Friday, May 25, 2018
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Jack Lessenberry

Who's that unkempt man? Detroit's stellar developer

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

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

A few weeks ago, some diners' eyes turned to an unkempt-looking man sitting at a nice table. He was a bit 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 there, and how he even got in. When I asked, he chuckled.

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

Meet Joel Landy, the eccentric 60-year-old developer, collector, and architect of possibly the most improbably successful urban renewal projects in Michigan, if not all of America. He made it happen himself, with a lot of sweat equity, a little mechanical knowledge, no vast inherited wealth, and not 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, Mr. Landy said. The son of Russian immigrants, he dropped out of high school as a teenager, moved to Chicago, and founded a shop that printed counterculture posters.

Eventually, he returned to Detroit, where he gravitated to the Cass 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 Mr. Landy could do especially well was fix foreign cars. He established a business and started making money. He bought a dilapidated 1880s-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 slow to come, but he kept building. As children fled Detroit's public schools by the thousands, he bought an abandoned building for $1,000.

"I found a miracle banker who loaned me $5 million for construction and let me be the general contractor," Mr. Landy said. Before long, he was landlord to a thriving charter school operation that paid him $65,000 a month.

He built studios for artists and movie makers. Shortly before the Great Recession and the real-estate slump, he was told that his properties, "mostly bought for less than $100,000 total," were 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," Mr. Landy said.

Not that he is starry-eyed about street people. He boasts of having sent at least 17 to jail for trying to rip him off. Nor is he a conventional developer. He is famous for eccentric and eclectic collecting: model trains, engines, and a colony of cats, some domestic, some feral.

Last year, he was featured on the History Channel's American Pickers. The doorway to his mansion is surrounded by empty tins of cat food.

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

"I'm seeing Detroit's rebirth, and this time it's real," he said. "Every day, 20 or 30 new people are moving here, looking for housing downtown."

For the past year, his units have all had "no vacancy" signs. "Every week," he said, "I hear of maybe 10 people inquiring about starting a new business downtown."

They are smart to do so, he said. "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 advised. "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, he added. "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."

But Detroit is coming back anyway, he insisted.

"When I moved here in 1977, we used to play baseball in the street," he recalled. "Every couple of hours, we'd move for a car to pass.

"Now, I have been criticized for creating traffic jams. Bring on the criticism."

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

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