District Detroit Rising

For the first time, the design and leasing team for District Detroit, a 50-block area spanning downtown and Midtown, reveals how the plan for a new, $627-million arena for the Detroit Red Wings, as well as offices, housing, stores, and restaurants, got its start, and what and where the investment opportunities will be.
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NOW AND THEN: A photo illustration shows the progression of the new Red Wings arena — the center piece of District Detroit — from early construction, far left, to the completed 20,000-seat arena, right, giving fans close proximity to the action, sight lines, amenities, and technology. The exterior of the new arena, inset, will display video and graphics during game days.


The command post for District Detroit, a 50-block area that spans downtown and Midtown and includes a new $627-million, 20,000-seat arena for the Detroit Red Wings, is just around the corner from the main entrance to the Fox Theatre. There are no markings or signage on the entrance door, which is located along the south side of the theater, and the space that door leads to is stark and spare. 

During an exclusive tour, youthful staffers were huddled around a cluster of tables jammed together in the middle of the space, quietly chatting and poring over their laptops. It could be any startup, anywhere. 

Off to the left, though, there’s a smaller room just past a table filled with coffee and water. Inside, a vast conference table dominates most of the room, while the walls are plastered with oversized posters depicting the details of what Mike and Marian Ilitch, co-chairs of Ilitch Holdings Inc., are launching through their real estate company, Olympia Development — a total investment, most of it privately financed, that could reach as much as $1.3 billion by 2020.

The first phase focuses on what will be the new home of the Ilitch-owned Red Wings. The arena is scheduled to open in September 2017 in what is called Woodward Square, connecting Midtown to downtown Detroit. The working name for the arena is the Detroit Events Center, although earlier this year the Ilitchs announced they had trademarked the nicknames “The Baddest Bowl” and “The Baddest Bowl In Hockey.”

For a map of the propose district // click here 

Meanwhile, last summer Olympia Development sold out all 52 of the arena’s full-size suites, which lease for about $300,000 per year and can accommodate 18 to 30 people, and 22 of the smaller, four- to eight-person loge-box suites, which go for around $100,000. 

THE EXTERIOR OF THE NEW ARENA WILL DISPLAY VIDEO AND GRAPHICS DURING GAME DAY

In addition to the arena, more than 200,000 square feet of privately financed mixed-use retail and office development is in the works for Woodward Square, which encompasses sections of Woodward Avenue and Henry Street that have been underutilized for years. One building under construction runs along the eastern side of the arena, parallel to Woodward Avenue. The other is on Henry Street, to the south, running alongside I-75.

Both four-story structures will feature more than 55,000 square feet of retail space and more than 160,000 square feet of office space. Employees of the Red Wings and Olympia Entertainment will occupy some of it, but the majority of the space will house offices, retail stores, and restaurants, both local and national. There are numerous artist renderings of how it’s all going to look and feel in Woodward Square — lively streets teeming with people flocking to and fro, surrounded by bars, boutiques, and restaurants. Color-coded maps and grids show where a smattering of residential buildings is planned, along with three parking decks and a 400-room hotel.

“We’ve had great response on the hotel side,” says Steve Marquardt, vice president of Olympia Development, “and those conversations are ongoing. And Woodward Square is really just our first major initiative. It’s an example of appropriate use of retail, not only recognizing that this is an entertainment district, but that it’s also a place where people will live, work, and play.

“I think it’s a formula that’s time-tested, and certainly we think (it’s) critical, having the mix of uses and the design that supports it, more than anything. And there are four other neighborhoods that are being planned, with (a similar) look, feel, and authenticity for each of those, as well.”

One of those neighborhoods, Columbia Street, is going to sprout up just outside the door of the command post, transforming what is currently little more than a surface parking lot between the Fox and Fillmore theaters into a European-style community with quaint cobblestone walkways — a place Marquardt is confident will be a vibrant urban destination. 

“It’ll be this really cool, intimate, two-sided experience,” he says, “anchored by the Fox and Fillmore and the new Little Caesars Global Resource Center.”

 

The new resource center will be a nine-story, 205,000-square-foot office structure, located right next door to the Fox Theatre — which, 25 years ago, the Ilitchs acquired, restored, and refurbished for their headquarters at a time when numerous companies were fleeing downtown. The new project will be Detroit’s first newly constructed corporate office building in a decade, and only the seventh since 1950. Some 600 employees are expected to work in the new space and also live in the neighborhood.

A rendering of Columbia Street, set between the Fox Theatre and the future home of Little Caesars Global Resource Center. 

“Certainly, what you see in trends is people moving back into cities,” Marquardt says. “There’s virtually no residential product now available in our downtown area, which is a shame, but it’s what people are craving — and it supports this idea that people are, in fact, moving back on a national basis to city centers.”

In addition to Woodward Square and Columbia Street, the three other planned neighborhoods are being designed to generate plenty of action, diversions, and choices for visitors and residents alike:

  • Columbia Park: Described as the city’s newest urban green space, behind the Fox and just to the west of Columbia Street, it will be a tree-shaded enclave surrounded by offices, specialty shops, and loft-style condominiums or apartments.
  • Cass Park Village: Located to the northwest of Columbia Park, Cass Park Village is envisioned as an inviting community for artists and entrepreneurs, with art galleries and cafes, feeding off its proximity to Wayne State University, Cass Technical High School, and the Masonic Temple.
  • Wildcat Corner: Appropriately named for the sliver of space running between Comerica Park and Ford Field, this will be a natural and lively gathering spot where all sports fans can celebrate, cheer, and commiserate. Of course, the neighborhood will feature plenty of appropriate establishments to do it all.

The sweeping transformation of the neighborhoods between downtown and Midtown will encompass some 385 acres of property, or nearly 50 city blocks, roughly equivalent to New York’s Greenwich Village or Georgetown in Washington, D.C. 

Construction of the arena and surrounding district is expected to generate at least $2.1 billion in total economic impact, including 12,500 construction and construction-related jobs, and 1,100 permanent jobs. More than $100 million in employment income from the events center project alone is expected for Detroit residents, with significant additional income to be created through future private development. Olympia Development has set a target of 51 percent Detroit resident employment, and has mandated that 31 percent of contracts will go to Detroit companies. Thus far, more than $200 million has been awarded to Detroit companies.

The excitement generated by that news is matched by the buzz surrounding the prospects for a diverse and robust retail element in the zone. Scott Young, first vice president with Southfield-based CBRE Detroit, is the project’s leading retail leasing consultant.

“The reaction has been overwhelming, which is great,” Young says. “Obviously, with the strength of the economy, the real estate market nationally is very dynamic right now. Like every project, there’s going to be a mix of localized, regional, and national (tenants), and when you find the right operators in each of the segments, (and they) complement each other, that’s when you’re going to have success.”

Young says Henry Street, which runs along the south side of the new arena, is a good example of how this approach will look and feel.

“Henry Street will close down and turn more into a festival street during ticketed events,” he says, “so the merchandise is going to sway heavily toward food and beverage. But we also have the opportunity to select several complementary uses, to create an environment that is diverse in whom it appeals to. You may have a children’s event in the morning and a hockey event in the evening, so you have uses from a restaurant perspective that may have varied price points and themes; maybe something that opens later on a game night, or for breakfast all day. Because of that, you can create an active environment.”

The same type of activity in an outdoor piazza on the west side of the arena is projected to accommodate as many as 5,000 people.

“The total possible (number) events between the piazza and the arena bowl is around 500 (annually),” Young says. “You could have tailgates for Tigers games at this location, pre-concert gatherings, a farmers’ market, movie nights; it’ll have a huge monitor. … 

“Retail always follows demand,” he says. “If you ever see failed retail, it’s probably because it’s been built too early and there aren’t the generators there to support it. But here we have a lot of urban generators: There are 6.5 million people who will be coming to this project from up to 90 minutes away, not including Canada, and you’re moving a million and a half people (who are) currently doing ticketed events at Joe Louis Arena to this location. Then you augment another half-million people a year (who are) projected to come to other ticketed events, so you’ve got everything that goes into making this a place, right?

“A hotel, residential and office space, great parking, a great community, and all the infrastructure, landscaping, lighting, safety, security systems — everything you need (is) in this project to appeal to every conceivable tenant and occupant, and everybody who would want to come down and be a part of this.”

 

The overall enthusiasm for the project is bolstered by the sight of the towering concrete and steel structure rapidly rising from Woodward Avenue. The original $450-million price tag for the arena has already increased by more than $150 million because of an array of enhancements, such as:

  • An on-site practice rink that can also be used for amateur hockey.
  • A “skin” on the outside of the arena bowl that can display video and graphics, such as the Red Wings logo on game days.
  • Additional elevators and so-called upper gondola seating — seats that are seemingly suspended over the event level.
  • Enhanced sound and video capabilities, including a massive video wall for the outdoor plaza.
  • More green spaces across the arena site, which will be regularly programmed with music and entertainment. The ongoing improvements are the culmination of more than 15 years of dreaming and planning by the Ilitch family to build the best arena imaginable for the Red Wings.

A key step leading up to this strategy occurred one day in spring 2007 in the White Plains, N.Y., office of Richard Heapes, soon after the Red Wings defeated the San Jose Sharks in a seven-game playoff series. Heapes is co-founder and partner of Street-Works, a real estate company specializing in mixed-use development — which essentially defines any space that incorporates a combination of residential, retail, cultural, and industrial uses. Street-Works has completed more than $1 billion in mixed-use development around the country. As development consultants, they’ve been actively involved in real estate projects exceeding $10 billion.

An overall view of the project, where fans will find eateries, wine bars, and clubs. 

“It was around lunchtime and I happened to be in the office,” Heapes says, “and this guy shows up and it’s Atanas Ilitch, Mr. I’s son, and he says his father has sent him to go find the guys that did Santana Row. And he asks, ‘Does anybody here know about this project?’ So I said, ‘Yeah, I do. Come on in and let’s talk.’ ”

Street-Works developed Santana Row, a 20-block, 42-acre urban mixed-use village in San Jose. “The players loved it,” Heapes says. “The team was in a hotel in the middle of one of the projects that we had opened in 2001, with all kinds of retail and streets and sidewalks and cool stuff. So that meeting with Atanas led to us coming out the following week and driving up and down Woodward and taking a look at what they had and what they were thinking. It was kind of an odd, serendipitous thing. So that was the start of it.”

It didn’t take too many trips along Woodward for Heapes to realize there were aspects of downtown Detroit that were unique and exciting.

“We were most astounded by the assets already sitting here that were the assets to a successful downtown,” he says. “We’d done work in other downtowns, a lot of it in Boston. What are the main assets of Boston? Education? You’ve got Harvard, MIT, Wellesley, and all the others. Wellness? Think of all the health facilities and hospitals in Boston. Sports? Boston is a sports-crazy city. And then there’s people living there.”

Heapes says Detroit wasn’t too different than Boston.

“So we said, ‘You guys have the pillars for what you need to grow the city. Most cities are trying to lure those things to their downtowns, and you’ve already got ’em here. The DMC, Wayne State, three professional athletic teams downtown, 20-some theaters, and casinos. In spite of what it might look to people, you’ve got the foundations of a great downtown. There’s not another place like this in the country.’ So we were very engaged and started working on a strategy.”

The next critical step was the arena, and figuring out where to locate it.

“The one thing we knew from the beginning was that it was going to take something pretty powerful to bridge the two downtowns together, caused by I-75,” Heapes says. “You’re not gonna stick a bike store and a coffee shop in the Cass Corridor and bring downtown back together. So that began a question of: Could a sports venue, particularly an arena, do that?”

And, just as importantly, what kind of arena would it be?

“It would have been easy to build this hulking monolith in the middle of a sea of parking,” Marquardt says, “but that’s not appropriate and not great urban design. You need some context.”

Heapes agrees. “Typically if you build the old arenas, like The Joe, version two, it’s not a good neighbor; it’s closed most of the time, with parking all around it, like The Palace of Auburn Hills or wherever else. So we said we could put an arena (near I-75), but it has to be the catalyst and heart of a neighborhood. It can’t be a big box.”

Heapes didn’t have to look very far to illustrate his point.

“The Comerica Park area is a very friendly neighborhood kind of place,” he says. “It’s not high. They pushed it into the ground. They made the outbuildings interesting and charming. You wouldn’t mind living next to that, versus next to The Joe, for example. So I’m thinking they’ve already shown how to think of these things. And that’s what generated the basic deconstructed design of the arena, which is push that thing into the ground, don’t make it too high, and then surround it with neighborhood stuff — retail, office, whatever else — and it can sit and be kind of this engine.”

 

HOK, a St. Louis-based global architectural firm specializing in sports facilities, designed Comerica Park and was also commissioned for the events center. Their layout of the arena mimics the Comerica Park design: It’s a bowl with the ice surface 37 feet below street level. Buildings housing the box office, team offices, and various retail outlets will be outside the arena, but under a glass roof, creating an indoor atrium called the Via, which will serve as the main concourse for the arena.

The vision is for the Via to remain open year-round and be accessible from a stop along the M-1 Rail, now called the QLine, the 3.3-mile Woodward Avenue fixed-rail system with 11 stops between West Grand Boulevard and Congress Street. Currently in its final phase of construction, the QLine will be operating early next year, well before the opening of the arena.

Wildcat Corner is set around Comerica Park and Ford Field, with new residential apartments complemented by stores and restaurants planned. Two surface parking lots between Woodward and Comerica Park will be redeveloped, along with adding two or more parking decks.

“M-1 is going to change people’s perception of downtown,” Heapes says. “City Hall is just a 10-minute walk from here, down a beautiful street. People are going to realize this is cool and it’s safe. They’re just going to start walking and using the M-1, and it’s going to completely change the way people look at their city.”

In fact, the overall District Detroit project has already gained wide media attention as a close-knit commercial, residential, and entertainment neighborhood that will typify the visionary cities of the 21st century. Experts believe that walkable urban places not only increase safety, because there are literally more people on the streets, but also because there are more eyeballs paying attention. An added bonus to all that street traffic is better health — because people are walking more and driving less. So, ironically, the city that was responsible a century ago for the birth of automobile transportation is now (already) ranked among the country’s top 30 metropolitan areas for its “walkable urbanism.”

“I often ask people a trick question: What’s the most important pavement that you can put on a sidewalk? Granite, bricks, concrete?,” Heapes says. “The answer is none of the above. The best pavement you can put down is anything with dappled light from big trees. So put your money where the trees are. Big trees. People think it’s all been there a long time; it feels comfortable.”

Heapes hastens to add it can’t feel fabricated — or, especially in the case of Detroit, inauthentic in any way.

“We have enough historic buildings (that) we’re not gonna feel squeaky brand-new,” he says. “In today’s world, people’s bull**** meters are on a trigger. High alert! So I have a few Detroiters. I call them my ‘canary committee.’ I can put something under their noses and ask, ‘How does this smell to you? Without being old Detroit or ruined Detroit or any of those old things, does this smell Detroit? Or does this have a little tinge of Manhattan? Just give me a whiff. How does it smell?’ And that’s how we’re muddling through this.”

Actually, Heapes himself is doing a lot more than just muddling through. Just over a year ago, he relocated to Detroit full time from his home in the Manhattan suburbs. “You can’t fly in and out as a consultant and be out of here,” he says. “I had to live here.”

Heapes moved into the David Broderick Tower — “I love it there!” he says, “I feel like I’ve found the bag of gold” — and regularly rides his bike to Eastern Market or takes long walks on Woodward, marveling at how much it’s all changed since his first visit nearly 10 years ago.

“The coney places were all there was back then,” he says, “but in the last two to three years, there’s been 70 new restaurants added. That’s people putting their money and life and livelihood where their mouth is. And that’s the standard indication a place is coming back. I don’t care if it’s SoHo (in New York) or Ocean Drive (in Miami). It starts with people coming and saying, I want to be a part of this, I can do a restaurant.”

But, Heapes cautions, it’s still very much a story that does not have an ending yet, — some chapters are still being written.

“I use the analogy all the time,” he says. “Just because you put in a new arm or heart doesn’t mean the body’s not going to reject it. Everyone is hopeful and the signs are good, but I keep telling people: Announcements in the paper are good, but until you see shovels, they’re just another thought. And that’s the transition we’re in right now. We’re starting to see shovels, but it’s no guarantee.”

That raises an obvious question for anyone who’s involved with the District Detroit project: When will they know unequivocally they have a winner on their hands?

“That’s a tricky question,” says Young, adding, “You’ll know when you walk down Henry Street every evening and it’s working.”

Marquardt agrees. “We have seen and will continue to see milestones that point to success on this project,” he says. “Each time we award a contract to a Detroit-based business, that’s success. As buildings like the Detroit Events Center progress, that’s success. And as retailers from across the country reach out to us to locate in District Detroit, that’s success.”

As for Heapes?

“It’s not one thing happens and then you know,” he says. “You kinda smell it. And it’s not just the big plans; it’s down to the molecule of the sidewalk, which is everything that people experience at the end of the day. All the plans are great, but it’s really, What the hell does it feel like to be there?”

And then the New Yorker, who’s been feeling firsthand for well over a year now what it’s like “to be there,” flashes a final, confident grin.

“I don’t know where that tipping point was,” he says, “but I feel we are quickly moving past it in the downtown. If the suburbs were the place to be in the 1950s and 1960s, our cities are the place to be now. If Detroit was a stock, I’d be buying some right now.”

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