Traverse City Record-Eagle

August 19, 2012

Jack Lessenberry: Developer has a hand in Detroit's rebirth

By Jack Lessenberry, Syndicated columnist

---- — There's an elegantly restored apartment building called the Addison on the edge of Detroit's legendary Cass Corridor, an area that a few years ago belonged to hookers and winos.

The Addison, however, features urban living at its finest; on its ground floor is a classy restaurant, the Atlas Global Bistro, which often serves as a lunch and dinner spot for the city's elite.

A few weeks ago, some of the diners' eyes turned to an unkempt-looking man sitting at a nice table. He was glassy-eyed, and needed a shave. His work shirt was wrinkled; his pants smudged, and his hands stained with nicotine and grease.

Some of the customers may have wondered what he was doing in there. A few may have wondered how he got in to the restaurant.

When I asked, he chuckled and said, "well, I own the building. Actually, I own all these buildings, three square blocks," he said. "Except the one my ex-wife lives in, but let's not talk about that."

Meet Joel Landy, a 60-year-old eccentric developer, collector, and architect of possibly the most improbably successful urban renewal projects in the state, if not all of America. And he's made it all happen himself, with a lot of sweat equity, a little mechanical knowledge, no vast inherited wealth and nary a government dime.

He's fought off pimps and drug dealers and corrupt politicians; installed barbed wire and cameras where he had to; placed a new two-screen movie theater (Cass City Cinema) and a first-rate Montessori pre-school in the same restored school building.

What's more, after years of false alarms, he really believes Detroit is coming back. "Thirty years ago, I had this dream," of a restored vibrant city, Landy said. The son of Russian immigrants, he dropped out of high school as a teenager, moved to Chicago, and printed counterculture posters.

Eventually, he wound up back in Detroit, where he gravitated to the corridor because of the freedom it offered; he once said "it's a place where you can park a tractor on your front lawn if you want to. I certainly couldn't do that in the suburbs."

What Landy could do especially well was fix foreign cars. He established a business, stated making money. Soon, he was able to buy a somewhat dilapidated 1882-era mansion in the corridor, with a garage big enough for his two classic Packard cars.

Total cost? $4,600. He scratched his head. "I would always say, where are the smart aware people? Can't anyone see what is here?" Others may have been very slow to come, but he kept building. With children fleeing the Detroit schools by the thousands, he bought one abandoned building for $1,000. "I found a miracle banker who loaned me $5 million for construction and let me be the general contractor." Before long, Landy was landlord to a thriving charter school operation that was paying him $65,000 a month.

He built studios for artists, for movie makers. Shortly before the Great Recession and the real estate slump, he was told that his collection on properties "mostly bought for less than $100,000 total" was worth $28 million. He wasn't interested in selling.

"I decided to help everyone around me to develop everything around me, and in that way improve my quality of life for my neighbors and myself," Landy said.

Not that he is starry-eyed about street people; he proudly boasts of having sent at least 17 to jail for trying to rip him off. Nor is he a conventional developer. What he is really at least as famous for is eccentric and eclectic collecting — model trains, engines, and a colony of cats; some house, some feral. (Last year, he was featured on the History Channel's popular show, American Pickers.)

Not too many people are high on Detroit these days, as the city struggles to avoid bankruptcy with a set of leaders who often seem out of touch with economics and reality. Landy ignores them.

"I'm seeing Detroit's rebirth, and this time it's real," he says. "Every day, 20 or 30 new people are moving here, looking for housing downtown." For the past year, his own units have all had NO VACANCY signs. "Every week, I hear of maybe 10 people inquiring about starting a new business downtown."

They are smart to do so, he says. "The opportunities are great. We have some great historic stock waiting for creativity to lead it to re-use — you can find great assets here for pennies on the dollar."

Look at empty schools, he advises; "if you convert them to housing you save hundreds of thousands on fire safety and building safety improvements you aren't required to add."

Things could be better still if the banks did their part. "No bank in the country will put up money for these rental rehab projects in Detroit. They have been in no way encouraged to loan here," he says "¦ and shrugs. Detroit is coming back anyway, he said. "When I moved here in 1977, we used to play baseball in the street.

"Every couple of hours, we'd move for a car to pass. Now, I have been criticized for creating traffic jams," he grinned.

"Bring on the criticism!"

Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio's senior political analyst, ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade and former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News. He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.