The small stretch of Detroit Avenue between West 110th and West 112th streets had a big reputation.
Located near the western edge of Cleveland, this two-block strip of rundown apartments and neglected storefronts was a notorious open drug market, where dealers dispensed their goods like hot dog vendors on Public Square. Suburbanites from nearby Lakewood and farther west, afraid to venture too deep into the city, knew they could come here to quickly and safely buy crack cocaine and marijuana.
When police temporarily closed this section of Detroit Avenue to traffic on the cool afternoon of November 9, 1997, neighborhood residents took notice. For a change, the police presence did not include flashing lights or military-like raids. There was no yellow police tape -- just colored ribbon, a white tent, and a dozen or so city officials and neighborhood leaders milling around a large red U-shaped brick structure known as the Eastman.
Considered one of the most blighted but historically significant buildings in the area, the Eastman, built at the turn of the century, was at the center of a block party to celebrate the recent efforts of two brothers from University Heights who were promising to revitalize the neighborhood and change the street's reputation.
Cary and Eric Senders, both in their thirties, purchased the Eastman and eight surrounding properties during the previous year and a half. They did not have a lot of money or experience as developers, but they were full of dreams. One included turning the Eastman, then a fifty-unit apartment building with a long history of drug-related crime, into 24 luxury condominiums. Another had them transforming the nearby drug-ridden apartments at the corner of Detroit Avenue and West 110th Street into six townhouses with rooftop views of downtown. They also envisioned themselves becoming hands-on landlords of the remaining apartment buildings they purchased, upgrading the units, staying on top of maintenance needs, and more importantly, screening out tenants who cause trouble.
The brothers would call their vision Schilling Square, a reference to Henry Schilling, one of the neighborhood's first property owners.
The City of Cleveland and National City Corporation were so impressed by the brothers' vision and full-color sketches that they literally bought into Schilling Square, kicking in more than $200,000 in grants, a $1 million-plus credit line, and a half-million-dollar equity investment.
The highlight of the November block party was to be the unveiling of a model luxury condominium at the Eastman. Cleveland City Council President Jay Westbrook, who lives nearby, along with other city officials and the brothers, stood before a sagging ribbon draped across the Eastman's west-wing entrance. With a few promising words about the future, they cut the ribbon.
"We're saving cops' lives by renovating the Eastman," Cary Senders would later say about their project's impact on the neighborhood.
Hundreds of people came by that day. But anyone expecting to see a decked-out model condo with furniture and watercolors on the walls was disappointed. The open house was a tour of bare walls and a floor, little more than a rough outline of a suite. The kitchen was incomplete, and the bathroom lacked a sink and toilet.
The tour of the model suite and the rest of the gutted Eastman was premature. Work crews would later tear up portions of the condo that had been hurriedly erected to meet the deadline of the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Nearly two years since Cary and Eric Senders's open house, the Eastman and the townhouses are still not complete, and other properties under their management continue to be the source of drug-related crimes, leaving a host of people wondering if the brothers' blueprint for the neighborhood, like the original model suite, was more illusion than reality.
Twenty of the Eastman's condominiums and five of the townhouses have been sold. Some of these new property owners -- who have spent well over $100,000 to live in a struggling neighborhood -- say they are disappointed by shoddy construction of their units, lack of attention to finish work, incomplete common areas, poor management of the construction site, and numerous unfulfilled promises made by the Senders brothers. Some property owners have become so frustrated that they are considering legal action, despite the fact that a lawsuit and any negative media coverage could delay completion even further -- and hurt their property values.
Interviews with numerous contractors, city officials, merchants in the area, and Cary and Eric Senders -- and a review of city files -- support the property owners' complaints. Although in recent weeks there has been a flurry of activity, Schilling Square has been plagued by cost overruns and delays. It faces more than $100,000 in liens filed by unpaid contractors and is losing the support of the neighborhood that once turned out to celebrate the two brothers' arrival.
"Their lack of experience caused the overwhelming predominance of problems," says Westbrook, who recently met with property owners and reviewed their claims. "The majority of buyers have legit issues with the sellers."
But Westbrook, whose ward includes the Schilling Square neighborhood, characterizes the brothers as overzealous, not ill-intended. "They are like the puppy chasing a ball; they get their hind feet ahead of the front feet."
Complicating life at Schilling Square is the fact that nearly everybody is blaming someone else for the project's missteps. The bank, the city, and the neighborhood development group -- all of whom eagerly backed the brothers despite their lack of experience -- are washing their hands of responsibility to the new property owners. Meanwhile, condo and townhouse owners sit restlessly, caught between bickering bankers and developers, and without leverage to get this project complete. As it stands now, Schilling Square is not a budding success story, but a study in how not to revitalize a neighborhood.
Don't Build a House if You Can't Pound Nails
In 1996, Cary and Eric Senders were interested only in becoming landlords by investing in an apartment building or two. They were drawn to this Detroit Avenue neighborhood by its affordable but neglected buildings and its proximity to the stable and pricier Clifton and Lake avenue neighborhoods to the north, where landlords continue to squeeze strong profits from renters.
But the brothers' vision quickly expanded after they met with Anita Brindza, executive director of Cudell Improvement Inc., the nonprofit organization that manages development along Detroit Avenue. Brindza outlined the organization's desire to redevelop the entire area around the Eastman and convert some of the apartment buildings to condominiums and townhouses. Doing so would bring desperately needed owner-occupied homes to the street. Cudell Improvement kicked in $40,000 to help the brothers with the project's initial planning study.
"We were very happy when the Senderses came along, because they bought into the idea of developing the projects with home ownership," says Brindza, whose organization today will not discuss the project's problems. "While they were freshman developers, they had no problem raising money."
The brothers had no experience as landlords, much less as developers. Cary Senders worked installing fixtures with a relative's cabinet and decorative accessories business for twelve years. Eric Senders's background is in finance. The two had a small consulting firm, now defunct, that advised owners of old buildings on conservation of water and heating systems. Despite their inexperience, they were confident they could change the neighborhood and make some money.
Westbrook, who works closely with Cudell Improvement, was attracted to their enthusiasm and promised to help secure city funds of about $210,000 for renovation of some of the project's apartment units.
"Their vision fed the vision that I and others had," says Westbrook. "They talked about bringing a measurable increase to property values in the area south of Clifton. They wanted to be the pioneers of the area."
Like Westbrook, others were drawn to Cary and Eric Senders's vision and enthusiasm.
National City Bank put up a $1.2 million revolving line of credit. National City Community Development Corporation, a for-profit real-estate investor in city projects, became an equity partner with a $500,000 investment in the Eastman and townhouses. The city's Department of Community Development committed $10,000 in mortgage assistance and a ten-year tax abatement for each of the future property owners.
Before the Senders brothers came on the scene, Westbrook and Cudell had been unable to attract the interest of more experienced developers. Westbrook says he spoke with three well-established developers (whom he did not want to identify), but they didn't think the time was right for the project.
Don't Forget to do the Dishwashers
Madeline Gottschall needs three hands to wash dishes in her Eastman condominium: one to open the dishwasher, a second to load the racks, and a third to keep the entire unit from tumbling out from under the countertop. Despite several attempts, contractors have yet to figure out a way to securely mount the dishwasher underneath her granite countertop.
Gottschall and her husband moved from Lakewood to the Eastman in July of 1998. Interested in moving to the city but reluctant to buy a home, they inquired about apartments at Schilling Square. Cary Senders, however, thought they'd be perfect for a new condo. "Cary didn't show us the apartments," she recalls. "He persisted that he show us a condo, explaining that, with the great financing and tax abatement, we could afford to buy."
The dishwasher is one of about fifteen items on Gottschall's "punch list" of incomplete or poorly completed work. Some of her items are more subtle than others, like uneven floors and poorly fitting wall and ceiling vents, some of which lack closure mechanisms. Other items are more noticeable, like bathroom tiles that don't line up, shoddy paint jobs, and the bowed cover to her living-room utility closet that houses her heating and cooling unit.
Gottschall keeps a spiral notepad with Post-It notes of conversations with Cary and Eric Senders, and the promises they made. Taking up much of her notes is a log of what happened to her last Christmas Eve and the subsequent action.
While she was waiting for a call from her daughter, who was expected to arrive at the airport, Gottschall heard the sound of water dripping, but she was unable to find the source. The dripping noise soon evolved into the sound of running water. Moments later, water began pouring out of light fixtures, wall sockets, her smoke alarm, and heating vents in the bedroom and hallways. She tried to stem the flow by turning off her own water lines, but that didn't help. She and a neighbor frantically placed garbage pails and buckets around the condominium.
The Senders bothers responded almost immediately, surveying the damage. They eventually ruled on the cause, blaming the damage on the contractor, who in turn blamed a subcontractor for the burst water pipes. Gottschall and her insurance agency were left to make repairs and subjugate the claim.
To date, her insurance agency has been unable to recover its costs and Gottschall's deductible.
Gottschall's neighbor, Bruce Melville, has a love for urban life. He studied it in college and today is a supervisor in the Section 8 department of the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority. Melville moved to the Eastman because of its proximity to downtown -- and for its attractive financing, which gave him the opportunity to buy more home than if he lived in the 'burbs.
His condominium features tall bookcases that hold volumes by Walt Whitman and Studs Terkel, as well as books on urban planning. Most noticeable throughout the condominium is Melville's fascination with transportation. On display are large-scale model trains and beautifully detailed model automobiles from the '40s and '50s. An autographed blueprint by engineer and visionary Buckminster Fuller hangs on the wall.
Melville's pride is his master bedroom, which he converted into a den. Here, he builds model trains that will someday circle the room on a custom-built ledge. From a corner window, he can look out on the Cleveland skyline.
"I really like my place and neighbors," says Melville, who is reluctant to complain about the project except to say he is bothered by the ongoing construction of the common areas and east wing of the building, which is just outside his back door.
"I thought I'd put up with delays, but this is taking considerably longer than I thought," he says. "I know it's just a matter of timetable, but I wish they would hurry up."
Melville, who moved in a year ago, has tried to be patient with the construction and has occasionally lent a hand by filling plastic bags with Mad Dog 20/20 bottles and other litter left around the common areas.
But one day in late July, he became so overwhelmed by the beer cans and construction debris left on an outside stairwell that he gave up -- and retreated to his den, where he wrote a personal and emotional letter to his friend Linda Hudecek, director of the city's Department of Community Development.
"This is my 10th month of residence here. I like my place; I like the neighborhood. I like being part of the solution to urban sprawl and the isolation of the poor," he explained in the three-page handwritten letter, now a part of the city's file on Schilling Square. "But I'm running out of patience with developers whom I must conclude are inept, shortsightedly cheap, and less than honest -- at best.
"Buyers are awaiting completion of their units, but the future of this building is in jeopardy. It is the cornerstone of owner-occupant-driven revitalization in this corner of Cudell [neighborhood] . . . Now I know better than most that government cannot wholly protect its citizens from ineptness and greed, but I do hope that informed, collaborative action can increase the chances of an outcome which is in the community's interest. So please take this letter as an attempt to inform you and an appeal for advice on the most effective course of action."
Hudecek says there is little the city can do to address property owners' punch lists and complaints of bad management. She says the city had more oversight of the apartment renovations because the city's grants went directly to that work. Without direct money investment in the Eastman, the city is limited to ensuring the structure is sound and the units meet safety requirements, which the Eastman has. "Our first obligation is to code enforcement, not consumer advocacy," she explains.
Since Melville wrote his letter to the city, the stairwells and common areas are still occasionally cluttered with debris, and the east wing is still being renovated. And things have taken a turn for the worse for Melville personally. Recently, someone broke into his basement storage unit and stole some of his trains.
Common among the problems cited by the condominium and townhouse owners are cracking drywall, especially at corners and seams; drafty windows; poor bathroom tile and tub installation; one-coat paint jobs that don't blend from area to area; improperly installed carpeting and flooring; and numerous missed deadlines for punch-list repairs.
Property owners are perhaps even more frustrated by the on-again-off-again construction of the unoccupied townhouse and Eastman units. The Senders brothers ambitiously proposed completing the entire project by January of 1998. Yet, residents still contend with piles of construction debris around the building and incomplete common areas. Until recently, the interior stairs lacked finishing work and proper lighting, and the front entrances were without working buzzer systems. Only last summer did residents get a newly paved parking lot. Townhouse owners are still waiting for their completed garages -- which are a year overdue.
The security of the construction site itself also has been an issue. Since the project began, it has been without a security fence, and doors and windows have been opened or removed completely and left that way. At times, materials sat in the front yard for days or weeks. There has been easy access to the occupied wings of the Eastman through portions of the building under construction. Anyone driving by the site last summer would have had a hard time realizing the building is nearly fully occupied. The front yard is part trimmed grass and part a tangle of high grass and weed-choked plants. The real-estate sign is sometimes face-down.
The frequency of complaints about these issues from the neighborhood irked Eric Senders. "This situation has crossed over to harassment and is causing us major headaches on a weekly basis," he wrote in an October 1998 letter to Cudell Improvement.
But Cudell Improvement had its own complaints about the project. Its design and review committees took issue with the installation of glass block at the Eastman and the large porches added to the townhouses, but the concerns were ignored. "We did not like everything," says the organization's Anita Brindza.
Despite her group's involvement in the project and continued promotion of it, Brindza says there is nothing it can do to help the property owners. "We can't get involved in legal issues. It is between the sellers and the buyers," she says.
Don't Drive on the Grass if You Want it to Grow
Nearly six days a week, Cary and Eric Senders can be found working at their Schilling Square management office, an old storefront they own at the corner of Detroit Avenue and West 111th Street. On the mostly blank walls of this office is a reminder of their dream: a framed article from Crain's Cleveland Business. In June 1998, the business weekly prematurely declared the project a success. "A Nice Return to the Senders: $5 Million Venture Yields Revival of West Side Neighborhood."
The brothers, who initially put up $410,000 in equity, say their dream is still alive and well. "When this is all over, we can sit back and say we did make a significant difference in the neighborhood," says 37-year-old Eric.
"No doubt, we are behind -- shit happens," explains the often more direct 39-year-old Cary. "Our motto is, don't get bogged down. We keep moving. We are not running away. There is a lot of pride at stake."
Cary and Eric Senders willingly agreed to discuss their project. While they don't downplay their inexperience -- "We were rookies," says Eric -- they downplay any major crisis.
They say the problems with the management and quality of the finish work is largely the fault of their original general contractor: Nelson Barmen, a principal of Builders D.C. Corporation, a Beachwood firm responsible for hiring and supervising all of the subcontractors. (Barmen, who no longer works on the project, did not return repeated calls for comment.)
The brothers' message for property owners: Relax, enjoy the views, and hold on a little longer. "The punch lists are totally our issues," Cary says. "Every issue is being dealt with and will be done."
Eric says that, because each unit comes with custom features, the process takes longer to complete. "We could have just blown out the walls, but the units would be harder to sell without the custom features," he explains.
"We are the same guys who sold you the unit," Cary adds. "Let me finish, and you will be happy with it. Sometimes we look like total assholes, but just let us finish."
Contractors don't want to hear any more about waiting. County records show that contractors not paid for work on Schilling Square have filed a total of roughly $167,000 in mechanic's liens against the project. The liens range from about $1,300 to $38,000. Calls to these contractors reveal that some claims have been paid, reducing the outstanding balance to about $100,000. (Some of the contractors, however, refused to discuss the issue or failed to return calls, so an exact accounting is not possible.)
In addition, the project's architect, G. Herschman Architects, filed a lawsuit earlier this year, claiming it was owed more than half of its total fees. The claim, worth about $56,000, was stayed during arbitration. A spokeswoman for the architect says the firm's principal, Jerry Herschman, could not discuss the matter and referred calls to their attorney. (A settlement is pending.)
Landscaper John Smith Jr., owner of Designs by John, is contemplating a lawsuit to recover the money he is owed for grass and plants at the Eastman. Smith, who lives in the Schilling Square neighborhood, filed a $5,860 lien against the Senders brothers after they held back a check from the bank made out to him and Schilling Square.
Eric Senders says he won't pay Smith, because the lawn never grew in properly, and he blames Smith for failing to properly maintain it. Smith says he seeded the lawn and planted the bushes just fine. The problem, he counters, is the brothers' incompetence and failure to take responsibility for the lawn.
"You can't water the grass once a summer and then drive construction vehicles over it and expect it to grow," says Smith, who says he has pictures of trucks parked around the Eastman after he seeded the lawn. (This assertion is supported by Eastman property owners and merchants in the area. Eric Senders says this is not true.)
John H. Mullin, owner of Jacma Inc., a construction company that periodically did structural work in the Eastman between 1997 and last summer, echoes Smith's sentiments.
"Eric and Cary were there every day, but they didn't know anything about construction," he says. "There was no supervision on the job. Each trade was pointing the finger at someone else. No one tied up the loose ends."
Mullin saw one company, for instance, properly install windows while another company later removed one of the windows, including its sash, to load materials into the building. "They weren't window installers . . . It was dog-eat-dog on the job. You went in and did your work, and got out," he says.
Mullin filed a lien against the brothers for $34,427 in March of 1998, but he was later paid. Reluctantly, Mullin agreed to work with them again. "Now, I'm pushing two months again, and I'll have to file a lien to recover the $1,700 I'm owed."
The city's building department also took issue with some of the construction. According to city files, building inspectors cited the project for completing some work without building permits, once using an unlicensed electrician, and failing to follow designs, among other issues.
Don't Piss Off Your Bank
The project's overruns, change orders, and unpaid contractors have not gone unnoticed by National City Bank. Early on, the brothers' cash flow became tight, forcing them to seek additional financing from the bank. The two sides, according to documents in city files, have been at odds at times, slowing the project's progress.
"Twice the bank questioned whether this was a sound investment and worth going forward," says Westbrook.
Cary and Eric Senders met with bank officials late last year and earlier this year to discuss the money needed to finish the project -- roughly $1.1 million.
The bank, according to the brothers' letters on file with the city, initially supported this. But in January of this year, the bank sent them a notice of default on their original loan. The two sides met again, at which point National City Bank requested that they come up with an additional $400,000 of equity.
They complained to Westbrook. In a letter, the brothers outlined the situation this way: "It seems clear to us that [National City Bank] is trying to find any excuse they can to give up on this project. As we told you yesterday, we have basically been at a standstill for three weeks. We have exhausted our ability to keep this project going from our own pockets. And the inexplicable part of all of this is NCB's belligerent attitude [which] makes absolutely no sense . . . We have put our hearts and souls into making Schilling Square a success, to help recreate a neighborhood. This is not about us making money, because the reality is, we probably won't."
National City Bank eventually lent the brothers more money, which is keeping the project moving forward. In addition, National City Development Corp. made a second equity investment in the project.
During the renovation of the Eastman and townhouses, National City Bank requested -- some say demanded, as a condition of extending the additional credit -- that the brothers hire Fred Kelly of Kelly Inspection Services. The bank wanted Kelly to analyze the costs of the project and supervise construction for the bank, including approving all change orders. Kelly, however, apparently became frustrated with the brothers' management and quit last summer, not long after coming aboard. (Fred Kelly refused to discuss the matter with Scene.)
"Generally speaking, in a situation when a project has trouble, it is not unheard of that we bring in extra oversight," says Dan Shingler, a spokesman for National City Bank, which took more than a week to decide whether to comment on the project. "There have been delays, and the project has not gone as smoothly as we would have liked. We are disappointed, as many people are, but that does not change our commitment to the project."
Despite National City Bank's obvious involvement in the project and the equity investment by National City Development Corp. -- both divisions of National City Corporation -- the bank claims to have no responsibility for the finished product.
This was made clear in a letter from National City Bank Vice President Kevin Duffy to George R. Penfield, an attorney hired by a half-dozen Eastman property owners to explore how they could get their units completed. The group considered even stopping mortgage payments to National City Bank.
"National City Bank is not a co-venturer or partner in the Project with the Senders," Duffy responded last month in a terse letter to Penfield. "National City has no and takes no (and will not take any) responsibility for the quality of construction or workmanship on the Project or adherence to plan and specification for the Project . . . National City will not hesitate to collect and enforce its rights on defaulted mortgage loans of your clients . . . Your clients' exclusive focus must be on the owners and developers of the Project and not on National City."
It is this attitude that has Eastman property owner David Retzer feeling abandoned. Retzer says he was willing to risk the commitment on the project, because it was backed by the city and National City Bank.
"I saw the City of Cleveland and National City Bank on the sign in front of the project and thought this was a secure investment," says the thirty-year-old first-time home buyer. "I was misled by the brand name."
Shingler says property owners should not feel misled by the bank. "[The sign] tells you the developers have a source of financing that is stable and will be there. We have been those things."
Retzer, whose condominium features wood floors, bay windows, and upgraded lighting, says the Senders bothers have failed to complete minor repairs in his place, including replacing a cracked window and fixing noticeable cracks in the drywall. He is also miffed that he was led to believe condo owners would share a rooftop deck and have individual carports -- as noted in his National City Bank appraisal of his property, which is claiming the value of his condo includes both items.
According to Eric Senders, that was just part of their earlier dream, but not a guarantee. "Initially, when we looked at the Eastman, we considered car ports and a deck, but we never represented that they would be there. It was something we wanted to do," he says. "The roof is not structurally sound to hold a deck." About carports for Eastman owners, he says the structures would take up too much space, eliminating room for second cars and guests.
Don't Upset Your PR Man
Michael Balas has become the unofficial public relations man for Schilling Square. Balas and his wife, Kimberly, live in one of the six renovated townhouses at the corner of Detroit Avenue and West 110th Street. A former drug house, the Balases' home features wood floors in the living room, a tiled kitchen floor, a home office in the basement, and a rooftop deck complete with a hot tub. Decorated with Kimberly's own paintings and wired with a computer ethernet and six phone lines, this is their dream home, which cost about $200,000. And Michael loves to show it off, often letting city tours and prospective Schilling Square buyers come through.
On a recent afternoon, Michael Balas, a ponytailed rep for Apple Computer, lounged in his soft couch and, with a remote control, turned on his ceiling-mounted television with BOSE speakers. On the screen was a slide presentation, run though his computer, featuring before-and-after shots of his townhouse and pictures from around the neighborhood. (He gave the same impressive slide presentation at the annual meeting of Living in Cleveland, a group that promotes city living.)
But spend a little time with Balas, and it appears that he enjoys selling the dream more than the reality. In fact, he will admit that he, too, has his frustrations. He points out the poorly installed kitchen countertop, cracks in the drywall, and a drafty steel hatch leading to his deck. He also is still waiting for his garage to be completed. "We are not going to join the Eric and Cary Senders fan club," he says.
Balas says, however, these are things that he can live with, and they don't lessen his enthusiasm for his home or the project. He boasts, "People have offered to pay me more than $100,000 above the price I paid for this." The incredible claim hints to his motivation: keeping property values on the rise. Like a good PR man, he dismisses the severity of other property owners' complaints and spins their punch lists this way: "They bought a Rolls-Royce on a Chevy budget, but they are bitching because someone left a cigarette in the ashtray."
Madeline Gottschall's husband, Daniel, counters with his own analogy: "Eric and Cary Senders sold us prime rib and gave us hot dogs."
Don't Hire Prostitutes and Drug Dealers
To improve property values at Schilling Square, the troubled properties in the area needed to be better managed. The Senders brothers purchased many of them. In addition to the Eastman and the townhouse, their holdings include the Detroit Manor, a large apartment complex located at the corner of Detroit Avenue and West 111th Street; the Syracuse, a seventeen-unit apartment building just south of the corner of Detroit Avenue and West 110th Street; and two rental homes directly across the street from the Syracuse.
Police sources, who did not want to be identified, say these properties are still the sites of drug-related crimes and prostitution. Since July of 1998, police have executed four search warrants at the Syracuse and a neighboring apartment building also owned by the Senders brothers, and executed two search warrants for one of the rental houses across the street.
Property owners and merchants in the area blame Cary and Eric Senders. They claim the brothers not only failed to screen tenants, but hired workers who engaged in illegal activities on the side. One police raid on a Senders property, for example, involved a Schilling Square maintenance man and his kids. During routine inquiries into loitering around the neighborhood, cops say, it was common for people to offer as explanation: "We work for Schilling Square."
But the most notorious employees had to be a pair known as Kim and Kenny. Kim did some house cleaning. Kenny did construction work. They also had side jobs.
Kim was a prostitute; Ken was involved in drug dealing. Their sidelines came to light last year after Kim was arrested for prostitution near Detroit Avenue and West 65th Street. Shortly after being detained by police, Kim escaped from the patrol car. The next day she was spotted walking around Schilling Square wearing busted handcuffs. Police obtained a search warrant and went to Kim and Kenny's home across the street from the Syracuse, where they arrested them both. (Repeated requests for incident reports were not produced by the city before deadline.)
"The Syracuse building has been our Achilles' heel, and we will keep on it," says Eric Senders, who notes that he and Cary have recently evicted five tenants from the building.
He adds that he and his brother are "guilty of being too nice and accepting" when it comes to tenants and employees. They had pledged not to displace the poor as part of their project, but this created a management challenge, since they also were trying to attract people willing to pay $100,000 or more to live there. "This is a very complicated issue that has to do with the gentrification issues," says Eric Senders.
The brothers say that screening some tenants has been complicated by the fact that they accept people with a special housing subsidy, known as Shelter Plus Care.
This is a program that pays a large portion of rent for people with mental disabilities, substance abuse problems, and HIV and AIDS. The brothers say the program prevents them from strictly screening tenants, and that some of the Shelter Plus Care tenants in their buildings were not well-supervised by their social workers, who are expected to visit clients.
Not so, says Kathy Kazol, executive director of Eden, the housing agency that administers Shelter Plus Care. "Landlords can turn down or accept anyone. They are not obligated to take anyone from our program," she says.
While Kazol says she can't speak specifically to the social service follow-up for certain tenants, she says Shelter Plus Care tenants in properties owned by the Senders brothers have complained to her organization about poor maintenance, unlocked doors, and drug activity in the buildings.
Michael Balas, who sees everything from his rooftop deck, says there are fewer problems at the nearby apartment buildings than there were during the previous year. In the summer of 1998, for example, the drug dealing was so brazen that a young man with an Adidas shoulder pack yelled from the street corner to Balas, who was relaxing in his hot tub. The unidentified man asked if Balas needed any drugs. Balas responded by picking up his cell phone and calling the police.
In contrast, "this has been a quiet summer," he says.
Ibrahim "Abe" Lababidi agrees. "One hundred percent better," says Lababidi, who owns the dollar store and deli on the corner of Detroit Avenue and West 110th Street. "We used to have a war zone."
Police stats show that drug arrests at the corner dropped from 48 in 1996 to thirteen in 1997. Police made nine drug arrests in 1998. Theft remained about the same, with 25 incidents per year.
Lababidi says that problems at this corner have been reduced by the renovation of the townhouses and by his own patrolling of his storefront, which he has owned for fifteen years.
But even with a drop in crime, Lababidi says the brothers' management of the nearby rental properties could be improved. "If they screen tenants, we won't have some of these problems," he says.
More than anything, though, Lababidi has been frustrated by the slow progress of the Eastman, whose former tenants frequented his deli. He says he has seen a lot of odd things during construction. "I did not understand why they planted grass and then drove trucks over it," he offers. And Lababidi laughs when he recalls the time workers approached him and tried to sell him yet-to-be-installed fixtures from the construction site.
"I say, "No. I know where that stuff comes from.'"
It has been a long time since Council President Jay Westbrook cut the ribbon at the Eastman, signaling a new era along Detroit Avenue, and he is just as anxious as Schilling Square merchants and property owners to see that era unfold. Westbrook believes everything will work out -- in time. "I do think you have to evaluate the project from its potential and the end result," he says.
John Cook got tired of waiting. The owner of the hip and original Red Star Café, located a few blocks down the street from Schilling Square, closed his doors earlier this month, after six years. Ironically, his coffee shop was one of the local amenities the Senders brothers boasted about to prospective Schilling Square buyers.
But the Red Star's survival was tied to the growth of surrounding businesses and the renovation of vacant storefronts. "I moved here because I perceived this area as having potential to be like a Coventry, where there is a little alternative community with clothing shops and restaurants, but that never happened," Cook says. "Everything with potential for revitalization, like the Eastman, has fizzled."
Cary and Eric Senders would argue that their Schilling Square project hasn't fizzled, it's just been delayed. They started with a promise to change the reputation of a small neighborhood, and to that end they will succeed. It just may not be the reputation they originally envisioned. Failed dream or successful redevelopment, the last word on the project, like the Eastman itself, awaits completion.
Mark Naymik can be reached at email@example.com.