Detroit land near Temple Bar mysteriously bought up

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The Temple Bar opened in Detroit's Cass Corridor during the Depression, and nearly 70 years later the surrounding neighborhood has collapsed.

The olive-colored bar front blends into an area of boarded-up structures, but its interior is clean and well-maintained. The bar still manages to attract an eclectic clientele. Across the street, though, the former American Hotel closed more than a decade ago. The former drugstore next door went out of business maybe two decades ago.

The neighborhood is so sketchy the front door of the bar is always locked — patrons have to be electronically buzzed in by the bartender.

The Temple Bar appears to be one of the last holdouts in a mysterious real estate buying frenzy, surrounded by 22 mostly empty or blighted parcels that have been bought or optioned since September 2008 by various entities.

While scant public information is available, the investors have paid as much as $670,000 for two derelict properties in an area where the median annual household income is $8,317.

Owner George Boukas seems willing to sell the property that his family has owned off and on since the 1930s and relocate if he gets the right offer. He was courted with a secretive offer, too, but now he's not sure where it stands.

"Of course, everyone assumes this is where the new arena will be built, but now I'm hearing (developer Al Taubman) wants to build a mall next to the arena. And last week, I heard someone got $2 million" for a nearby property, Boukas said. "I know all that sounds crazy, but look at all that unbelievable stuff that's gone on already. Someone is thinking big."

Metro Detroit real estate experts agree, saying the amount of land being accumulated in the area and the high sales prices mean someone is trying to get enough property to build something big — like a sports venue or even a light-rail line.

That includes the most recent sale of the former American Hotel, along with the weedy lot next to it, and the former drugstore. The blighted properties were bought by the same entity that paid $650,000 for another empty building in January 2009 on Temple Street, just around the corner from the bar, and made the seller sign a confidentiality agreement about the deal.

The hot spot is several blocks north of the Fox Theatre, headquarters of Ilitch Holdings Inc., and the Comerica Park and Ford Field stadiums. Next to the area being purchased or optioned is four empty blocks of Woodward owned by the city.

Mike Ilitch, billionaire founder of a pizza, sports and entertainment empire, has indicated he wants to build a new arena downtown for his Detroit Red Wings. And now Ilitch is the leading bidder to buy the Detroit Pistons, which could share a new arena with the Wings if Ilitch succeeds in buying the team.

The Ilitches control the Masonic Temple, which is a half-block away from the Temple Bar. The MotorCity Casino, owned by Marian Ilitch, is farther west of the bar on Grand River.

City of Detroit and Ilitch Holdings officials say they are bound by confidentiality agreements not to talk about the details of a possible new arena. There are no public plans for the swath of land around the Temple Bar.

Boukas' experience with negotiating with a real estate broker adds to the mystery of the surrounding property purchases. The offer was unsolicited and "aggressive," he said.

Earlier this year, a broker named George Mellish walked into the bar and asked Boukas what it would take for him to sell. Boukas had bought the bar back from a non-family member in 1988. The broker wouldn't say who he represented, Boukas said.

The offer was not just to buy the bar, but included finding a Midtown site for the bar to relocate and payment for the move, he said. The two sides were at odds about the relocation costs, and Boukas said he initially refused the offer, thinking he would get a counter offer.

Then Mellish died.

Since Boukas never knew whom Mellish represented, he doesn't know whom to contact. Now he is left wondering where he stands.

"I'm ecstatic of what's happening," said Boukas, referring to the acquisitions in the neighborhood. "I'm nervous as hell about what it means for me. But you can't be a world-class city if you can't attract new people or business."

Boukas has reason to sell. Many customers have moved away from the area, he said.

"There's not that much of an immediate neighborhood now" to draw from, Boukas said.

There aren't many details about the most recent sales near the bar. The former American Hotel and the former drugstore were sold by local developer Dennis Kefallinos, who said he worked through a broker. Kefallinos said he felt uncomfortable publicly identifying the broker.

The official buyer is listed as a Coldwater firm called Temple Commons LLC, according to Wayne County records. A purchase price wasn't disclosed. That LLC is traced back to CSC-Lawyers Incorporated Services Co., which has an East Lansing address.