Mayor Duggan’s team approves demo of historic Deck Bar with ’emergency’ order

Crews began demolishing the historic Deck Bar this week.
Crews began demolishing the historic Deck Bar this week.

For the past seven years, city of Detroit officials and preservationists have waged a long, expensive and impassioned legal battle to prevent Grosse Pointe Park from demolishing the historic, two-story Deck Bar.

But that success, which included a Michigan Court of Appeals victory, ended abruptly this week with the unexpected demolition of the 97-year-old building at the corner of E. Jefferson and Alter in Detroit, just south of Grosse Pointe Park.

Just one month after the Detroit Historic District Commission unanimously rejected the Park’s request to tear down the building at 14901 E. Jefferson, Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration quietly issued an “emergency” demolition permit for the old brick building.

By issuing the permit, the city’s Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department (BSEED) leap-frogged the required approval of city council and the Detroit Historic District Commission, both of which have supported preserving the building.

The building originally housed the American State Bank. Via
The building originally housed the American State Bank. Via

Grosse Pointe Park officials plan to replace the building with a pocket park.

The Detroit suburb bought the long-closed bar in 2004 with plans to demolish it and build a bus-turnaround facility. But just days before the former bank building was to be razed, the Historic District Commission designated the building as a protected historic property. Grosse Pointe Park challenged the designation but lost in Wayne County Circuit Court and the Michigan Court of Appeals.

Since buying the building, which originally served as the American State Bank, Grosse Pointe Park has done very little to protect the structure, causing it to fall deeper into disrepair.

“This is yet another case in Detroit of demolition by neglect,” said Emilie Evans, of the Michigan Historic Preservation Network and National Trust for Historic Preservation. “The building was in such a state of disrepair because no one maintained it and made the necessary repairs.”

According to Detroit’s inspection, the building “is vacant and open to trespass and to the elements.”

Grosse Pointe Park City Manager Dale Krajniak said the building has been dilapidated since his community bought it in 2004. When the Park prepared to demolish the building, which hadn’t yet been protected with a historic designation, Krajniak said the building was gutted.

“We had it on the market it for three years and there wasn’t any interest,” Krajniak added.

The city inspection describes a crumbling building with little to no hope of saving. The roof is collapsing. The first floor has sagging joints and falling debris. Mold has infested the wood structure.

“In our opinion, this property should be demolished as soon as possible in order to protect the healthy, safety and welfare of the public,” wrote Eric Jones, director of the city’s building department.

In the 1970s, the Deck Bar was one of the only gay establishments in southeast Michigan.

“Like most gay bars, the place had its day and then it passed,” according to the blog, Supergay Detroit. “There were attempts to extend its popularity – drag shows, piano players, Sunday brunch. But after its short stint as the ‘in’ place, it settled into life as a cozy neighborhood hangout. This life too must have run its course, the last time I was in Detroit, The Deck was just another boarded up building waiting for whatever comes next.”

Duggan’s spokesman, John Roach, said the decision to issue the demolition permit was made solely by BSEED and was not influenced by the mayor, who just months earlier signed a deal with Grosse Pointe Park to demolish buildings, including the Deck Bar, along the communities’ shared border.

“This was a decision made purely at the departmental level, and the mayor supports its decision,” Roach told me.

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.

  • Please see the below comment, Steve. Also, what’s with this war against GP?

  • Harry Palmer

    Unfortunate, another old building that can’t be replicated bulldozed. Can’t wait to see what municipal eyesore takes it place… hope it’s up to the same high aesthetic standards as those Kercheval sheds.

    • How many old buildings have you rehabbed and put to productive economic uses?

    • javierjuanmanuel

      if the inside is trashed, which it was, it is not a loss. It is almost NOTHING to replicate the outside. It just will not have hand laid plaster, old growth wood trim hand turned, hand painted tiles etc.

      What was left, was the unremarkable part, any mason could build you that EXACT building. I think it looked cool, I like that style, I basically only like prewar stuff, but the outside of those buildings is not special. Its just brick and limestone.

      You could salvage those bricks, and basically rebuild that exact building no problem, it just costs more. You simply cannot afford to replicate the old buildings, the classy ones, with orginal brass casting, hand made lead glass, hand carved wood, hand turned wood, mosiacs and more. You would end up spending 5 times per sq ft (or more, you could easily spend way way more) and no one would ever rent it when it was done, it cannot be profitable.

      You have no idea what you are talking about.

  • RedVagOfCourage

    New rule…if the Historic District Commission wants to designate properties as historic, they have to purchase the properties, maintain them, and improve them.

    Its utterly insane they are going around and “saving” buildings no one wants. If this building had a future, someone would have come in, purchased it, and saved it. Instead more and more money was wasted in the courts on a property that no one wants.

    We are literally DROWNING in abandoned property. Near as I can tell, the Historic District Commission basically designates EVERYTHING historic. You are never going to see large scale re-development in Detroit if every time a local community or developer purchases a distressed property for reuse, the Historic Commission can arbitrarily come in and stop everything.

    600k left in the city and we are worried about a fucking bar that hasn’t been occupied in 11 fucking years. Its shit like this that makes the rest of the US laugh at us.

    • This is the best username, ever. Also a very astute comment. I salute you.

      • RedVagOfCourage

        I used to do property demo and revamp in Baltimore City when i was in college. Pretty much every paperwork nightmare and scam possible, I’ve seen it…from people claiming they own a property when they don’t, to married members of the city government squatting on property, expecting a major payoff to get out of the way.

        I’ve never even thought about trying it in Detroit. The big fish in Detroit have rigged the system to make it nearly impossible to try and make any headway.

        • The system wasn’t design to spur investment, it was designed to require bribes.

          • RedVagOfCourage

            I wouldn’t go that far. I always get annoyed when people complain about getting permits, when the whole point of the process is to protect property owners from frankly…people like me. Permits are critical in preventing scams and abuse. I’m ethical, but if I wasn’t, I could make mad blank just ripping people off left and right. And permits also protect me as well as a contractor. People act like the permit process is arduous when its pretty straight forward if you do your homework.

            While a lot of people complain about contractors and sub-contracts, I have run into just as many shady property owners.

            Per government officials, again, they have a role to play to ensure people are not being taken advantage of. And from my experience, the vast majority of government employees are honest. But man oh man…when you run into the scammer…they can derail a project faster than anything else.

            Detroit’s number one issue from my perspective and experience is the role scrappers are playing in making property revamps a losing deal for all but the big players. When I would do the job in Baltimore, I was dealing with the same environmental issues as Detroit properties…asbestos, lead paint, PCB’s, etc. Doing that correctly and safe incurred a lot of costs, which I would then need recycling to offset. Even doing a complete demolition job, I needed those recyclables to help offset my costs.

            This is why when I see people in Detroit acting like scrapping is no big deal frustrates me to no end. We will never see our city get fixed as long as its being actively ripped apart piecemeal.

          • Just to clarify, if you’ve never plied your redevelopment trade in Detroit, how do you know about the permitting process?

            Your point about scrapping and the economic impact it has on redevelopment can’t be overstated.

            By the way, I was speaking more of the approval process and not the permitting process.

          • RedVagOfCourage

            I’ve assisted a coworker through getting permits for his home in Detroit, specifically attaching a deck. OBVIOUSLY not the same as doing a complete demo or a restoration job within Wayne County. I make no claim of being an expert nor would I offer advice to folks just through the internet.

            I work for a Japanese/US company and whenever someone from work finds out about my work experience in college, I get peppered with questions whenever I am back in the states. So while I am no longer in the “game”, I kind of always have my ear to the ground. Its at least once a week, someone is asking me for advice…and its from all over the states. But again…NO EXPERT. I will not advise anyone without sitting them down and going through everything and even then, they need to do their own legwork.

            Very generally, the permit and approval process is roughly the same despite the location, though some areas are notorious difficult like say Boston and San Francisco. Historical groups in those locations are incredibly frustrating to work with…but it kind of makes sense. In those locations, restore properties are worth a LOT. There is a massive demand and you can recoup your expenses. Its not a given of course, but its very doable if you understand the market and do it right. With Detroit, I just feel like there is this massive disconnect from reality. You can’t just restore a mansion in the middle of a block that has no legal occupancy. Even assuming you aren’t dealing with theft and security issues, you will never see a return for your investment.

            I don’t want to see Detroit just flattened. But the shear amount of properties that get labeled “historic” is insane. It would take billions to restore every piece of “historic” property in Detroit. (that number conveniently pulled out of my ass).

          • I’ve never known it to be convenient to remove anything from my ass.

            Detroit clings to its past (says the guy from GP) like a child too afraid of letting go of their baby blanket. As a result, everything is historic. Historic this. Historic that. Ask why it’s historic, you’ll generally get the answer “because it’s old”. That’s not historic. That’s just being old.

          • javierjuanmanuel

            they have buildings built in the 60s labeled historic (Lafayette towers)

          • javierjuanmanuel

            Just knocking down everything they tallied at more than a billion, costs about 10-20k to level and haul away, costs about 200k-500k to “restore”, so I would say it would cost about 50 billion to fix up the historic stuff, which they think is basically everything.

          • RedVagOfCourage

            Sorry for the slow response.

            I am not advocating that everything gets demolished. The problem that people are running into is trying to re-purpose and being told its historical.

            Historical restoration can be INSANELY expensive depending on how restrictive the overseeing agency is.

    • javierjuanmanuel

      preach. The goal is not to save anything, it is to stop commerce, to stop progress, to keep the status quo, to empower themselves but with no burden to get anything done.

      The fix things with a stamped paper.

      Then shout from the roof top that “someone” should do what they want, but they do not pay. The other person pays, and does what they say.

  • The old blighted building was bought by GPP after a private party purchased it and found it completely uneconomical to turn back into a bar. GPP was going to demolish it in order to move the bus turnaround and use that space, which is in their borders, more efficiently. Some people got a bug up their butts about that and then declared it historic, which, arguably it is. However, it was less a way to preserve history and more of a way of thwarting whitey and his plans for improving the area.

    GPP soon realizes that doing anything in conjunction with previous Detroit administrations was just not going to happen. They try to sell the “historic” building and can’t.

    Fast forward to the shed debacle and that’s where you come to this. The shed stayed until GPP got some reasonable assurance that they would remove the blight along the border. This was clearly part of the deal.

    • Oberyn_Martell

      Accurate. Part of the deal and a shrewd way to cut the red tape as Duggan is known to do.

  • Chris Carpenter

    There is already a “turnaround facility” on the same black, ironically in Grosse Pointe Park.

    • Sheldon Silverbaum

      The original idea when GPP purchased the building was to move the bus turnaround to the site of the building.

    • Oberyn_Martell

      Chris I always wonder why you loathe your hometown. You’re on alter below Jefferson not at say Connor and Harper. You enjoy the relative security of your neighbor (hometown) yet I always see you bash it at every chance. Also I know you had a damn good time growing up there. By the way I loved Big Cliff. Hope all is well and Clinton is still slapping those buckets.

      • javierjuanmanuel

        He got the priviledges and comforts associated with growing up there, the education, the safety, now he trades in getting pats on the back and being told he is one of the good ones. He is not so fond of white people either despite being lilly white.

  • falseprophet

    Emergency order! The building must have been holding up a bribe or a payoff wink, wink…

  • Peter Dale

    Interestingly, across the street at 14716 Jefferson, between Manistique and Alter, is Marshall’s Bar. Marshall’s is a a truly historic bar that is still going strong. It has a back door opening up to the Fox Creek canal leading to the Detroit river. Liquor smuggling boats coming from Windsor would come up the canal and the bar would act as a distribution point and speakeasy. It is still a neighborhood bar that is warm and not yuppie-fied.

  • HankReardon

    I’m confused. Should the community be outraged or relieved?

    • Judi Blueye

      That depends on what you believe to be right. Detroit needs a hand up? Or Detroit needs to burn to the ground to make way for a better, BRIGHTER city.

  • Eric

    There was nothing historical or unique about this building…

    • Chris Carpenter

      I disagree. It was built at the turn of the 20th century with building techniques and craftsmanship you don’t see these days. Don’t get me wrong, if they couldn’t find a suitable tenant, then obviously it should be raised to bring in new development.

      • javierjuanmanuel

        I think he meant remaining. If you left the roof off, or leaky roof, leaky pipes, leaky windows etc for 20 years most buildings are knockdowns. Thats just reality.

        You can basically have a knock down with just a single leaky pipe, left unattended for one weekend.

        If you have a pipe burst, go up north, your home is a knock down. It does not matter if it is an albert kahn home, or mies van der rohe, yamasaki its toast.

        I mean in terms of insurance, you can of course spend 5 times what a house is worth to fix it back up, but then if anyone cared that much, this place would never have fallen into disrepair, much less vacant.

        It would home a bustling profitable business and the owner would put tens of thousands of dollars every year into keeping it up.

  • TimeEd

    Corner of E. Jefferson and Kercheval huh? Didn’t know those streets intersected. Learn something new everyday!

    • thevillagemalcontent

      Well… it is the MUCKRAKER…after all.

    • w00dbeck

      2nd paragraph – 1st (and only) sentence.
      “at the corner of E. Jefferson and Alter in Detroit” NOT Kercheval.

      • TimeEd

        Thanks, w00dbeck. Because of my comment, Steve went ahead and edited the story. It first read “Kercheval” NOT Alter.