More than a new home for two professional sports teams, the Little Caesars Arena, set for a ribbon-cutting next week, is the centerpiece of a 50-block development dubbed District Detroit that is expected to breathe life into a part of Detroit that has long been considered a dead zone.
The district — slated to include entertainment and commercial developments, as well as at least six residential developments — aims to transform a part of Detroit that for years has been made up of vacant and dilapidated buildings, offices housing nonprofit service organizations, restaurants, bars and liquor stores.
“The stadium can be the nucleus for that area, and it’s the catalyst for that project to take shape,” said Justin Robinson, vice president of business attraction at the Detroit Regional Chamber. “But, ultimately, it’s going to be the surrounding development that leaves the biggest impact on the city and, frankly, on the state.”
The arena, which workers in hard hats and bright yellow vests are toiling to finish, will be home to the Red Wings and Pistons. It is set for a ribbon-cutting Tuesday, followed by public tours and, then, on Sept. 12, the first of six Kid Rock concerts.
The district, between downtown and Midtown, would fulfill a promise made by the Ilitch family to promote at least $200 million in private investment in the area in exchange for getting public dollars to help pay for the $863-million arena. The family owns the Red Wings, the Detroit Tigers and Little Caesars Pizza.
"I think it's great," said Ray Hanna, manager of a convenience store close to the arena. The shop — which sells hot food, cold drinks, fresh fruit, lottery tickets and liquor — was bustling Wednesday morning with hungry construction workers. "It brings new jobs, new development, new people."
Work is under way in the district, headed by the Ilitch organization's Olympia Development, though it won't be completed for several years.
Restaurants, offices and new surface lots and parking structures are expected to open soon. There also will be residential developments — a total of 686 units — with work on some of them scheduled to start this year.
Four of the residential buildings will make over historic buildings near the arena.
Of those, 139 apartments will be set aside as lower-rent units with income restrictions. Rents could begin as low as $700 a month. The other residences would be leased at market rates, about $1,500 a month for a 750-square-foot apartment.
Other features and amenities also are planned, including a potential hotel.
“The momentum has been created," said Eric Larson, the CEO of the nonprofit Downtown Detroit Partnership. "Yes, there are a number of projects that will take time, but all of that has the ability to be facilitated now that a big chunk has taken place."
Moreover, the QLINE street car will be able to move people along Woodward Avenue.
The district also includes Wayne State University's Mike Ilitch School of Business and a Little Caesars corporate headquarters building that is taking shape at Woodward and Columbia Street, adjacent to the Ilitch-owned Fox Theatre.
The new headquarters — scheduled to open next year — will be near planned shops and cafés on Columbia Street.
A 30-year commitment
District Detroit would represent the culmination of the Ilitch family's 30-year commitment to enlivening downtown, a commitment that earlier gave new life to the Fox Theatre and saw the building of Comerica Park. It would extend the late Mike Ilitch's flair for entertainment-themed development over a bigger swath of the city than ever before.
As opening day approaches, groups of workers are dashing about the gigantic new arena complex.
Roads are being repaved; buildings demolished.
Businesses, like Harry's Detroit sports bar, are cleaning up, even adding fresh paint.
All the hustle and bustle makes it possible to see past the gravel parking lots filled with broken bottles of booze and the long-neglected buildings with boarded-up and blown-out windows and peeling paint to envision an area teeming with residents and commerce.
At the firehouse blocks away from the arena, firefighters debate the area's future.
"I think it's going to happen," Chris Dezenski, 51, of Corunna said. "It is happening. You build it they will come."
He's the believer.
Terence MacRae, 40, of Milford countered that there's no question that the area looks better than it did five years ago, but he's not sold that a district filled with residents and businesses will be built — and will believe it when he sees it.
"I know people are going to come down for sports events," he said. "But, as far as jobs and filling in the city? There's still lots to do."
He's the skeptic.
Of the arena's total cost, the public's contribution is $324 million, including $35 million for upgrades to accommodate the Pistons. The Ilitch companies are paying $539 million.
Contractors building the arena said they had trouble finding enough Detroiters to work on the project. The contractors — who are required to employ a crew made up of at least 51% of city residents — paid $2.9 million to workforce training funds because they did not hire enough Detroit residents to work on the project.
Larson — who worked for Ilitch and then downtown developer Dan Gilbert before joining the partnership — described the district before the arena was built as "a missing tooth in the smile of Woodward."
"There are very few projects," he added, "that would have created the kind of infill and ultimate linkage between two nodes of positive activity — Midtown and downtown — and instantly fill the gap.”
Where is it headed?
Still, Robinson, who also has been an urban planner, said the arena alone isn't enough to attract major businesses to the city.
But, he said, the entire district is part of a narrative that shows Detroit, indeed, is on the rise again.
“There’s an opportunity right now, where — it’s not just the Ilitches — there are a lot of developers trying to capitalize on the demand that exists for housing and retail and offices in Detroit," he said. "The question is: How cautiously do they move to fill in demand? We’ve never been in this place in our recent history, so there’s no analytics, no data to say where this is headed.”
Detroit Councilman Scott Benson said he is confident that the Ilitches will meet or exceed their development commitment and said he believes that it is a good return on investment for taxpayers.
He compared the new arena to a shopping center anchor tenant.
"The ancillary development is going to be very, very important," Benson said. "That's where your residents live. That's where your shop owners are going to be investing in new businesses. That's also where your tax revenue is going to come from."
District Detroit, Benson said, will create a vibrant core in a part of the city where there hasn't been much investment in decades.
"It makes a more livable city overall," he said, adding that it helps fill in development gaps as other projects throughout the city take hold. "But, we still need to see that kind of investment coming back to our neighborhoods."
Private investment is primarily building the district, but as much as $74 million in public dollars can come from the Detroit Downtown Development Authority to help the district grow.
That money — originally $62 million, but increased after the Pistons agreed to leave Auburn Hills and move to Detroit — will come from tax receipts captured over 30 years in and around the new district. It is contingent on the minimum $200 million in private-sector investment from Olympia and its development partners in the district.
David Sampson — the CEO of the Mariners Inn, a homeless shelter and drug treatment center for about 150 men at 445 Ledyard — said the organization is hopeful the district will create opportunities for the organization.
"We are as excited as everybody else around here," he said. "We've been here for 62 years. We've been a part of the community when it wasn't so well-to-do. At one point, it was considered a bastion of ill-repute. We've weathered the storm."
Sampson said the organization will benefit from more job and housing opportunities.
"We're right in the middle of all the happenings," he said. "We are like all other nonprofits in the area in terms of keeping our options open to the what if's, but it's our desire to benefit from the opportunities that are projected to happen here."
© 2017, Detroit Free Press