Since the late 1990s, developer Robert Slattery has made an indelible impression on Detroit’s Midtown, rehabilitating at least five residential properties and, in the process, helping to revive the Cass Corridor area. His most recent project is a conversion of Wayne State University’s former mortuary science building into condos.
By investing in a largely depressed area where other developers often feared to tread, Slattery’s efforts to bring upscale housing to Midtown have received national recognition.
Metro Times reported on Slattery’s revitalization efforts a few years ago (“Slattery’s Dream,” April 12-18, 2000).
Now he has become the focus of a different sort of attention. According to city of Detroit records, residents in one of Slattery’s first Midtown projects — the Venn Manor condos on Cass Avenue — have for five years been living in a building that has never met city occupancy standards.
Last week, after Metro Times began inquiring, the city issued the developer a ticket for failing to correct a host of code violations, ranging from minor to potentially dangerous.
Leslie Malcomson, finance director for the Hudson-Webber Foundation, and her husband Peter, a Wayne State math professor, bought their Venn Manor condo for $160,000 in 1999. They claim that it wasn’t until earlier this year, following Slattery’s resignation as the Venn’s property manager, that they discovered the permit problem.
According to city records, the property received a temporary occupancy permit in November 1999, allowing residents to start moving in while giving Slattery time to correct a number of relatively minor code violations that included drainage problems in the basement. A second temporary permit — this one for 30 days — was issued the following month.
The property failed a subsequent inspection in 2002. However, it appears the city failed to conduct a follow-up inspection to assure compliance.
Leslie Malcolmson says that it was not until January of this year, after Slattery resigned as the property’s manager and members of the condo board took over the function, that residents discovered the occupancy certificate had never been issued. (Certificates are issued to the owner and permit holder of the property, not the owners of the individual units.)
Malcolmson says it was also at that point that the association asked the city for another inspection, which took place in March. Building and Safety Engineering then issued a warning to Slattery that failure to comply could result in court action.
A September follow-up found 11 violations. Amru Meah, director of the city’s Building & Safety Engineering Department, says three of the new violations — space between plastic pipes and the plaster walls that could allow fire to spread quickly from one unit to another, emergency lighting in the stairway that needs replacing, and lack of documentation confirming that the sprinkler system meets requirements — could pose a major threat to resident safety. Last week, after Metro Times began looking into the problem, yet another inspection was conducted. The violations identified in September still had not been corrected, according to Meah.
Asked how the situation could have gone on so long, Meah says that both the city and Slattery should share the blame.
Once the city completes an inspection and problems are found, it is the responsibility of the building’s owner to bring the property into compliance. Meah says that it’s probable that the city officials kept waiting for Slattery to get back to them and, since the initial violations were considered minor, forgot about them.
“It should not have been five years,” Meah says. “We should have taken action, either legal or otherwise.”
Slattery, while complaining that the city’s requirements are too stringent, says he has complied with the housing code, and has corrected violations when ordered to do so, but every time he fixed something, inspectors would return and cite something else. The city, he says, has strung him along unreasonably.
“Here’s the risk you run when you have a temporary certificate of occupancy,” Meah says. “These are the kinds of issues we run into, and it’s not unusual to inspectors. We say repair a crack in the drywall, and [a developer] cracks the ceiling in the process. We come back and say, ‘Hey, fix this now.’”
The call and response between B&SE and developers is necessary, Meah says, until an inspector’s checklist of violations is addressed to the city’s satisfaction.
As for the residents association, Slattery says members of the group have been overbearing and unreasonable. He agrees with Leslie Malcolmson’s assertion that he and the Malcolmsons have never gotten along. When the Malcolmsons joined the board last year, he says, it prompted him to quit as property manager.
“I am killin’ myself over this,” he says. “This is a minor business issue. Like the basement. It’s a 100-year-old basement, and you want me to replace it? Go buy a new basement?”
Slattery’s allies are quick to label him misunderstood. Steve Schoeberlein, a Wayne State psychologist and Venn resident, says people in the six-unit Venn complex are split in their regard for Slattery. Residents such as he and neighbor Ineala Chambers, principal at Detroit’s Foreign Language Immersion and Cultural Studies School, feel that some of Slattery’s critics are too harsh.
“This is one of the best buildings in the area,” Chambers says. “He’s an urban pioneer who uses his own resources. I believe in his vision.”
Denise Freitag, a former Venn resident, agrees, and says Slattery deserves the residents’ patience. She and her husband, Rich, upon moving two years ago, purchased a home around the corner that Slattery also developed.
Paul Vial, Slattery’s former project manager who worked on the Venn project, says Slattery was stressed while working on a shoestring budget during the Venn’s rehabilitation.
“Bob’s a really good person,” Vial says. “He’s definitely not out to take advantage. He really, really wanted to make that thing work.”
Vial says the stress affected Slattery’s ability to deal with residents. A little diplomacy, he suggests, might have helped him avoid future headaches.
On Friday, the city issued Slattery the ticket for non-compliance, summoning him to 36th District Court on Nov. 18.
“I don’t deserve this,” Slattery says. “I really don’t.”Khary Kimani Turner is a Metro Times staff writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org