By GARY L. THOMPSON
Sunday Times Newspapers
TRENTON —After waiting six years for the closed Riverside Osteopathic Hospital to be sold, city officials may be running out of patience.
In a letter to Henry Ford Health System President Nancy Schlichting, Mayor Gerald Brown recently said that the hospital’s 2002 closing has turned a downtown renaissance into empty storefronts and barely surviving businesses. Making matters worse, he said, is that the building is becoming an eyesore.
Brown charged that Henry Ford “emphatically” had assured him that it would sell the riverfront property quickly and had no intention of allowing the site to deteriorate. Instead, he wrote, that after several years of excuses, the boarded-up facility now is a dangerous attractive nuisance for children.
The letter said Henry Ford is holding the future economic development of the site hostage to repeated futile efforts to persuade state regulators to transfer all Riverside beds to other hospitals in its system. Unless the city sees “some positive movement” on the site soon, he said, officials will become more vocal on the issue and make it a public relations nightmare for the health system.
In her response, Schlichting said physicians leaving Riverside for Oakwood Southshore Hospital & Medical Center made the closing unavoidable, and that finding a buyer is taking longer than anticipated. She blamed the failure of several prospective sales on the deteriorating Michigan economy and pointed out that Henry Ford has been maintaining security at the building and making its parking available for city festivals.
Licensed beds remain “extremely valuable,” Schlichting said, because of tight state restrictions on hospital capacity, and because the state has agreed to review the transfer of Riverside’s last 50 beds to the new Henry Ford Hospital in Macomb County before Jan. 15. She noted that she had introduced Mike Davis Jr. to city officials in September as another prospective buyer, and promised to update them on his investigation of the site.
His company, Davis Enterprise Group of Livonia, a plant liquidation and salvage specialist firm, and developer Cogswell Property of Otsego. Davis either would convert the building into a multiplex with condominiums, retail and office, or in the worst-case scenario demolish the building and market it for residential development.
Brown wasn’t satisfied with the response, saying while his letter expressed “more of frustration,” the response was “more of patronization,” reflecting that Trenton was only a small piece of the picture for a large corporation. He also noted it took a month and a half for Schlichting to respond.
However, Brown said that after six years of waiting, he is willing to give Henry Ford a little longer, because Davis sounded sincere in his meeting with city officials. But Brown’s taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the developer’s due diligence, saying, “I’ve been disappointed too many times.”
The City Council reacted to Schlichting’s letter Nov. 3 by referring the condition of the former hospital to the city’s Dangerous Building Board. In moving for the referral, Councilman Timothy Taylor called her letter the “same old song and dance,”and accused Schlichting of lying outright about the safety and security of the building.
Taylor said he doubts the water system and sprinklers were working, and the building could endanger the entire neighborhood if it caught fire. He also wondered whether the building contains asbestos.
The delay was acceptable for the first couple of years, but the city has been put off for three years with “phantom developers,” Taylor said, and should move forward to condemn the property.
“Riverside Drive is one of the nicest streets in town and has to put up with a vacated building,” Taylor said. “To me this is simply not acceptable.”
In breaking its assurances to the city, Councilman Terrence Teifer said Henry Ford had taken advantage of the mayor’s “good nature.”
He agreed with Taylor that the city should up the ante, saying the vacant hospital is more dangerous than a house the city tore down across the street and other houses demolished elsewhere.
Councilwoman MaryEllen McLeod was leery about the city having to foot a demolition bill of $1.5 million to $2 million, saying such a lien would scare off potential buyers. However, City Attorney Wallace Long suggested that a court could order Henry Ford to take remedial action without the city incurring the expense.
At Long’s suggestion, the issue was referred to the Building Code Board of Appeals as well to consider drafting new ordinances that could enable court action. Taylor urged city residents to boycott all Henry Ford facilities, and said firefighters should refuse to take patients there except in an emergency.
Saying he spent 24 hours in a hallway at Henry Ford Wyandotte Hospital three years ago, Councilman William LeFevre added he is “not thrilled” with the effort to transfer Riverside’s 50 beds out of Downriver. LeFevre said the beds are needed, and that city officials should threaten to oppose their transfer as part of playing hardball in negotiations on the vacant property.
(Contact Gary L. Thompson at [email protected].)