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Wednesday, September 4,2013

Zeineh-ness

The battle between the Zeineh family and eastside residents

by Andy Balaskovitz

This story was corrected on Sept. 5. Because of a reporting error, the story incorrectly said which charges Saied Zeineh pleaded guilty to in 2009. It should have said he was charged with conducting and acquiring and maintaining a criminal enterprise. He pleaded guilty to larceny of over $20,000 for false pretenses.

It’s been a tug-of-war summer on the 2000 block of East Michigan Avenue. The city, neighbors and business owners nearby find themselves pitted against a longtime East Side property owner and his family.

Local attorney Edwar Zeineh, who says he’s spent all 29 years of his life on Lansing’s East Side, has stirred trouble among his neighbors ever since acquiring 2006 and 2010 E. Michigan Ave., adjacent to Emil’s restaurant. Zeineh (pronounced zany) bought the properties in February from Ingham County Drain Commissioner Pat Lindemann. His family owned the properties, which included a well-known butcher shop, for over 40 years.

The 2000-block troubles started shortly after Zeineh bought the properties. First, a banner in the window advertised a homeless resource center “coming soon.” Neighborhood leaders protested, saying it wasn’t an appropriate use for the prominent storefront. Now nearly six months later, the banner is gone.

But the action shifted to the back of the building, where passage through the back alley — connecting Clemens and Fairview avenues — is cut off by cement barricades Zeineh installed. Before those, parked cars with Zeineh’s business card in the window blocked off the alleyway.

The City Attorney’s Office has given Zeineh 30 days to remove the barricades before the city does so itself or takes him to court. That course of action hasn’t been decided yet.

“I don’t understand what they’re trying to accomplish,” said Nancy Mahlow, president of the Eastside Neighborhood, referring to the Zeineh family. “I’m sure they can be great businesspeople, and I’m sure that the businesses along Michigan Avenue would love to work with them. But when you’re putting up barricades — come on, it’s ridiculous.”

Zeineh declined to comment about the barricades for this story, calling it a “legal issue.” In March 2012, the Ingham County Bar Association recognized Zeineh with a “Top 5 Under 35” award, honoring young attorneys in the area, according to Cooley Law School’s website, his alma mater.

City Attorney Janene McIntyre said the city fire marshal has designated the alley as a fire lane and that the city sent him a letter about two weeks ago saying that he has 30 days “to remove anything obstructing that lane.”

“He still has a couple more weeks to abide by that. If not, we’ll have to take action,” she said, but did not provide specifics.

McIntyre hopes litigation “will not be the case,” but it’s possible.

While business owners say the alley is private property, McIntyre said the fire marshal has authority to designate it as a fire lane. Lindemann said for about 40 years the alley has been used as a public right of way even though it belongs to property owners. Over those years, he said, property owners maintained it.

It’s the latest chapter in neighbors’ saga with the Zeineh family, which also involves the appearance of a liquor store his family owns and operates. Neighbors have complained about the appearance of Michigan Mart, 1825 E. Michigan, which is owned by Zeineh’s father, Faiek, according to Edwar Zeineh’s brother, Saied. Neighbors also mention Lucky Mart, 1900 E. Kalamazoo St., which was until recently owned by Faiek Zeineh.

“There have been a multitude of complaints,” McIntyre said, from neighborhood associations, different neighbors and property owners.

Some have also questioned why vehicles without license plates are parked in back of Michigan Mart. First Ward City Councilwoman Jody Washington said she brought it to Zeineh’s attention.

“I did sit down with him, tried to talk to him and bring him into a better light with the neighborhood and try to build some type of relationship,” Washington said. She asked Zeineh about “unlicensed vehicles” parked behind Michigan Mart. “‘Why?’ I asked. He said, ‘Because I can.’” Zeineh declined to comment on the presence of unlicensed vehicles behind the building. Two unlicensed vehicles were parked there on Tuesday, a black Chevrolet Impala and a Black GMC Yukon.

Now with the barricades in the alley, Washington said, “A lot of these actions are just immature, pushing the envelope. Quite frankly, he just gets a little bit of pleasure out of agitating.”

Zeineh’s brother, 31-year-old Saied, was charged by the Ingham County prosecutor in 2009 with conducting and acquiring and maintaining criminal enterprises. The Lansing Police Department started investigating Saied Zeineh and his brother Simon for “fraudulent motor vehicle transactions” in summer 2008. The state Attorney General’s Office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation were conducting a similar investigation at the time, court records show. While the criminal enterprise case was dropped against Simon Zeineh, according to court records, Saied Zeineh pleaded guilty to larceny of over $20,000 for false pretenses.

Edwar Zeineh was adamant on Tuesday that Saied has “no interest in any of the properties and no involvement in any of the properties” on the 2000 block of East Michigan.

Washington said Zeineh filed Freedom of Information Act requests to get any communications she’s had with neighborhood leaders — particularly Joan Nelson, director of the Allen Neighborhood Center — about him and Michigan Avenue properties. Washington works full time for the state Department of Corrections as a department specialist, so she said he sought information on both her city- and state-issued computers. She said she “handed it over” because he “has a legal right to do it.”

As for 2006 and 2010 E. Michigan, a prominent block through the heart of the East Side that’s struggling to maintain occupancy, Zeineh said it’s being marketed by commercial property broker CBRE Martin and remodeling has begun.

Complaints about his family’s East Side properties, Zeineh said, are “inappropriate and targeted. I’m not going to play their games.

“I hope that won’t hinder the progress of the properties.”

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