Detroit will move forward with demolishing a crumbling historic building in the former Chinatown neighborhood after ruling that the City Council has no authority to delay the tear down.
Council Member Gabriela Santiago-Romero said historic preservationists asked her to help save 3143 Cass Ave., which was built in 1883 and later became a gathering hall for Chinese American residents who were displaced by urban renewal programs. The building is owned today by Olympia Development of Michigan, the Ilitch family’s real estate firm, and is near its “District Detroit” portfolio. A resolution council passed Tuesday to delay the demolition lacks “any legal impact,” the Detroit Law Department announced Wednesday.
“I regret not moving forward in requesting an interim (historic) designation, and I didn’t because Olympia said we would work together and (the city’s building department) said as long as we’re working with Olympia then they can delay,” Santiago-Romero said Wednesday. “There’s definitely some backhanded coordination happening that I’m not aware of.”
Santiago-Romero said the Historic District Advisory Board was in the middle of a process dating back several years to designate the building as historically significant. Janese Chapman, director of the advisory board, said the site is eligible for designation on the National Register of Historic Places but said more time is needed to complete a report outlining reasons to preserve the building.
A 2020 report from the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office shows the building has significance in “ethnic heritage” and “social history” from 1963 to 1980.
In lieu of a historic designation, Detroit Corporation Counsel Conrad Mallett argues the city must proceed with demolition. David Bell, director of the city’s Buildings Safety, Engineering and Environmental Department, said the building’s condition has worsened to the point of becoming a public safety hazard that “needs to be addressed immediately.”
“Following City Council’s vote yesterday attempting to delay this city-ordered demolition, I requested a legal opinion from the law department to advise whether the council resolution supersedes the professional opinion of BSEED inspectors,” Bell said in a statement. “This morning, the law department issued its opinion, which confirmed that a council resolution expressing its wish that the demolition be delayed has no legal force or effect and does not take precedent over the interests of public safety.”
State Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, reiterated the call for a delay in the demolition in a Wednesday letter to Bell, saying the building holds memories for many Asian Americans, and destroying it will “destroy what little remnants we have left of Detroit’s old Chinatown.”
“For many Asian Americans in and around the city of Detroit, this building represents where many of their relatives first place their roots,” Chang wrote.
Santiago-Romero shared a letter from Sandra Lee, who identified herself as a third-generation Chinese-American woman born in Detroit “in a small but vibrant Chinese community in the Cass Corridor.” Lee said Detroit’s history “would be incomplete without the representation and voice of this Chinese community.”
“On the second floor of 3143 Cass Ave, it also housed the Lim Family Association – one of many family associations connected to the Chinese Merchant Association – that was a governing body that assisted immigrants new to the country to find homes and jobs and to ease into this foreign land,” Lee wrote. “It was also central to Chinese celebrations and other community events … Members co-signed rental leases for new immigrants who had little credit history to help establish roots into the community.”
Santiago-Romero said meetings between herself, city departments and Olympia ended with a “mutual understanding” that the demolition would be paused if council expressed support for allowing a completed historic review.
City Council ordered the demolition in 2018, Bell said, but nothing happened in the last five years. Meanwhile the building’s condition deteriorated, he said, including the partial collapse of the roof and interior walls.
Olympia was ordered by the city to demolish the property on May 10, according to a statement from the development company. ODM awarded a demolition contract to Farrow Group Inc. and secured a demolition permit in July.
“We wish to remain in good standing with the City of Detroit on this issue and await the City’s direction regarding 3143 (Cass Ave.),” ODM said in an email. “We are committed to our redevelopment efforts throughout The District Detroit.”
Olympia acquired the property in 2015 from the late Joel Landy, who spent considerable time and resources to preserve historic buildings in Cass Corridor. The building had been vacant since 1979.
It’s unclear what Olympia plans to do with the site. BridgeDetroit did not receive a response when posing the question to Olympia, but the company said it plans to move ahead with renovations of multiple properties in the area.
Detroit resident and historic preservation activist Francis Grunow was working with Santiago-Romero to save the former Chinatown building. He doesn’t understand the rush to demolish the site after it sat vacant for decades, particularly as conversations about saving the building seemed to be gathering momentum.
“I’m under no illusion that the building isn’t in bad shape,” Grunow said Wednesday. “What we were hoping to do is have a third-party evaluate during this window of time to assess its ability to be restored or understand what structural issues were concerning.”
Grunow said other historic structures in the area are finding new life, including a commercial strip on the block north that contains the Peterboro Restaurant, Iconic TaSoo, and 8 Degrees Plato. The former home of Chung’s restaurant was sold in May with plans for a new restaurant.
Grunow said the Historic Designation Advisory Board should be allowed to complete its report. He said the demolition is particularly sad because efforts to save the building reinvigorated interest in Chinatown and Detroit’s Asian American community.
“The community has responded and people are very interested in that particular part of Cass Corridor’s history, and whether that building helps interpret that period of time,” Grunow said. “It would be a shame if the latest chapter is the city rushed to demolish the heart of that neighborhood. People (across the country) were talking about flying out for the historic designation later this fall. It has both illuminated and excited people and now the city is taking that away.”
Santiago-Romero said she will submit a memo to the Historic Designation Advisory Board and the council’s Legislative Policy Division requesting an opinion on the resolution passed Tuesday. She said the council has limited options to take action because it started a summer recess that ends in September.
“It might be too late,” Santiago-Romero said. “We would have been OK with demolition if we had gone through the process, talked to Asian American leadership and saw resources weren’t there, the interest wasn’t there to save the property. We would have let it go knowing we did all we can to save the property. I don’t understand what the rush is, what one more month of allowing us that time. Olympia said they are not pro-demolition, they are doing what the city told them to do.”