Friday, March 18, 2011

Mies You Much

Being without a permanent address currently, I've taken to waxing nostalgic about my last apartment in the Mies van der Rohe-designed Lafayette Towers. I had a lot of love for that place, it is probably the most amazing place I've ever lived.

So why move out? The once-in-an-adulthood chance to take the summer off and travel was a big part of it, to be sure, but I considered leaving even before that opportunity arose. My desire to keep things upbeat has kept me from discussing my reasons in depth, but (at the risk of establishing myself as the elitist curmudgeon of Detroit bloggers) I should probably revisit what is really, in blunt terms, an aesthetic travesty perpetrated on one of Detroit's greatest modern treasures.

The owners of Lafayette Towers when I moved in – Chicago's Habitat Company – made the place feel like a real luxury property, despite the occasional out-of-service elevator. The building was meticulously maintained, had well-tended landscaping and a staff that was responsive, friendly and really seemed to know what a treasure the building is. The lobby was always spectacular, and despite a few aesthetic missteps (Marriott d├ęcor in the hallways being primary, having the base of Mies' Barcelona table oriented the wrong way in the lobbies), it was really like living in a high-end high-rise for only $700 a month.

The apartment itself was just perfect and the views unparalleled. I think the only things I didn't love were the carpeting and the shower, but the apartment's strengths made up for those tenfold. I won't waste words describing the place, I think these pictures speak for themselves.

My apartment shortly after moving in.  And the view.

In early 2008 the two towers were sold to The Northern Group. You may have heard of them, they are the investment group out of New York who went on a real estate shopping spree in Detroit, picking up the Penobscot Building, the First National BuildingCadillac TowerAlden Park Towers and finally, Lafayette Towers.  (We won't even discuss Cadillac Centre.)  And then one by one, they lost these iconic buildings to foreclosure (although they are trying to regain control of the First National Building again, a move the tenants are fighting tooth and nail).

Well, they didn't lose all of them. Call it bad luck, but they somehow managed to hang on to Lafayette Towers, and after cleaning house of all the long-term employees they introduced a series of outsourced property management companies who treated the buildings like a generic suburban apartment complex instead of a downtown modern masterpiece.

Northern Group did make some initial investments in the buildings. The new laundry facilities were nice. And if they'd actually been able to complete and maintain it, elevator replacement was smart. But while making some capital investments they neglected the very things that made living there special: gone were the meticulous landscaping, the well-maintained public areas, the uniformed doorpeople, the friendly staff. Instead we got weed-ridden sidewalks, haphazard maintenance, a perpetually leaking parking structure, dirty elevators and rent-a-cop security. My apartment, which in my first year was so warm in the winter I occasionally had to open windows, would be freezing until enough people complained that the heat wasn't on high enough. The office staff was halved, resulting in exactly zero responsiveness. And I won't elaborate on the multitude of aesthetic issues other than saying if you are running a Mies building, act accordingly. I think these photos speak for themselves.  Click to make them larger.

(WARNING: THE FOLLOWING PHOTOS MAY BE DISTURBING OR EVEN OFFENSIVE. VIEWER DISCRETION IS ADVISED)

(L) The "faux bois" OfficeMax special shown here replaced a far more attractive marble and stainless (ok maybe faux marble) podium that the doorperson sat behind. 
(R)  The new owners didn't know what to do with a Mies Barcelona table either.

(L) A message written in the dust on the lobby marble: "Move today." Noted.
(R) For the last year and a half I was in the Towers this ladder was everywhere but put away: either in the lobby as shown or outside leaning against the glass.  Note to management: there's no "behind the garage" in an all-glass freestanding tower.  This isn't Warren.  Put it in the basement storage room where it belongs.

How hard is it to keep plants alive?  Apparently very. I spoke to the manager about this once and she said, "Nobody knew who was supposed to be watering them."  Two of these were eventually removed and not replaced.  The sansevieria (photo 1) remain similarly afflicted.

Nothing spruces up a Mies lobby like dying gladioli or a fake rosebush.  After two weeks of looking at the scene on the left I pulled out the decaying stems, which smelled wretched by the way, and moved that hideous vase out of sight.  Another friend in the Towers took the initiative to remove the fake plant, which still retained its $19.95 pricetag.

Can I assume these photos speak for themselves?

Once again, there's no "behind the garage" at Lafayette Towers.  Interestingly, both towers had a hose caddy that could have stored these, but they sat unused nearby.  The photo on the right is directly outside the rental/management office.  When I called to mention they should consider how the office looks from the outside and then followed up when nothing was done to adjust the crooked blinds, boxes pushed up against windows and papers behind desks, I was told there is "a process," and they can't just do everything immediately.

This is one of my favorite debacles.  Left photo shows the planters as they were when I moved in.  Right photo shows planters as painted when someone arbitrarily decided they needed sprucing up.  Many thanks to the neighbors across the park in the townhouses who called to yell at management about this tragic ignorance. The planters were re-painted white.

To the left, my other favorite debacle. I guess someone misunderstood "Less is more" and decided a jazzy row of banners along the East Tower on Orleans Street was just what was needed to attract design-lovers to these modern masterpieces.  I may not have been the only one to complain, but they came down after I got mad at the manager.  On the right, what you might call a weed patch at the entrance there was, I'm sure, intended to be a garden of indigenous plants.  This was the year they gave up on maintaining the landscaping.  Oh and that sign?  I know.


Ah, Christmas.  Under previous ownership decorations were restrained and tasteful.  Under Northern Group they gave the maintenance guy $100 and sent him to CVS.  Note the lovely cord management, and is it really too much trouble to remove the tags from the cord of the wreath?  Photo 3 has a great shot of the ficus tree that was never replaced in the lobby, too.  And believe it or not, Photo 4 is from the following year.  You can almost see the mis-matched un-lit wreaths hanging in the back windows.


It seems the Northern Group was hiring a management company, giving them no budget, and expecting big increases in occupancy. Instead, long-term tenants left the buildings in droves, many over to the other Mies building, the Pavilion (still owned by Habitat, which now has something like a three-year waiting list [edit: I've been informed there are a few availabilities - act now!]). Studio specials and attracting drive-by attention with banners (on a street that, frankly, doesn't get a lot of traffic from your professional crowd) were apparently the extent of marketing the Towers, all the while professionals and stable tenants who previously happily rented the more expensive one- and two-bedrooms fled.

The week I was preparing to move I talked with three other tenants who had been there at least as long as I had who were moving out within the month. Since then I've met several people who used to live in the Towers and have now moved to Harbortown or the Riverfront Towers or finally bought their own places. And I've heard rumors that the Towers are once again accepting Section 8 residents, although nobody seems to be able to verify that.

Since I wrote about my move out of Lafayette Towers last June, I've had several people contact me asking what the deal is there. In particular, my comment about the "ghetto-ization" of the Towers seems to have struck a chord. Throwing the word ghetto around might have been a bit careless because it often has racial connotations.  But to me "ghetto" in Detroit is primarily about lowered standards and the disastrous effect of just not caring.

In Detroit the rate of entropy is highly accelerated. It takes vigilance and dedication (along with a decent helping of good luck) to keep something nice. Just try ignoring a vulnerable situation and see what you get: a disintegrating train station; an entire housing project, fully scrapped; another demolished historic building; a RoboCop statue. The lowest common denominator usually calls the shots here. When you look at the areas of town that are defying the pull toward chaos you see areas that fight to keep standards high - the co-operatives of Lafayette Park, or Indian Village, or Corktown, or Midtown.

But look at a place that by most accounts was a craphole, Trolley Plaza on Washington Boulevard. It was taken over by (wait for it) the Habitat Company, renamed Washington Square, upgraded like crazy (including replacing the killer elevators) and now? 100% occupied (although currently managed by a different company). And you have to think that it doesn't take a genius to attract good tenants to a rental building within walking distance to the Central Business District in a time when the rental market is strong. But it does take an idiot to run two amazing buildings in one of Detroit's most popular neighborhoods into mediocrity and MAYBE 75% occupancy.

Lafayette Towers has new management since I moved out. I don't know how they are doing because I haven't been back, but I've heard that some issues persist. Friends who still live there report several weekends this winter with no heat or hot water, and I know the elevators continue to break down (sometimes all three).  I know that they still think placing banners along Orleans Street is somehow going to get people to move in, which isn't a promising sign. If you have anything to share, feel free to post it in the comments.

This photo from last fall.  Doesn't it make you want to move in?
I was telling a friend that I would move back there if I never had to leave my apartment, because usually it was the journey from front gate to apartment door that threw me over the edge. And as tempting as it is – because let me say one more time overall it was a phenomenal apartment – I absolutely refuse to even entertain the notion until I know for sure that the Northern Group has officially lost those buildings. It can't happen soon enough.

They can't take away the view.  Thank God.

11 comments:

eve said...

That was very interesting and frustrating to read

Anonymous said...

Apparently, they also got rid of the cable from one tower to the other. What would Mies say to that?

http://onemorespoke.blogspot.com/2011/02/lafayette-park-now-more-minimal.html#comments

Michael.

Supergay Detroit said...

Yes, we did see that post! One More Spoke is in our link list, if anyone doesn't read that blog, you should.

I think Mies would say "What the fuck was that cable for?"

Anonymous said...

There is a great home, waiting or some TLC in Woodbridge that can be had for under $20,000. North-east corner of Avery and Calumet. Contact Tom Ball at Real Estate One.

Anonymous said...

Hi Supergay. I live in the Towers. It was swell, at first. Maintenance was kept up, landscaping was kept up, everything was kept spotlessly clean, and moreover the neighbors were rather pleasant - mostly retirees and med students.

I'm not sure when the exact turning point occurred. Most assuredly it was during one of the changes of hands. But instead of trying to draw out a long narrative, I will simply bullet-point for you some of my most recent experiences.

*The elevators have always been an issue. Since the first day I moved in over 3 years ago. After several complaints, one of the management companies decided to replace all three. One would be shut down at a time. In the midst of the third repair, they ran out of money, and left it sitting and not running for 9 months. Which was fine except for when one of the OTHER elevators would go out; at least I'm only on the 11th floor - I feel bad for those who had to trudge up to the 22nd.

*The constant turnover of security guards. Not only am I not sure if you work here, you're not sure if *I* live here - and yet you'll let me right on in, won't you?

*The key-card reader for entry to the main door in the east building as well as the main parking lot being down. For weeks now. So now the guards have to let each individual person in, assuming they're supposed to be there and not checking IDs or keycards. Awesome.

*Rumors that it had been partially zoned for Section 8 housing: can't find any proof of this but after seeing some dude walking around the lobby with no shirt on and his pants sagged around his ass, I don't disbelieve it.

*Ghetto-ass neighbors: For 3 years this was a quiet, peaceful place to live. Now Ghetto-Ass Neighbor #1 below me blasts rap music at 5AM, 9AM, noon, whenever (I threatened him once with a hammer; it hasn't been so bad since then), and Ghetto-Ass Neighbor #2 next door likes to wake me up at 2AM or 10AM or whenever with a rousing game of "Whose pussy is this," when, of course, she's not screaming at her children, whom I'd like to refer to as "little bastard children" if that wouldn't be misconstrued.

*The heat and hot water being shut off regularly "for repairs." Because a note telling us in advance makes it all better.

*For about a month or two at the beginning of winter, the hallways weren't heated so the apartment would be warm but the halls were FREEZING cold. And, also, about half the lights in the hallway were out for a couple of weeks.

*Oh, remember that whole "We're trying to save money so we're no longer going to put trash bags in the garbage cans?" Classy.

I can't even think of anything else right now, even though I know there's more, but I'm sitting here wrapped in a towel waiting for the hot water to get turned back on so I can finally take a shower today, and despite the fact that work was supposed to be completed by 5PM I called the office at 5:15 and they said, basically, "they're still working on it; don't know what to tell you." And so, I wait.

The management and the other residents have become trashier every single year I'm here.

I want my fucking shower.

Anonymous said...

Awww come on! Is anyone really surprised? Lafayette Towers hasn't been a luxury address since the early 80's. About the time when that attorney "fell" out of a window, and it was rumored to do with drug dealing. Funny though, the windows don't open. It was about that time, with most investment banking & law firms moving to Southfield and beyond construction of Millender, Trolley Plazy, & Riverfront; the towers lost most of their educated tenants, and in came the drug dealers and "entrepreneurs". Anyway, just ask some of the members of the Wayne State Law School faculty. They're pretty good for stories. The strip mall also became a total dump during those years. So long A&P, hello dumpy Lafayette Market

Bascially, that's when Herbert Realty, er habitat stopped caring and begun milking the property. Just look at the section 8 days of the late 80's. That's when they had to start double locking the storage rooms in the basement. The people would furnish their studios from the belongings of other tenants. By prying open the metal cages that held them.

I lived in the towers twice, sadly. The West tower first, East tower second. I only moved back because Northern Group said they would be restoring the obsolete buildings. My first tenency was okay. I was finishing school and got a great corner apartment like Joe's for a song. Maintanence was crap, though. The old guy that worked there since the 60's needed to retire. My bathroom door wouldn't close (even after they scraped the frame down to bare metal, because the hinges were covered w/ so many layers of paint), the yellow shower tiles were all loose, and the wall hung sink was cracked. "that's okay, this sink's been cracked for 20 year," I was told. The Marriott furnishings of the hallways was present, last updated in '81 and totally worn & embarressing. (along with the loud rap blaring & weed smoke). However, at least my apartment had the original black asphalt tile, curtains, and the atmosphere & people I brought into it reflected days the towers hadn't seen in years.

I cannot say the landscaping was ever nice. Take a look at the pool deck! Weeds growing through broken concrete, the "grassy" squares (all weeds), the foul bathhouse, & the abandoned playground (strange, Lafayette Towers was never popular with children, largest apartments were three bed for a penthouse).

After a neighbor from hell; trying to make an album during the hours of 11pm to 4am, according to Carmen, the slumlandlord, I found myself able to move to a comfy, sane apartment at Riverfront Towers.

Why did I move back. Again, new owners, a building with a great design & bones, and the realization that living in Detroit will never be Chicago, ever! New owners at Riverfront were cutting services, and offering little return on $1200 for a 1-bedroom, etc.,.. The second time around was about the same, just worse mgmt, more rifraff. Maintanence still sucked, but now getting them to even show up, that was a feat! At least the east tower was in better repair, according to the man who reglazed my tub. And, the hallways weren't as depressing. I guess the east tower disintigrated into the standards I knew three years prior.

I finally left when I unearthed Zul Capital's (northern group by another name) telephone number (office refused to supply it), and gave New York a call(got the retard mgr fired. One of many!) . Followed by a threat to take them to court, I was allowed to leave scott-free. Called my piano tech, and movers, and was out before three weeks!
Never regretted it! Today, passing by, with the mostly abandoned mall in front; it looks like a sad, subsidized dump, but with a little hint of class under the layers of grime.

N said...

Today I toured an out of towner around the Mies van der Rohe parts of the neighborhood. I especially wanted her to see the view of the park from the West Tower lobby. Getting in to the lobby is always hit or miss for me. I usually depend on the kindness of strangers or a guard to open the door. Today while there was no guard and there were no kind strangers, neither was necessary. The lock had been completely broken out of the door which provided us with easy access.

Anonymous said...

Thanks N!

You were right. At 8pm on a Monday evening, there was no one at the tacky photo-finished applied "desk", and the door was unlocked.
I decided to take a little "tour" of the building, where I lived for several years (up until about six years ago).
Most of the recessed lights in the lobby & exterior were burnt-out; same for many residential floors.

The hallways were redone,a nice change too. Habitat kept the same carpeting & paint for 25 years! I can remember visiting friends, and their floors were so bad! Bleach stains everywhere, and obvious patch jobs. Apparently the towers got the contractor special from New York Carpetworld in the early 80's. I remember on the 17th floor, the area in front of the elevators was so worn, it looked seafoam green, & you could barely see the "latice patern". After passing the incinerator closet (er, room with the overflowing trash can), the carpeting became vibrant green & soft (well compared to the former).

One big surprise, they seem to be FINALLY addressing the rampant plumbing issues! When I lived there, you could walk down any hallway and see the plaster blister, crumble, dissolve from the concealed rotting pipes. I remember the 7th floor, between 712 & 713, the situation was so bad! The wall was covered floor-to-ceiling in "ulcers" of disolving plaster. Even on my floor, at the end of the hall, my next door neighbor & I covered our embarresment w/ plain brown wrapping paper. I'll never forget the day I recieved keys to the apartment, and noticed the sloppy/botched "repair". Delbert made the excuse, "uh, the repair guys are on vacation until next week, and they'll finish the job". Ha! Several years later, to the day I moved, the wall was still unpainted, crumbling, & leaking. I just hope these recent repairs mean the problem has been fixed and not spackled over.

Unfortunately, one asthetic I do not miss: The pungent smell of weed smoke combined with VOC chemical & 48 years of age. Add the dim-lit hallways, loud televisions, & people yelling in the apartments; the whole atmosphere was just too depressing. Like a bad dream.

Anonymous said...

The planters were repainted white through the screams of the then Tenant Association.
We met with the temporary manager, Julius W., who claimed to have a background in Interior Design, and called a VP in New york who micro-managed the property, to get those planters repainted white, trash bags brought back along with clean mop heads for the lobby floor which was beginning to look like a muddy chalkboard. We were able to get rid of a few managers, along with getting security back at our entry door which they had eliminated.
We fought hard for 2.5 years with these Slum landlords and finally gave up after the last tenant wide meeting in 2010 in the west tower.
Where there is no unity there is no strength.
Many of us who have enjoyed our tenancy for over 20 years are now trickling out. The property has an over 50% vacancy rate, yet management and the owners behave as though "the song will go on and on" and they can surely pay their bills with less money! Right?
Over 24 residents were hauled into court in March because many of us deducted for the many NO HOT
WATER/NO HEAT days we endured this past winter.
We won and L.T. was forced to pay court costs and their own attorneys fees.
Who wants to work hard daily and have to fight with the folks you pay for service?
The dimly-lit manger moved 3 grandfather Ficus trees in the lobby to locations designed for table plants and one to the front door which gets cold air. They can't tolerate extreme temp changes.
Anyone who knows plants knows not to move Ficus they hate that and react in kind by dying.
There goes the last vestiges of elegant appointments in our lobby.
We now must look at another stupid fake vase on the Barcelona table as we exit our sometimes working elevators.
Tacky is as Tacky does.
Mayor Bing wants Detroiters to "BELIEVE". I can't when the city allows the Matty Morouns (train station) and the Alex Dembitzers (Lafayette Towers) to get tax breaks while not maintaining their property.
This would not be tolerated in Birmingham nor Bloomfield Hills, why here.
So that's why I'm outta here!!!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

I went to some fab parties there in the early 80s. The views of the river were spectacular. One friend painted the walls in the living room a high-gloss forest green. The effect at night was amazing.

Anonymous said...

See this HuffPost article yet? Looks like they're foreclosed again and the city is taking them -- looking for a developer to pour $10M into repairs, etc...
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/01/lafayette-towers-sold-develop-detroit_n_1929704.html

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