By Steve Neavling and Abigail Shah
Motor City Muckraker
In the two weeks leading up to a controversial vote on the fate of a historic hotel near the planned Red Wings arena, Mayor Mike Duggan waged an unusually aggressive, questionable campaign in support of demolishing the 91-year-old building.
Beginning late last month, Duggan replaced an award-winning preservationist and long-time member of the Historic District Commission, Julie Long, with a former water employee and campaign supporter, Kenneth Sanders, who owes as much as $16,000 in delinquent taxes and water bills, according to city and county records obtained by Motor City Muckraker.
What’s more, it’s unclear whether the mayor even had the authority to remove Commissioner Long, who was among a narrow majority of commissioners expected to oppose the demolition of the historic Hotel Park Avenue. The city forbids the removal of commissioners without just cause, but the mayor’s administration told a shocked Long that the city possessed no documentation to prove she was sworn in for a third term in 2013, a statement that Long finds perplexing, if not suspicious.
“I clearly remember being sworn in. It definitely happened,” Long told us. “I have no idea how they lost the paperwork. I offered to come in and be sworn in again, but they chose to replace me with Mr. Sanders.”
On Monday, a day before the scheduled demolition vote, the mayor forced another commissioner and preservationist, David Cartwright, off the commission after a curiously timed investigation by the administration discovered he lived outside of the city. He, too, supported preserving the 13-story building. He ultimately resigned under pressure.
Top members of Duggan’s administration also met privately with some of the remaining commissioners to encourage them to support the demolition. But after realizing Monday that the commission appeared to be deadlocked 2-2, the administration advised arena developer Olympia Development to postpone the meeting until there’s enough support. (Two commissioners have recused themselves because of financial ties to Ilitch.)
Despite sources from both sides confirming the background maneuvering, Mayor Duggan denies even having an opinion about the demolition.
“The mayor chooses to rely on the expertise of appointed boards,” mayoral spokesman John Roach told us.
On Monday evening, we decided to pay a visit to Sanders’ home and find out why he wanted to serve on the commission and why he wasn’t paying his taxes. At the door, he was cordial and invited us in for a drink.
Two suits of armor stood guard at the kitchen, where Sanders poured us a heavy glass of cabernet sauvignon. He poured himself a glass of Glenlivet Scotch whiskey from behind a well-stocked bar and led us to his library where we sat on plush chairs surrounded by hardcover books and lead glass windows.
When we asked what made him qualified for the Historic District Commission, he leaned back on his chair, took a swig from his whiskey and said, “Where are you? A historic house.”
Speaking of the house, which was adorned with original artwork and artifacts, we asked Sanders why he had fallen so far behind on his bills.
“It’s taken care of,” he said. “It’s no longer an issue.”
County records show Sanders narrowly avoided tax foreclosure this year by making a payment in April. As of last week, county records indicated that Sanders still owed nearly $15,000 in property taxes dating back to 2011. And as of Monday, the retired water official had an overdue water and sewage bill totaling $2,468.
The Historic District Commission hasn’t yet scheduled another meeting. It’s not yet clear whether the delays will postpone Olympia’s plans to open the arena in 2017.
Duggan’s Chief Talent Officer Bryan Barnhill II has been tasked with finding the next commissioner, who will require the approval of Detroit City Council.
If the Historic District Commission turns down the demolition, Olympia Development will have three options: Ask Duggan’s administration to issue an emergency demolition permit by showing the building is dangerous; appeal the decision to the State Historic Preservation Review Board; or restore the building.
In January, Duggan’s administration issued an emergency demolition order to Grosse Pointe Park after the Historic District Commission unanimously rejected the request.
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.