If bankruptcy indicates a city has reached rock bottom, the optimist would say there’s nowhere to go from there but up. And if you’re in a position to take what’s down, start from scratch, and build it back up — well, that could be where the fun starts.
That’s the purview of Olympia Development as it commences the $650 million development of District Detroit. The most high-profile element of District Detroit is, of course, a new $450 million arena for the Detroit Red Wings, and it’s projected to open before the 2017-2018 season. It will be an element unlike anything Detroit has ever seen in a sports venue, designed almost as much to be a community square as to serve as a great venue for fans to watch hockey.
The hockey arena, though, is just the start. The vision of the Ilitch family-owned organization is far broader, encompassing a 50-block area of the central city. Consider some of the elements Olympia is planning:
• A new five-star hotel on Woodward just south of the arena property, which is located roughly at the northwest corner of Woodward and I-75. It isn’t yet clear who the developer would be, or whether Olympia would be involved.
• A massive arena parking structure with one side consisting of new townhomes.
• New single- and multi-family developments within a walking distance of a few blocks from the arena.
• Various new commercial developments, including a new downtown headquarters for Little Caesars, also owned by the Ilitch family.
All of this, adjacent as it is to the Fox Theater District including Comerica Park and Ford Field, is intended, among other things, to create one of the greatest explosions of foot traffic Detroit has ever seen.
“We want to see foot traffic that, five years ago, was nonexistent,” says Tom Wilson, president and CEO of Olympia Entertainment.
The arena design itself has elements that appear to make it a first of its kind. It includes a walkway adjacent to the arena known as Via, which will be a glass-covered atrium containing retail spaces; it will be open to the public 24/7, regardless of whether an hockey game or other event is happening at the arena.
“Even when there isn’t an event, this will be like a pedestrian street that will allow first-floor retail to have a Woodward side and to have a Via side, and it’s a place where people can come and gather,” says Steve Marquardt, project leader for Olympia Development.
On the other side of the arena will be a public square that can be used for live musical performances or other types of events. It will include a very large video screen that could show anything from an afternoon Tigers game to the world championship of an event halfway around the world. The goal is to encourage people to congregate.
If you’re interested in one of the arena’s luxury boxes, there are 52 of them. Forty boxes are already spoken for — and that’s for every event the arena holds, for a cool $275,000 a year. Each suite has a fireplace and seats 30 in its 600-square-foot space. Each suite also contains five flat-screen TVs, so if you want to catch the Tigers, Pistons, Lions, or Family Feud — or all of the above — while the Wings are playing, the units are at your service.
The arena descends 40 feet below ground level, so the Wings will take to the ice considerably below the surface — and their practice arena is below that. All of this was designed to allow for a first-class arena that doesn’t tower so far above the rest of the neighboring buildings and blends in with the zone rather than seem out of place. Then again, that’s the whole idea of District Detroit. The arena is just the catalyst for what Olympia developers hope will be a complete transformation of the area.
Those who have been waiting for such a renovation have liked what they’ve seen in the year since the project broke ground.
“I’ve been incredibly impressed by the thoughtfulness of how they’re doing the boundaries and the edges and the connections,” says Bob Kraemer, principal of Detroit-based Kraemer Design Group. “Streetworks (a designer) is recognizing that as I-75 cuts across the north side of Comerica Park it fundamentally creates a barrier, and there’s been a lot of effort in looking at how you can cross that barrier.”
Marquardt agrees that nothing has posed more of a challenge for the project’s larger goals than I-75 cutting right through the heart of the development area. “In some ways it’s 150 feet wide,” Marquardt says. “In other ways, it might as well be a mile wide. But we’re dealing with it.”
Olympia officials view the area as five distinctive neighborhoods, all of which have their own characteristics — Columbia Street, Columbia Park, Woodward Square, Wildcat Corner, and Cass Park Village. The larger vision is that each neighborhood will grow in accordance with its own traits, spurred by the attractions that start with the arena and branch off from there.
Olympia was determined, early on, that the project should have a single brand identity — at least at the outset — so those talking about the project would all understand it by the same name and vision. For that, they turned to Detroit-based Gyro Creative, which is led by the husband-and-wife team of Matt DiDio and Angela Topacio. The firm engaged in an extensive creative process before presenting the Ilitches with the idea of calling the project District Detroit.
“What we had to do was a platform or a brand on a grand scale,” DiDio says. “The District Detroit platform was developed because it encompasses everything that’s happening right now — the new arena and the vision of everything that should be happening in the end.”
Eventually, Topacio says, the brand identity of District Detroit will give way to identities for specific elements that arise naturally.
But not yet.
“It allows anybody who’s talking to anybody to be able to tell the story, because the district is really about that vision coming to life,” Topacio says. “We all have to refer to it somehow, although eventually people will refer to it as the sports and entertainment district, or whatever they come up with on their own.”
Gyro also was asked to create logos and brand identities for each of the distinctive neighborhoods, which requires a full team of designers in order to ensure that each one has a distinctive look and feel.
As the neighborhoods rise and the business activity grows, everyone involved expects the milling and moving of people at street level will become a more common feature of the area. That’s by design, of course, and if one objective in promoting more pedestrian traffic is to spur surrounding retail development, Kraemer says initial feedback from out-of-town developers suggests it’s having the intended effect.
“We’re getting weekly calls from developers out of New York, who are all very interested,” Kraemer says. “Prior to the 2008 economic drop, we would see calls on a limited basis from out-of-towners, and most of the time they were very trepidatious calls — kind of sniffing around, but very nervous. Asking, ‘Is it safe? What about the corruption?’ That’s all gone away. We don’t get asked if it’s safe. We don’t get asked about the city culture.”
While Kraemer believes District Detroit could help lay the groundwork for a retail revival on Woodward, he knows there are other issues that will have to be worked out before that happens.
“Retailers have been shy of Woodward Avenue because of the M-1 Rail,” Kraemer says. “While it’s under construction, no one wants to be a retailer in a construction zone. As soon as M-1 moves out of the way, you’ll see the next wave of retailers come in. And often, on Woodward, they’re … big retail spaces. You really have to have major retailers, whereas in Capitol Park and Harmonie Park, the retail spaces are more manageable.”
James Bieri, principal of Detroit-based Stokas Bieri Real Estate, says Olympia appears to have learned from other developments — some local, some not — that did well in their own right but created little in the way of spinoff development. Specifically, the developments of Comerica Park and Ford Field, which brought people downtown but didn’t spur significant new development in the area. He believes the Ilitch organization took a broader view of the District Detroit plan to ensure that wouldn’t be the case this time around. They can also learn a lesson, Bieri says, from what happened when the Washington Nationals’ stadium was built.
“They put (the stadium) in a dense area that was down on its luck,” Bieri says. “The stadium is now probably four or five blocks from where the action is, and they’re trying to close that gap. The Ilitches spent a lot of time trying to create an event center that would integrate with the community and be more than just a place for events, and at the same time they could really create a major change to many acres. It’s pretty unique.”
One piece of spinoff development is basically guaranteed — a new corporate headquarters building for Little Caesars, on Woodward between the Fox Theatre and the Fillmore, directly across from Comerica Park. The location is part of District Detroit.
The street sign says Woodward, but as far as Marquardt is concerned, when looking at the original urban design that helped to create the city, it might as well be Detroit’s Main Street.
“It’s a spoke-and-hub system that started right up the street, so this is really Main Street,” Marquardt says.
Early in the process, as Olympia sought approvals for rezoning and tax-increment financing via the Downtown Development Authority, it was clear that political leaders in the city wanted to see Olympia put a premium on hiring city residents and awarding contracts to city workers. According to Doug Diggs, president and CEO of the economic development consulting firm Diggs Group, and a partner on the project, Olympia’s outreach to city-based workers and contractors has achieved solid results.
Initial goals for the project were to have at least 30 percent of contractors and 50 percent of workers come from within the city. To date, more than 13,000 Detroit residents have registered for job opportunities with the project, as the result of a multifaceted outreach effort that included a major event at Cobo Center. In addition, Diggs says more than 65 percent of contracts awarded thus far have gone to Detroit-based contractors — all of whom are expected to have a utilization plan for how to maximize the use of Detroit-based workers.
No construction job is ever permanent, of course, but District Detroit is designed to create much more economic vitality than one would expect simply from the duration of a building project. Between the new homes, the revitalized retail, and the spinoff development of a hotel, office buildings, and restaurants in the area, the project’s broader vision is to boost the quality of life and the tax base while creating a culture that sees large, enthusiastic crowds as a regular feature of city life.
It’s not that Detroit has never seen that before, or even that it’s been unheard-of recently. The appeal of Midtown to younger residents speaks to the city’s plausibility as a gathering spot, while the uptick in things like bicycle activity around the city suggest people are no longer so reluctant to experience Detroit as a recreational spot.
It’s been a generation since Detroit has seen a development this ambitious, this multifaceted, and, arguably, this strategically conceived. It’s still only a section of the city, and District Detroit’s success won’t solve every problem that looms in the neighborhoods — nor will it change the fact that thousands of abandoned buildings blot the city’s 138-square-mile landscape.
But nothing changes the equation like renewal and prosperity, especially on the kind of scale the Ilitch family envisions with District Detroit. As the city’s bankruptcy fades into history, no one can claim that Detroit emerged without any love from investors who believed in its potential. Certainly not with a project like this underway.
People always say the only place you can go from rock bottom is up, but that doesn’t mean everyone rises. Detroit, at least, is on its feet.