DETROIT (WXYZ) - Falling bricks, shards of glass, dangling fire escapes - they are hazards that have become all too common around Detroit's neglected, vacant buildings.
So why are so many of the owners of decaying high-rises basically ignoring tickets from the city and court orders?
When a pile of bricks tumbled off the crumbling Wurlitzer building in March – Chris Jaszczak wasn't surprised.
"It's scary – it was scary before," Jaszczak told 7 Action News Investigator Heather Catallo.
Jaszczak has operated the performance space and café known as 1515 Broadway for decades.
It's not the first time Jaszczak has had to endure concrete, bricks, and chunks of mortar raining down on his home and business, which are adjacent to the vacant high-rise.
Last year– a 40 pound concrete wall cap from the Wurlitzer landed on Jaszczak's roof – busting wooden beams that shattered his windows.
"The reality is, that could happen any time. All the time, any time. So there's not a time off from it. It's stressful, real stressful," said Jaszczak.
So who owns this building that the city calls a menace?
"You don't have anything to say about letting this building just sit there and have pieces of it fall," Catallo asked the Wurlitzer's owner.
The owner has received more than 100 blight violations for the building since 2008.
That's why the city took him to court last year – saying "that despite the tremendous risk of severe injury and/or death to members of the public" the owner had failed to make the building safe.
"To not do what they were ordered to do is criminal! And it is! I mean that's the point – they've gotten violations for years! For years," said Jaszczak.
Jaszczak isn't the only one at risk from the decaying Wurlitzer. The People Mover track is extremely close to the building – and the city is most worried about the 600 lb terra cotta corner pieces that look like they could fall at any time.
Judge Robert Colombo has ordered the owner to fix the building, and calls the Wurlitzer case the most important one on his docket because someone could get seriously hurt.
So who is this owner who has been ignoring orders from the court?
His name is Paul Curtis – he's an attorney in Detroit – and married to a Wayne County Circuit Court Judge.
"Mr. Curtis, I'm Heather Catallo from Channel 7. We need to talk to you about the Wurlitzer bldg. Why haven't you made that building safe," asked Catallo. "Aren't you worried that somebody could get hurt – how do you sleep at night? Why won't you talk to us about this building? Why haven't you been complying with the court's orders?"
Curtis refused to answer any questions.
Curtis has been in violation of Colombo's orders for months. Even Wayne County took Curtis to court back in 2005, but Jasczcak says little progress is ever made.
Curtis isn't the only downtown building owner who's in the cross hairs of the City's Building, Safety, and Engineering Department – accused of ignoring blight and safety violations.
In March, tumbling bricks from the 107-year-old Hotel Charlevoix crashed through the roof of a parked car. A few weeks later, high winds sent shards of glass sailing through the air onto the street below at Park and Elizabeth.
"How big of a priority is it for the City of Detroit to monitor and keep track of these unsafe buildings?" Catallo asked Detroit's Assistant Chief Building Inspector, John Martin.
"It is our No. 1 priority right now," said Martin.
Martin says they've been ticketing and issuing corrective orders against the owner, Troy attorney Ralph Sachs – since 2008.
"What do you think about these property owners that basically just kind of ignore the city when you're trying to keep people safe?" asked Catallo.
"Well, I don't have much to say about their character. To me it seems like if you have a building with bricks falling off of it, you would take care of it. Because it could be harmful to the public," said Martin.
Martin says Sachs wouldn't fix the façade of the building until just recently when they hauled him in front of a judge. On the day we visited the Charlevoix building – Martin was surprised to discover the owner was actually on-site - at least he was, until we tried to talk him.
Ralph Sachs took off – and wouldn't return our calls to answer questions about his building that's been raining bricks.
His attorney later told us – Sachs is complying with the court's orders.
City inspectors are now launching a blitz – demanding engineering reports from owners of any building taller than 5 stories.
The Wurlitizer and the Charlevoix are just two of the 7 most dangerous buildings in downtown Detroit.
The others include:
- 115 State Street
- 1265 Griswold
- 2001 Park – also owned by Ralph Sachs.
- The Vinton Building at 600 Woodward.
- A building on Washington Boulevard near Grand River.
The City wants them fixed – and so do the die-hard downtowners like Chris Jaszczak.
"I'm a Detroiter. I'm not going to go anywhere. If this is part of what we have to go thru to make it better, then let's do it," said Jaszczak.
City attorneys tell the 7 Action News Investigators that Judge Colombo is holding regular meetings with the owner of the Wurlitzer to make sure Mr. Curtis is taking steps to make the building safer.
Since we confronted the owner, he has improved the scaffolding near the building to protect pedestrians and on Friday – he finally removed the heavy corner pieces on the front of the building.
You can see more information about the 7 most dangerous buildings in Detroit below.
The 7 Most Dangerous Buildings in Downtown Detroit
(View interactive map below with images of each building)
Book Tower - 1249-1265 Washington
Windows are broken on all sides of this high rise. City records state that that the, "Building's representative has begun removal of such glass…" and has until April 27, 2012 to finish. City records also say that inspections have been done four times on this building since 2004. The building has a storefront wall partition installed on two sides "to prevent any damage to glass and this partition has had sections blown loose from the building causing them to fall onto the public right of way." When this has happened, it was corrected within two days, records show.
This building has multiple broken windows with jagged glass. The glass is "in danger of falling onto the public right of way," according to city records. The mortar is also a problem with "wide gaps in brick façade" which can compromise the structural integrity of the building, city records state.
115 State Street
The alley side of this building has "extensive façade issues with multiple locations of masonry ready to fall onto the public right away," according to city records. The city has inspected the building seven times since 2003, records show.
Vinton Building - 600 Woodward
The City of Detroit has issued more than 127 tickets to the historic Vinton Building. In 2010, bricks tumbled off the side of the building, and crashed onto the sidewalk. No one was hurt, but city inspectors are still waiting for an overdue report to verify the true conditions of the façade. The city has taken the owner to court, but the case is on hold because of a pending refinance of the 12-story building.
Charlevoix Hotel - 2029 Park
City inspectors have done complaint based inspections on the old Charlevoix Hotel every year since 2003. On March 30, 2012, a section of wall came crashing down onto a parked vehicle. City inspectors say owner Ralph Sachs has secured a permit to make repairs of the loose masonry and to remove all of the jagged glass in the windows. Sachs' attorney tells 7 Action News that he is complying with the Judge's recent orders, and that he has responded to complaints in the past.
Troy attorney Ralph Sachs also owns this building. City inspectors say the building is currently open to the elements, and many of the windows are missing. According to city reports, "broken jagged window glass has fallen onto the public right of way." Inspectors also say, "The building has a plywood partition wall attached to the grade level exterior wall which at times becomes loose and gets caught by the wind with smashing consequences." This property has received 11 tickets from the City's Enforcement division. Sachs' attorney says this property is "a gorgeous building that will likely be restored someday."
The Wurlitzer Building - 1509 Broadway
Most experts tell 7 Action News this is likely the most dangerous building downtown. The owner, Detroit attorney, Paul Curtis has received more than 100 tickets, and he refused to answer our questions. A section of wall crumbled in March, sending bricks crashing into the alley behind the 14-story building. Last year, a 40 pound wall cap dropped onto the roof and crashed through the ceiling of the Wurlitzer's next-door neighbor, the performance space known as 1515 Broadway. Wayne County Judge Robert Colombo is monitoring Curtis' progress in making repairs to the building, and considers this case the most important one on his docket, because he fears someone could get hurt by falling debris.
More on the architecture of Downtown Detroit
Resources to learn more about the city's architectural heritage and preservation efforts
Historic Detroit -
Photographs and thoroughly researched descriptions of many of Detroit's well known and lesser-known architectural gems from author Dan Austin.
Preservation Detroit -
Group dedicated to the preservation of Detroit's buildings and landmarks. Preservation Detroit has been dedicated to architectural preservation since 1975 and offers regular tours.
Buildings of Detroit -
Facebook page chronicling buildings throughout the city as photographed by Sean Doerr.
City of Detroit Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department
Learn more about reporting unsafe buildings and the city's inspection process.