Land of the Lost

Frustrated by delays in acquiring key property in Detroit, private companies and individuals are brazenly taking city-owned land for their own gain.

On a warm Friday Afternoon last June, more than 100 activists and residents of southwest Detroit armed with hacksaws, bolt cutters, and power tools swarmed Riverside Park, adjacent to the Ambassador Bridge.

Their target was a chain link fence that surrounded part of their neighborhood playground, as well as a section of Jefferson Avenue. The Detroit International Bridge Co., they said, had erected the barrier illegally and taken over the park. The company’s billionaire owner, Manuel “Matty” Moroun, had refused to comply with judicial and city orders to relinquish the property.

The vigilante action drew rare publicity for what has become a brazen pattern in Detroit. Private companies as well as individuals are taking control of city-owned parcels without following the necessary legal steps or without proper authorization. “Urban squatting” is happening all over the city, say investors trying to buy city property. And with a 40,000-parcel portfolio  of mostly vacant land, they say the financially challenged city cannot keep track of every parcel — let alone sell the land or collect rent.

Take the case of City Recycling, a scrap metal yard north of Eastern Market. The walled-off compound bordered by Mack, Dequindre, St. Aubin, and St. Joseph was once part of a working-class neighborhood built nearly a century ago. Abandoned over time due to racial tensions, crime, and suburbanization, the area is mostly vacant and overgrown. Streets and sidewalks are disappearing as broken pavement slowly gives way to the elements.

Two decades ago, the recycling operation — with its mounds of scrap and piles of industrial material — began spreading out from its original location into the former neighborhood, obliterating public alleys and even taking over portions of municpal streets.

City tax and property records show that from the corner of St. Aubin, going west along St. Joseph, eight city-owned parcels are now buried under scrap inside City Recycling’s fence. The western side of the L-shaped yard, walled off by a high, metal fence, extends two blocks north, next to a railroad track along Dequindre. The fence ends at the north end of Illinois Street, where it joins a concrete block wall that encircles parcels of land on Illinois also owned by City Recycling.

The owner of City Recycling, Mark Wierszew-ski Sr., says he grew up and attended school not far away from where his company now stands. He says he is at a loss to explain the disappearance of homes and residents in the once vibrant neighborhood.

What he does know — and readily admits — is that inside his recycling facility is city land he incorporated to accommodate his growing business. He claims the city made him take over the property out of frustration, after repeated efforts to buy the lots were rebuffed by city officials.

“That land has been inside my fence for 22 years,” he says. “It’s because I’ve been trying to buy it for 22 years. Some of it I was able to purchase, some of it I’m not able to purchase. And (the city) can’t tell me the reason why I can’t purchase it. I don’t know if you can call it insider trading, or if you want to call it corruption with the city, or what you want to call it, but I know that every time (I) show some interest in purchasing a piece of city property, it’s not available. They won’t tell me who it is available to, but it’s not available to me.”

He says he is justified in taking the city property, and claims the area is better off because he is preventing illegal dumping on the site. “I’ve maintained it, I’ve cleaned over $40,000 worth of debris off of it, and dumped it the way it should be dumped — the right way, with the environmental people,” he contends. “So I made a decision I’ll go ahead, I will clean it up and stop the dumping, and I have. I’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to clean up city property because if I just left it a dumping zone, it would just continue to perpetuate itself. You can see in that area there is not a lot of people that get away with dumping anything, because we stay on top it.”

Wierszewski says he employs 18-20 people and his company takes in $2 million to $4 million in revenue each year. (He says sales fluctuate due to a volatile metal market.)

Despite his claim that he is actually keeping the area clean, Wierszewski’s land-grab does not meet the approval of city officials.

“You cannot have private companies and individuals commandeering city-owned land for their own uses,” says George W. Jackson Jr., president and CEO of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., a business development agency in Detroit. “There is a process to acquiring land from the city, and you need to follow the process. Just because you don’t get your way doesn’t mean you can take the property.”

Gloria Jones of the Real Estate Development Section says city records do not support Wierszewski’s claims that he was unable to buy considerable amounts of property from the city over the years. Her records indicate that in 1996 he attempted to buy one parcel at 1950 St. Joseph (that is in his yard), but the sale was canceled with no reason listed in the record.

“Other than that (property), I don’t see anything else but that one,” Jones says.

She also disputes Wierszewski’s claims that purchasing land from the city is too difficult. Jones says the city is anxious to work with all prospective buyers.

“All he (Wierszewski) has to do is pick up the phone,” Jones says. “If he truly wants to buy property, all he has to do is come in and complete an application stating the use for the property, and a salesperson and project manager will be assigned to him.”

Neysen Jomaa, an associate in a Detroit investment group that owns several parcels in the area, says Wierszewski is taking advantage of the city’s inability to properly administer a bloated inventory of vacant property.

Jomaa acquired several adjacent lots in Midtown from an elderly couple who had owned the property for 20 years. He says when his group registered the deeds with Wayne County, they were stunned to find out one of the lots they tended for years actually belonged to the city. (He says the news was also a surprise to the couple who had sold him the property.)  “When we went to court with a reverse action to get the lot, the city didn’t even bother showing up,” he says. “It’s as if they didn’t know what they had, or didn’t care.”

In another example of city land taken for private use, a lot in Midtown, located at the rear of an apartment building on Brainard, near Orchestra Hall, has been fenced in for use as a private parking lot for tenants.

Jones says her records show the parking lot is in the city’s inventory, but is not for sale.

“We don’t show that there is a fence there, either,” Jones says. She says the city does not lease or rent property, and the city would not allow the lot to be used for private parking. She says the property will be investigated.

Tax records for the apartment building show it was sold a year ago for $512,000. The owner of the building, with a mailing address in Brighton, could not be reached for comment.

Over in the area of City Recycling, tax records show the area from Mack north to Alexandrine, and between St. Aubin and Dequindre, contains 74 parcels of land — including a very large, open city-owned field covered with trees and thick brush.

Of the 74 parcels, 37 are city-owned, while Wierszewski, City Recycling, and at least three other entities with which he is affiliated own 30 of the other lots. The rest, a handful of parcels sprinkled across several streets, are privately owned, according to city records.

Wierszewski lumps the owners of the properties with city officials and says the two groups are allied against him. He claims both groups are merely looking to gouge him and, as a result, are hindering future development of the area.

“You have these property buyers who buy a piece of property down at the (county) auction for $200, and then when you want that piece of property they want to hold you up for $50,000,” he says. “They don’t have any development plans and they don’t want to do anything. There are guys that own thousands of properties like that around the city.”

Wierszewski’s properties include 11 parcels that are recorded in the name of the original owners, made up of Long family members.

Ronald Long of Rochester confirmed that his father operated a large towing business on the site and sold the properties to Wierszewski years ago. He says he doesn’t know why Wierszewski has not put the property in his own name.

Wierszewski says he kept the name of Long & Sons because it is advantageous to his business. He claims it also allows him to avoid bureaucratic headaches dealing with the city.

“With Long & Sons I have a license to sell cars and sell parts, also a dealer’s license, and they (city officials) are not really too enthused about transferring names and stuff like that,” he says. “I bought it the way it was and kept it the way it was. There is so much bureaucracy you have to go through to do any kind of business in this city, it’s a wonder there is anything left. If you hear some frustration in my voice, it’s because it’s there.”

He says his “out of sight, out of mind” approach also explains why he is now in Wayne County Circuit Court trying to get legal title to two adjacent lots on Mack that are in the heart of his scrap yard and serve as the official address of his company.

In a sworn affidavit in support of his lawyer’s petition filed with Judge Susan Borman’s court last August, Wierszewski said he bought the lots for $12,000 cash from an Oakland County couple, Douglas and Dorothy Frazein, in April 1992.

In the court papers, he said “as a result of an oversight” he failed to record the deeds with the county as required by law. He says the documents were later lost when his truck was stolen. He told the court he has been paying the taxes ever since he had the property rezoned in 1996, and “continuously treated (the) property as my own.”

Wierszewski says that for nearly 20 years he did not realize he had not recorded the deeds, meaning he has no written record that he purchased the parcels. “I never needed it. How often do you need a deed for a piece of property? Unless you are going to sell it, you don’t really need to look into the deed,” he says. “The taxes were in my name, the taxes were always paid. Look at every piece of property I own, the taxes (are) always up to date.”

The former property owners are now deceased; Douglas Frazein died in 1998 and Dorothy passed away in 2009. Their daughter, Dr. Andrea Ruskin, an oncologist in Westport, Conn., was the executor of her parents’ estate. She says she was amazed that property her parents sold so long ago is now an issue in a court.

“I knew my dad sold it,” she says, “but I have no idea who he sold it to.”

She says she has no information on the transaction, as the deal was handled by a lawyer whose name she could not recall. Wierszewski is confident, however, that Judge Borman will award him legal title to the property.

“That situation is pretty much totally done now,” Wierszewski says. “We have had the conservator of the estate sign off on everything and it’s just a matter of a couple days, or a week, or a month, (and) we will have that all rectified.”

State Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, whose 12th District includes the Riverside Park, is a leader of the southwest Detroit activists battling bridge owner Moroun over the park and other bridge-related issues. She says she sees a lot of similarity between Moroun’s taking of the neighborhood park for possible expansion of the Ambassador Bridge and Wierszewski helping himself to city land for his scrap yard.

“It is unbelievable to me that these private companies can take such advantage of the city. People left and right are taking advantage now (that the city) is disabled and not in a position to devote resources to fight back,” she says. “It’s disheartening to see, when the city is hurting so much.”

Wierszewski has a much different take.

“If you want things to work in the city, you need more guys like me who are willing to stick their neck out to do what you’re supposed to do, and go up above and beyond what you’re supposed to do if we’re ever going to straighten out things for the city,” he says. “But every time that you do, and every time that you try, you have somebody down at city hall who doesn’t want to see you do what you’re doing. I don’t know what it is, I just don’t know.” db