Nearly a year ago, a 40-pound chunk of the landmark Wurlitzer Building in downtown Detroit came crashing down on 1515 Broadway next door, busting a large hole in the roof and breaking support beams.
The owner of 1515 is still fearful that something similar — or even worse — could happen again.
News Hits recently paid a return visit to Chris Jaszczak — a longtime friend of this paper — and found a network of plastic tarps and 5-gallon buckets being used to capture the snowmelt pouring through the still-unrepaired ceiling of his loft, which is above a cozy theater and café on the ground floor. He had his TV tuned to the Weather Channel as he mopped up puddles.
Jaszczak is in a tough spot. When that hunk of stone from the Wurlitzer fell last April, he had lost control of the property in a foreclosure fight. The bank has since relented after an outpouring of public support for the longtime owner of a building that has provided the community with a performance space for more than three decades.
Jaszczak was able to obtain a new mortgage — but to keep it he has to have insurance on the building, and getting affordable coverage is proving to be incredibly difficult because of the threat that continues to be posed by the Wurlitzer Building.
Compounding his fears is the fact that Jaszczak, who's divorced, has a son in elementary school who spends half his time at 1515.
But it is not only Jaszczak who is concerned about the dangers posed by the once-grand 14-story building constructed in 1926.
Last year, the city filed a complaint in Wayne County Circuit Court against the building's current owner — 1509 Broadway LLC. The limited liability corporation is controlled by Detroit attorney Paul D. Curtis, the husband of Wayne County Judge Daphne Means Curtis.
Before the LLC took control, the building was owned outright by Paul Curtis, who declined a request from News Hits to talk about the longstanding problems at the Wurlitzer.
According to court records, he purchased the building under a land contract in 1995, reportedly paying $211,000. The transfer of ownership to 1509 Broadway LLC, through a quit claim deed in September 2008, appears to have been a way to delay following previous court orders to make the building safe or sell it to someone who would.
"It is little wonder Mr. Curtis [created the limited liability corporation], because from the early 2000s up until 2008, he had been issued numerous correction orders for violations of the City of Detroit Property Maintenance Code and concomitantly, has also been issued numerous blight violation tickets," attorneys for the city noted in a court filling.
There've been problems associated with the Wurlitzer for years. In 2005, the city sued for nonpayment of taxes for a six-year period beginning in 1996, and although Curtis eventually agreed to pay $48,630, tax payments continue to be an issue. According to county records, the LLC currently owes $33,935 for 2009-2011.
In addition to the tax problems, Curtis was sued by the county in 2005 because of the building's dangerous deterioration.
Falling brick and a dangling fire escape caused the Wurlitzer to be a "threat to the health, safety, peace and welfare of the citizens of Wayne County" and a "nuisance to the surrounding neighborhood," according to court documents.
By that point the once-thriving, then deserted theater district was experiencing a revival that remains under way.
In June 2005, a judge gave Curtis six months to either correct the problems or sell the building. Two years later, having done neither, the county sought to take control of the structure, claiming that the property remained "in such disrepair as to constitute a blight and hazard. ..."
Subsequently, Curtis transferred ownership to the LLC in September 2008, and a month later, the city found "15 major violations" and declared the building was "extremely hazardous."
Two years later, the problems still had not been corrected, and the situation, according to the city, had become an "emergency requiring immediate corrective action."
And still, nothing was done.
Last April, the city filed a new suit claiming that "despite the issuance of several multi-violation correction orders and the tremendous risk of severe injury and/or death to members of the public, the defendant had failed to make the exterior walls and fire escape safe."
According to an affidavit in the court file, the building, among other things, poses a threat to the Detroit People Mover, which passes directly beneath it.
In July 2011, Wayne County Judge Robert Colombo Jr. ordered that the repairs needed to make the building safe be completed within 90 days. That deadline, too, came and went, even though large sections of the exterior brick wall on the upper floors were obviously separated from the structure and perilously close to falling.
Eventually, gravity did the work Curtis was supposed to have done, with large sections of brick falling off. Fortunately, no one was injured.
But the building remains an extreme danger.
A spokeswoman for the People Mover tells News Hits that the track nearby is checked regularly to make sure it hasn't been damaged by falling debris. And a representative of the city's Buildings, Safety Engineering & Environmental Department tells us that orders to make the building safe have yet to be fully complied with.
For one thing the roof of the Wurlitzer is still leaking badly. As a result, the building's degradation is an ongoing problem.
Last November, attorneys for the city filed a motion asking Judge Colombo to find Curtis in contempt for failing to repair the building as ordered by the court. The judge declined to do that.
However, Colombo tells News Hits, "This is the most important case on my docket. I remain worried that someone is going to be hurt or killed."
Some progress has been made. The building has been closed off to trespassers. Scaffolding has been erected to protect people walking on the sidewalk along Broadway. A fence blocks access to the alley at the rear of the building, an area strewn with hundreds of fallen bricks. And the Wurlitzer now has electricity, which will allow further work to be accomplished.
But much work still remains to be completed before the building can be considered safe, and the going remains slow.
Michael Muller, the city attorney in charge of this case, says that 1509 Broadway LLC has no property insurance. Consequently, anyone victim of falling debris is unlikely to be compensated for their grief. The same goes for the city if the People Mover is damaged.
As Muller explains it, the city is in a difficult position. Detroit, which is on the brink of insolvency and in danger of being put under the control of an emergency manager, would be hard-pressed to take over the property and repair or demolish it. And putting Curtis in jail might not do much good, Muller says, if the problem is a lack of funds on his part.
We're not so sure. Some time behind bars could significantly increase the motivation for Paul Curtis to sell the property to someone who would not just keep it from being a public hazard, but would renovate it and turn it back into a community asset.
But that's just an opinion.
What we are sure of is that this problem has been going on for at least a decade, and that a serious threat remains.
Just ask Chris Jaszczak, who has been sleeping with one eye open for the past year, waiting for the next crash to come.
Post script: As News Hits was going to press Monday, Jaszczak called to say high winds over the weekend took out most of the Wurlitzer's top floor's rear wall, which fell into the alley behind the building. With the support that wall provided now gone, a precarious situation appears to have grown even worse.
"It was very scary before," says Jaszczak. "It's even scarier now."