Suit alleges bridge firm created ‘slum’
Homeowners who filed a civil lawsuit accusing the Ambassador Bridge company of turning a west end neighbourhood into a “slum” are seeking $10 million in punitive damages – described as the largest amount in Canadian history.
The lawsuit says the bridge is treating residents in the west-end’s Indian Road corridor “as collateral damage” in its pursuit of a twin span.
The lawsuit, filed in Ontario Superior Court by Windsor lawyer Harvey Strosberg, points to 112 properties purchased in Olde Sandwich Towne over the past decade by billionaire bridge owner Matty Moroun’s company.
The bridge abandoned, boarded up and left the properties to rot, and residents “now feel they are living near, and in some cases, across from what basically amounts to a slum,” according to a statement of claim.
The lawsuit seeks $5 million apiece on behalf of two clients – five members of the DeSando family, who own two homes in the 600 block of Rosedale Avenue, and 91-year-old Stephen Chaborek, who built his house in the 600 block of Indian Road in the mid-1950s.
The lawsuit estimates his home value has declined by about $100,000 in the past decade.
“It’s like hell,” said Chaborek. “The people that have these homes have made a ghetto out of it.”
“That’s what we have to put up with. This company is so big you can’t fight them – and I don’t think they even care.”
Since the late 1990s, bridge officials have made no secret of their plan to demolish homes on tree-lined Indian Road, Rosedale Avenue and Edison Street to expand bridge operations and build a twin span.
But that plan has been repeatedly rejected by government decision-makers on both sides of the border who are pushing forward with construction two kilometres downriver of the $1-billion Detroit River International Crossing.
Strosberg says the onus is on Moroun’s company to fix the homes it owns on Indian and Rosedale. Instead, the company ignores upkeep of the homes in violation of the city’s building code and property standards bylaw, he said.
“Every man, woman – even dog – has to comply with the minimum standards bylaw,” Strosberg said Monday. “Every day they don’t do that it’s a continual nuisance. You can’t just brick up the windows and the entry to the house, get rid of the gutters. You have to maintain the property.”
The bridge company should have kept the homes occupied and in good condition until there were government decisions in place to allow their operations to expand or the twin span to be built, the lawyer said.
“We allege the (bridge company) destroyed a community,” Strosberg said. “They have perpetuated a slum for their own selfish, economic interests.”
The punitive damages equate to about $50,000 on average that should be spent to restore each of the 112 bridge-owned properties, Strosberg said.
The damages sought are also high since the Ambassador Bridge – North America’s busiest border crossing – is worth more than $1 billion, with annual revenues estimated in the lawsuit at more than $200 million.
The lawsuit cites bridge company court filings against the city which refer to Olde Sandwich Towne as once being a “lovely residential area.” That changed around 2004 when the bridge company, after accumulating dozens of homes in the community, started “committing nuisances,” according to the lawsuit.
Prior to the appearance of boarded-up homes, the neighbourhood was filled with an “eclectic mix of students and professionals, many employed by the university,” the lawsuit said. There were many longtime residents who took pride in their properties and kept them maintained.
Today, the abandoned and boarded-up homes have “severely impacted the quality of life” by seeing the neighbourhood become unsafe, providing a haven for squatters, vandals and transients, subjecting the residents to eyesores, threatening health through growth in vermin and posing fire hazards.
The bridge company’s conduct in the destruction of the Sandwich Towne area is described in the lawsuit as “highhanded, outrageous, wanton, reckless, deliberate, disgraceful and wilful” while motivated by “avarice.”
Strosberg said the punitive damages being sought are the largest in Canadian history.
The allegations in the lawsuit have not been proven in court. The bridge company has 20 days to file a statement of defence.
Bridge company president Dan Stamper did not return a message left by The Star on Monday.
The DeSando family, based in Sault Ste. Marie, bought a home at 625 Rosedale Ave. in 1994 for $132,000 with the intention that it be used by the family’s children while they attended the University of Windsor or to provide income as a rental property.
The family’s plan has been to one day see the parents, Giuseppe and Immacolata, move to Windsor near their children and retire to live in the home. A second home was purchased by the family’s three sons in 2002 at 670 Rosedale for $117,000.
Until 2009, all three sons took turns living at length at the Rosedale homes.
“It’s an absolute shame what has happened,” said Ralph De-Sando, one of the plaintiffs. “I can’t in good conscience have my parents in their 70s live in that neighbourhood. I can’t sell it. Who is going to buy it? “My frustration reached a boiling point. Nothing is getting better. The legal route is my only recourse.
“At a minimum, they should have kept these houses maintained,” DeSando said. “There is no reason why they haven’t kept this a nice neighbourhood. Rosedale was a beautiful street.”
All of the bridge-owned properties fall within either the Sandwich Heritage Conservation district or under the Sandwich Community Improvement area created in recent years, said John Calhoun, the city’s heritage planner.
He believes many of the homes can still be saved and has hopes the neighbourhood can be restored.
“It’s one of the best collections of early 1920s housing with good stock reflective of that time,” said Calhoun of Indian and Rosedale.
“My hope is they can be put back into use. I’ve restored houses of that age and they can be worked on with good success without spending huge amounts of money.
“The community would benefit and you could fill in the lots with new homes for the ones that need replacing. Hopefully the community can be returned to the place it once was and become a contributing part to the city of Windsor.”
The impact of seeing several residential streets boarded up and left to crumble by Moroun has been “devastating,” said bake shop owner Mary Ann Cuderman, chairwoman of the Sandwich Business Improvement Association and bridge company watchdog.
“It’s a blight,” she said. “It’s been ridiculous that all these homes have been lost. I still believe many of them can be rebuilt.”
Restoration of the streets into a viable residential area is essential for the future of the Sandwich community and the west end, Cuderman said.
“Look at all the families lost in that area,” she said. “The economic and social impacts have been great and it’s all because of (Moroun), nobody else. It’s about time somebody stood up to him on this. I love it. Kudos to these people.”