Oct 19, 2023 - News

Detroit's forgotten Chinatown community center

3143 Cass on June 11 2011. Courtesy of Joe Kopeitz

3143 Cass on June 11, 2001. Photo: Courtesy of Joe Kopietz

The outcry over 3143 Cass Ave.'s demolition raised new questions about the building's former owners.

Catch up quick: Owner Olympia Development of Michigan — the Ilitch family's development company that operates LCA — tore it down in July after the city declared the partially collapsed building a public safety hazard.

  • The former community center was considered the heart of Detroit's Chinatown neighborhood, once home to more than 3,000 Chinese Americans, but it had been abandoned since the '90s.
The back of 3143 Cass Ave. the days before it was razed. Photo: Samuel Robinson/Axios
The back of 3143 Cass Ave. days before it was razed. Photo: Samuel Robinson/Axios

Behind the scenes: Through interviews and unearthing property records going back decades, Axios Detroit traced the property's ownership history back to the early 1990s, long before Olympia acquired it in 2015 from the late Joel Landy. The unassuming Cass Corridor resident, landlord and developer was immortalized with a neighborhood banner after he died in 2020.

Data: Wayne County Register of Deeds, Axios research; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: Wayne County Register of Deeds, Axios research; Chart: Axios Visuals

Olympia urged to preserve Chinatown history

Demolition plans for 3143 Cass unfolded suddenly despite objections from City Council members and advocacy groups.

Driving the news: The episode was more fuel for critics of the Ilitch family, which has devoted much of its Cass Corridor property portfolio to surface parking lots convenient for LCA patrons.

What they're saying: The community is still calling on Olympia to honor the site's history.

  • "It's a pivotal moment for us and Olympia to make this a space that is historic, that honors our history and brings together all of the community in Detroit," Carolyn Chin Watson, whose family took over the Shanghai Café in the 1960s, said after the demolition.

Yes, but: As other owners of the building found over the past 20 years, including Landy, its deterioration was difficult to overcome.

  • The building was slated for demolition as far back as 1987, when the city notified then-owner Chinese On Leong Association that it was an "unsafe structure."

The other side: Olympia spokesperson Allison Gabrys tells Axios the company is working with community stakeholders on its plans for 3143 Cass Ave.

Between the lines: Supported by significant public subsidies, Olympia and the Ilitch family have played an outsized role in the explosion of downtown development over the past decade.

  • After LCA was announced about a decade ago, Ilitch Holdings, Inc. president and CEO Chris Ilitch told the Detroit News that the family spent 15 years accumulating property for the area.
  • Many were bought through obscure subsidiaries and left undeveloped to keep property values from shooting up before LCA was announced.

Who is Landy?

Joel Landy banner on Burton Street Elementary School on Cass and Peterboro.
Joel Landy banner on Burton Street Elementary School on Cass and Peterboro. Photo: Samuel Robinson/Axios

Joel Landy was Detroit's essential eccentric developer, a renowned antique collector who was likely the city's last landlord of his kind.

The intrigue: Landy was a reflection of the neighborhood he spent his entire life investing in.

  • His former employees at Cass Avenue Development say he did right by his tenants and helped create a diverse living community made up of people from all walks of life.
  • He was an avid preservationist, restoring the historic Addison Hotel in the early 2000s, plus the James Scott Mansion on Peterboro Street in 2015.
  • Landy appeared on the History Channel's "American Pickers", and a signed photo of the show's co-stars praising his work in Cass Corridor still hangs in the lobby of the James Scott Mansion.

Catch up quick: After he died in 2020, a messy legal battle ensued over control of the $17.5 million sale of his entire portfolio, which includes the Charlotte, Park and Peterboro block as well as several buildings around Cass Corridor and beyond.

Flashback: Those who knew him — his tenants, business associates and employees — have stories that make their faces light up.

  • Landy's philosophy as a developer was to preserve buildings whenever possible, friend and former attorney Joe Kopietz tells Axios.
  • Landy had an impressive collection of vintage cars, '60s rock art and a functional steam train around the block — the tracks along Charlotte Street are still there.

Landy had his eyes on 3143 Cass Ave. for about a decade, Kopietz says, before buying it in 2000 from a Ferndale couple for $35,000, property records show.

  • "He sought to control it for the betterment of the area," Kopietz says.

The big picture: Over the past few decades, a combination of factors has prevented the neighborhood from significant growth — including the consolidation of land ownership among a few owners.

  • "Joel [Landy] had accumulated that entire block from Woodward to Cass and didn't have the capacity to do a big project there," says Essian, the developer behind the new Chinese restaurant project.
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