Grosse Pointe Park — A doctor turned medical entrepreneur and his family are on an ambitious land-buying spree, spending millions to develop a retail-entertainment district to help make this small, affluent city into something hipper and more walkable.
Their plans also call for erecting a building and five-block pedestrian mall, according to drawings presented to local business owners, that would block off a major road leading into a forlorn stretch of Detroit’s east side.
Entities connected to the publicity-shy Cotton family bought out six small business owners and a church, enticed a successful Oakland County entrepreneur to set up several restaurants and gourmet shops and is helping about 150 college students pay their rent.
The moves began two years ago, according to interviews with land owners and various public records, but the Cotton family appears to be just getting started.
David Cotton, the head of the family, was specialist-in-chief of obstetrics and gynecology at Detroit Medical Center. In 1997, he and his wife, Shery, founded the Health Plan of Michigan Inc., now known as Meridian Health Plan of Michigan Inc. Meridian is the state’s largest Medicaid HMO with more than 290,000 members. Their sons, Jon, Sean and Michael, are all executives with Meridian.
Various records show separate limited liability corporations have been formed to buy the properties. A variety of business owners say Jon does the negotiating and describes the deals as family ventures.
The Cottons declined comment for this story, but they continue talking to at least two small business owners whose property they want to buy. They’re also negotiating with the Beaumont Health System, in an attempt to woo the medical provider as the anchor tenant of a proposed 20,000-square-foot office building, pedestrian mall and park that would cut off Grosse Pointe Park from the Detroit border at Kercheval Street and Alter Road. The plan hasn’t been submitted for zoning approval.
What exists there now is a stark contrast between the haves and have-nots. Before the Cottons began to move small businesses out, the Grosse Pointe Park side of Kercheval had operating businesses, including a liquor store. The Detroit side is littered with empty, blighted properties.
“We don’t have much to say about the Cotton entertainment district. It’s very early in the process,” said Karen LeDuc, a spokeswoman for the Beaumont Health System, referring to the over-arching plan.
But Beaumont officials are receptive to the idea of allowing the Cottons to buy the hospital’s family practice building on Kercheval and move the practice to a new location, LeDuc said. Talks between Beaumont and the Cottons began last fall, LeDuc added.
The Cottons have been civic leaders for some time. In 2008, they underwrote a conference center at Providence Park Hospital in Novi. In 2011, they were one of four host families for a Mitt Romney fundraiser at the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club. That same year, the Shery L. & David B. Cotton M.D. Family Birth Center opened at Beaumont Hospital in Grosse Pointe.
Two years ago, they took their first steps toward becoming major landlords in Grosse Pointe Park.
Sean Cotton, an attorney, and Jon helped launch the Grosse Pointe Housing Foundation in July 2011. It pays up to $350 a month to college students who rent in a part of the city dominated by rentals.
Wayne State University officials say nearly 100 students have taken advantage of the program and city officials say another 50 students applied. The rent support shored up an area, nicknamed the “cabbage patch,” that was plagued by more than 70 vacant or foreclosed properties, city officials said. Now there are fewer than 15.
Through various entities, the Cottons began to buy retail properties, mainly on Kercheval, starting in the fall of 2011. Their acquisitions include such well-known spots as Janet’s Lunch, which is now closed and being renovated, and the Grace United Church of Christ, at 1175 Lakepointe St.
The church will relocate and the Cottons are looking for a micro brewery to take over the space, according to two micro brewers that were approached.
The biggest buzz is about the Cottons convincing Mindy Lopus, owner of Silver Pig Restaurant Group in Birmingham, to open at least two restaurants and a bakery on Kercheval in three of their properties. Lopus is behind the acclaimed Tallulah Wine Bar & Bistro in Birmingham.
Her first Grosse Pointe Park venture may open as early as next week in the former Standard Oil gas station at 15301 Kercheval, which had been closed for several years. It will be called Red Crown, a diner specializing in American comfort food. The former Mulier’s Market, which is being partially razed, will become the site of Lopus’ Bona Fide Baking Co. and a second Tallulah Wine Bar & Bistro.
“The Cottons just came into my restaurant in Birmingham one day and said ‘Can we get you to Grosse Pointe Park?'” Lopus said of the meeting just over a year ago. The Cottons are even helping with the renovations.
“It’s a fabulous deal. The support here has been great,” Lopus said, adding that she feels so welcome that she and her husband moved to the Pointes from Oakland County.
Purchases on Kercheval
The Cottons’ biggest moves have yet to be fully revealed. Many of their purchases have been on the Kercheval block bordering Detroit. They bought Art’s Liquor Plus for $750,000 and closed it, and for $320,000 they bought the St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store, which is still in operation.
It’s estimated the Cottons have spent $2.4 million on buildings and vacant lots, according to CoStar Group Inc., a real estate information database.
The Cottons are still in talks with Henry Zuchowski, who has operated Shaw’s Books for 30 years. The store is a well-maintained trove of collectible volumes, and Zuchowski is president of the Midwest Antiquarian Booksellers Association.
“I’m not opposed to their plans at all. They have been amicable,” Zuchowski said. It’s not easy, he said, to move a well-preserved store of collectible books, and that’s a big reason the two sides haven’t come to an agreement.
Like three other business owners, Zuchowski said he was shown plans by the Cottons and Grosse Pointe City Manager Dale Krajniak, who has been involved in the talks, about the idea of closing off Kercheval to make way for the office building and park.
But the plans have not been formally submitted to the City Council. Repeated calls to Krajniak were not returned.
Louis Aguilar, The Detroit News.