Known for his shrewd business sense, old hippie vibes and often disheveled appearance, Joel Landy began acquiring properties in Detroit’s Cass Corridor in the 1970s when working as an auto mechanic.
While others moved out as the neighborhood deteriorated, he stayed.
By the time of his death in August 2020 at age 68, Landy was a major property owner and redeveloper in the corridor — now better known as Midtown — and his portfolio had grown to encompass several blocks of houses, storefronts and apartment buildings, as well as former schools and vacant lots.
The total value could approach $50 million.
Landy was not married and had no children, leaving him few natural heirs.
Those in charge of Landy’s estate are now seeking a buyer willing to take all 43 of his properties as a single package.
“Obviously, it’s going to be a specific type of buyer that we’re looking for — it’s not something for everybody,” said Joseph Kopietz, who was Landy’s attorney on real estate matters and is the lead trustee of Landy’s trust.
The prospect of new ownership has some of Landy’s longtime tenants nervous.
Most of Landy’s properties are in the corridor just north of Little Caesars Arena, although he also he owned a converted condo building on Antietam Avenue in Lafayette Park that had once been a school for handicapped children.
Aside from real estate, Landy also had collections of handguns, model trains, vintage posters and antique cars. He appeared on the History Channel’s collectors reality TV show “American Pickers” in 2012.
The value of all his real estate and possessions — including dozens of antique cars and $900,000 sitting in savings accounts — was estimated at $50 million and possibly more, according to documents filed in Wayne County Probate Court.
While Landy once planned to leave the estate to his mother and a brother and a well-known museum, he ultimately decided to put it toward a new foundation in his name with a mission to support automotive education and historic preservation in Detroit, causes dear to his heart.
“He believed in technical education and was a very strong proponent of historic preservation — that was Joel’s life,” Kopietz said.
The giant real estate bundle listed in May with Southfield-based Signature Associates and has its own website: landyportfolio.com.
There are several interested parties so far, Kopietz said, including local and out-of-town prospects.
Proceeds from the sales will go to the Joel Landy Foundation, which was created last year.
An evolving trust
Creating a posthumous foundation — and funding it with his estate — wasn’t always Landy’s plan.
A 2015 version of Landy’s trust had him leaving all his real estate and possessions to his mother in West Bloomfield and a brother in Ann Arbor, with the exception of $500,000 set aside for The Henry Ford museum, according to a copy of the document.
However, in fall 2016, Landy worked with his personal attorney and longtime friend, Bob Baldori, to amend the trust so that his own future foundation would be the sole beneficiary of his estate’s assets, Kopietz said.
Later, Landy made an additional and final amendment to the trust documents. He made that update around the time that he was going into the hospital, according to Baldori.
The amendment added specifics about the Joel Landy Foundation and its mission, Kopietz said, and also made Kopietz the lead trustee rather than Baldori, who is now 79.
Kopietz declined to share a copy of the final version of the trust with the Free Press. It was not filed with the probate court.
“If Joel had wanted it to be public, he very well could have made it public and filed that,” Kopietz said. “One of the reasons you use a trust is to keep things private.”
Last October, Wayne County Probate Court Judge Judy Hartsfield approved settlements in Landy’s estate with the mother and brother, as well as with a former girlfriend who lives in one of the properties.
Details of the settlements do not appear in the probate case’s public filings.
“This settlement that was arranged provided a little bit of money to his mother, in lieu of any potential claim, as well as a settlement with his longtime live-in girlfriend, so she is able to reside at the home,” Kopietz said.
The Joel Landy Foundation currently has three directors: prominent Detroit banking executive Gary Torgow; Gary’s adult son Elie Torgow, who is CEO of the Detroit-based real estate firm Sterling Group, and Baldori, the personal attorney who knew Landy since the early 1970s.
Baldori also is a noted musician known as “Boogie Bob.” Back in the 1970s, Baldori represented counterculture figure John Sinclair, who was friends with Landy and lived in one of Landy’s properties on Peterboro.
Landy is said to have become close with the Torgows several years ago, around the time that he sold to the Sterling Group a former Detroit Public Schools building he owned — the old Burton International School at 3420 Cass.
Landy had bought the building from DPS in 2009 and renovated and reopened it as a small movie theater, among other uses. Terms of the 2017 sale to the Sterling Group weren’t disclosed, although documents in probate court once estimated the property’s value at nearly $2 million.
Today, there is a large banner with Landy’s photo hanging from the school as a tribute. The banner was said to be Elie Torgow’s idea.
“They were very much a big part of his life,” Kopietz said of the Torgows. “I’ve known Elie for awhile and I’ve known Gary for quite some time, through professional capacities, and figured they would be very appropriate for the foundation to help carry on (Landy’s) legacy.”
Neither Gary Torgow nor Elie Torgow responded to inquires for this article.
Gary Torgow co-founded the Sterling Group in 1988. In 2009, he handed off the real estate firm to his adult children to focus on banking.
The elder Torgow and a business partner then went on to buy numerous distressed banks in the early 2010s and built what became Talmer Bank. Talmer later merged with Chemical Bank, which merged into TCF Bank, which ultimately merged last year into Columbus, Ohio-based Huntington Bancshares.
Landy’s apartment buildings include the castle-like Scott Mansion, 81 Peterboro, which he dramatically rebuilt in 2018 as a 26-unit building.
Another is a former hotel at Woodward and Charlotte that Landy rehabbed into the 40-unit Addison Apartments. The building’s ground floor houses the Vietnamese restaurant Pho Lucky.
Pho Lucky owner Cong Nguyen recalled last week how Landy was always nice to him and fair about the rent. The entire building is now for sale as part of the portfolio, which has Nguyen nervous because of the uncertainty about the future. The restaurant’s lease will soon be up for renewal.
“What are they (a new owner) going to do? Are they going to still keep us? That’s my concern,” he said.
Landy had a large collection of antique cars that he stored throughout his old properties, including a foreign auto repair shop on Cass. He owned 37 vehicles as of 2015, according to probate court documents, some models dating to the 1920s or even earlier.
Several are no longer driveable and Landy used them as “parts cars.”
Baldori said they have so far sold about two-thirds of the car collection.
“He used to go to auctions and he was plugged in with other collectors. And so when they found out (he died), the phone started ringing,” Baldori said.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misstated Landy’s marriage history. This version is correct.
Landy car collection
The following 37 cars, once part of the Landy estate, had a total estimated value of nearly $440,000
- 1984 BMW 318i Coupe, “parts car” condition, estimated value $500
- 1939 BSA Roadster, good condition, estimated value $11,000
- 1920 Buick Model K Touring, poor condition, estimated value $8,000
- 1923 Buick Roadster, fair condition, estimated value $11,000
- 1905 Cadillac, good condition, estimated value $38,500
- 1989 Chevy Corvette, good condition, estimated value $4,500
- 1984 Citroen 2CV, good condition, estimated value $7,000
- 1923 Dodge Touring, fair condition, estimated value $6,500
- 1927 Dodge Sedan, fair condition, estimated value $4,000
- 1929 Durant two-door coupe, fair condition, estimated value $8,500
- 1980 Fiat convertible, poor condition, estimated value $1,500
- 1914 Ford four-door sedan, fair condition, estimated value $7,500
- 1926 Ford Roadster, fair condition, estimated value $6,500
- 1926 Ford Model T, fair value, estimated value $4,500
- 1926 Ford Model T sedan, fair condition, estimated value $4,500
- 1929 Ford Model a Roadster, good condition, estimated value $10,000
- 1997 Ford F-150, poor condition, estimated value $1,500
- 2004 Ford F-350, poor condition, estimated value $2,500
- 1952 Jaguar XK120, good condition, estimated value $55,000
- 1974 Jaguar XKE convertible, good condition, estimated value $40,000
- 1994 Jaguar XJS convertible, fair condition, estimated value $6,500
- 1996 Jaguar XJS, fair condition, estimated value $4,000
- 1977 MG midget convertible, poor condition, estimated value $3,500
- 1977 MG midget convertible, fair condition, estimated value $4,500
- 1955 Morgan Roadster, fair condition, estimated value $16,000
- 1918 Oakland 34-B sedan, fair condition, estimated value $8,000
- 1923 Packard convertible six, good condition, estimated value $42,500
- 1924 Packard Touring, good condition, estimated value $25,000
- 1927 Packard sedan, good condition, estimated value $18,000
- 1928 Reo sedan, poor condition, estimated value $4,500
- 1933 Riley Gamecock, excellent condition, estimated value $26,500
- 1972 Rolls Royce Silver Shadow, fair condition, estimated value $4,000
- 1982 Rolls Royce Silver Spirit, “parts car” condition, estimated value $2,500
- 2012 Toyota Tundra, fair condition, estimated value $20,000
- 2002 Ural motorcycle, fair condition, estimated value $3,500
- 1928 Whippet four-door, fair condition, estimated value $8,500
- 1924 Willys four-door, fair condition, estimated value $7,800
Source: A 2015 inventory of the Joel Landy 101 Trust