This story isn’t new: A development company buys property in an aging neighborhood. Neighbors feel pressured to sell and worry that their quality of life — and property values — will plummet, leaving them with no choice but a rough deal and hasty move. They worry that otherwise they’ll wind up the last holdouts on a block of vacant lots.
The developer has made inroads, but hasn’t acquired enough property to begin the project. The project’s at a standstill — or a standoff.
It’s a familiar story, but with a twist. It’s not a corporation or a government entity that wants to develop the area. It’s the Archdiocese of Detroit.
Trowbridge Street between Woodward and John R isn’t perfect. The neighborhood, between Grand Boulevard and Davison, is one block north of the Boston-Edison Historic District. Some of the houses need work, most seem well-maintained. As resident Electra Fulbright says, the neighborhood needs a little TLC.
But the housing stock is good: solid-framed three-story houses that date back to the early 1900s. Some residents have been in the homes for more than a decade, some for half a century. Many of the newcomers have family roots in the community. Fulbright’s parents owned the home she now lives in. JoeAnn McNeal moved into her husband’s family home as a newlywed in 1950. Dewey Harris and his wife inherited their home from her late brother.
Neighbors on Trowbridge know each other, and newcomer Anthony Cruz says they’ve welcomed him.
Cruz and others say they’ve long considered the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament at Woodward and Trowbridge a good neighbor. The landscaping the church does benefits the entire neighborhood, Cruz says. In winter, the church removes the snow on Trowbridge, sometimes used by overflow parking from church events.
In 1999, Fulbright says, the archdiocese approached the residents. A parking lot expansion necessitated closing part of a street, and the archdiocese needed residents’ approval. Fulbright — the unofficial spokeswoman for neighbors — says that after discussions, most folks were amenable to the closure, especially since residents were assured that the archdiocese didn’t plan to expand further.
In 2003, residents say they started getting registered letters offering to buy their homes.
Richard Laskos, an archdiocese spokesman, says the plan is to build new administrative offices for the archdiocese, but not in the immediate future.
“All of this is so far down the road,” Laskos says.
The decision was made several years ago, when a development seemed to threaten the existing offices of the archdiocese in downtown Detroit, Laskos says. “That’s when we developed a contingency plan.”
He says that Detroit’s Cardinal Adam Maida would like to have the offices in one central area near the cathedral.
Fulbright says there’s been no effort to meet with the homeowners or to explain plans for the area. That’s led to mistrust. Laskos says the archdiocese has only purchased two Trowbridge properties outright: “In both instances, the homeowners approached the archdiocese.”
But project developer Woodward Trowbridge Associates LLC may have acquired other properties, Laskos says. In fact, William Mitchell of Woodward Trowbridge says he’s acquired five or six properties on Trowbridge — but not enough to move forward.
Residents called the offers low, between $30,000 and $40,000. Mitchell says the average price he’s paid for a house in the area is more than $100,000.
Cruz says he can’t afford to take the $40,000 he was offered for the home he purchased for $100,000 in 2002 — he’d be unable to clear his existing mortgage, much less move into a new home.
Tony and Lolita Williams say their four-bedroom house was worth about $40,000 when they moved in eight years ago, but that remodeling has increased its assessed value. Like most houses on the street, the Williamses’ has a multiple-car garage. It has the original hardwood floors, a deck, many original fixtures, and the couple is remodeling the kitchen for the second time.
After bargaining, Lolita Williams says the offer rose to $125,000 — still not enough.
“I could not get what I have, even half of what I have, for that,” she says.
The Williamses say they would have been open to a fair offer, but would like to have some idea of the archdiocese’s plans.
“If we could pay our mortgage out and get into another home comfortably, maybe,” Tony Williams says.
Mitchell says he’s paid “way more than fair value” for the houses he’s bought.
“This isn’t one of those projects where they say whatever it costs, do it,” Mitchell says. “Is the issue we don’t want to sell, or is the issue we want more money? I can respect both.”
Mitchell says he believes residents are upset because the archdiocese is involved. “It’s like the archdiocese is being held hostage.”
“We need a large enough footprint to get started. If everything were 100 percent perfect, we would probably get about a dozen properties total, which would give us enough space to do administrative offices and housing in some form. If I got six [contiguous] properties maybe I can do administrative offices. If I got four of the properties now I might not be able to do anything.”
Mitchell says that the company wasn’t up front about the plans for fear of driving up prices. He says residents who don’t want to sell won’t be contacted again.
But residents have a right to know what’s going on in their neighborhood, says Kimberly James, of the City Planning Commission. She says that the commission tried to facilitate a meeting between residents and the developers, but ran into scheduling conflicts.
McNeal says she should have been informed about the plans. “You don’t just act like you’ve got a bunch of morons you’re doing business with.”
Two recent demolitions — both Woodward Trowbridge LLC purchases — have aggravated residents’ misgivings.
Mitchell dismisses fears about the demolitions: “That’s what happens when you’re trying to develop something.” He’s characterized the demolished homes as dangers to the neighborhood.
Four of the 21 houses on the block have been demolished since 2000. Residents concede that the two that went down during the 1999 project were eyesores. But the house most recently demolished — on March 16 — had just been remodeled, residents say.
The house next door to the Williams house was recently purchased by Woodward Trowbridge, and the Williamses are afraid it’s next to be demolished.
“I think the plan is to have all these holes in the block to push us out,” Lolita Williams says.
Mitchell denies that. “We’re not going to leave abandoned houses or open buildings or fallen-down buildings. We’re going to clean it up and do what we can do.”
Laskos says the archdiocese is aware of the bad feelings and says the church is reaching out to the residents. But he was unable to provide any examples, and residents say the church hasn’t contacted them.
Mitchell says he plans to meet with residents in the next week.
In the meantime, residents say they’re bothered by the uncertainty, not knowing, for instance, whether to spend money they may never recoup on home repairs and maintenance, or whether they’ll soon be living next to an empty lot.
Dewey Harris, 79, says he just wants to know what his street will look like next week.
“We’re in limbo.”Nancy Kaffer is a Metro Times staff writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org