Ilitch owned and neglected it.

    Now he wants to level the Adams Theater on Grand Circus Park as well, after looking the other way as vandals stripped it and allowing gaping holes in the ceiling to allow the elements in to compromise structural integrity.

    That’s called Demolition By Neglect and it’s illegal. Even City Hall tends to forget that fact though, when Ilitch waves a few dollars and promises of development in their faces. Kind of like another Ilitch-neglected property given lip service to redevelopment: the United Artists Theater Building, now surrounded by a fence that blocks the sidewalk surrounding the building so that bricks can fall to the ground unhindered by pesky pedestrians.

    Don’t expect much better in a North Ilitchville. A few courageous developers like Joel Landy have begun tackling the area near Cass Park. They may well see their work go the way of Chuck Forbes’ if Ilitch decides he needs additional development space or clear site lines to one of his buildings across large surface parking lots (the real reason the Gem/Century and Elwood buildings “had to be” moved for Comerica Park).

    It would be great to see the former Masonic Temple a fully utilized neighborhood anchor again one day. It will be a criminal shame and untold lost opportunity if it comes at the expense of any of the historic neighborhood around it. Good for Ilitch if he can make a success of the Masonic Temple. Good for Detroit if we can hold him accountable while doing it.

  2. Thanks for the thoughts, MVB. Detroit’s seen it’s unfair share of Demolition By Neglect — Southwest Detroit is one case in point, where the Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun gobbled up property around the Detroit aside of the bridge, let the home fall into disarray, and made a case for demolition of the properties. His plan is to clear enough land to expand the bridge and encroach upon the vibrant SW Detroit community by bringing in thousands more freight trucks onto the streets. Poor city planning and lack of public oversight has brought us to this point. I’m not sure what the latest developments are, but talks of a twin bridge was in the works.

    Wasn’t the razed Motown building also an Ilitch holding?

  3. michale1970

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  1. 1 hypersigil.net » Blog Archive » Ilitch empire expanding

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