As the month of September approaches its end, the start of construction for the Detroit Red Wings' sleek, state-of-the-art, and highly anticipated hockey arena approaches. And while the latest development in Michigan's largest city is a new sports arena, this endeavor also marks the newest limb added to what has become a new Detroit since the start of its 21st century revitalization.
The project, which was formally introduced late this past July, is nothing short of earth shaking for Motor City which infamously became the largest American city to declare bankruptcy a year ago. The arena will offer a great new gem to gaze at for the city, but even more exciting is that the arena comes a complete 45 block overhaul and renovation to form an entirely new entertainment district connecting the north edge of Detroit's downtown and its midtown. The final tab for the building and construction is $650 million dollars, which has been paid for mostly by native Detroit business tycoon Mike Ilitch, Chairman of Ilitch Holdings, Inc. The ancillary financing has come from the State of Michigan and the tax payers of Detroit. The project will be complete by the summer of 2017, meaning that both the arena and surrounding district will be built up together over the next three years.
"Our vision is to build out a sports and entertainment district that is world-class and rivals anything in the country and perhaps the world. We're not just building a hockey arena; it's really about the district," said Christopher Ilitch, President and CEO of Ilitch Holdings and unofficially declared architect behind the operation.
There is no doubt that Ilitch has his eyes set on completely revitalizing an entire part of the city, but the designs certainly reiterate that it is the arena that is the visual centerpiece of the plan. The arena, which remains unnamed, will feature 20,000 spectator seats for the Red Wings who are one of the NHL's original six franchises as well as the most winning North American sports franchise of the last 15 years. For a team that has been playing in the nearly antiquated Joe Louis Arena on the other part of town for decades and has still competed annually with the nearby Chicago Blackhawks for highest attendance in the NHL, a brand-new and polished arena seems like a great decision.
The arena has been called trendy and chic for a sporting venue while others have even said that it has the potential to set trends for future sports architecture. A major difference between this building and other hockey venues in North America is that outer bowl spaces (concessions, concourses, offices) will actually be separated from the arena itself but still connected by a glass ceiling and walkway; the arena and its subsidiary spaces won't directly touch but will be connected by a first ever interior streetscape. The ceiling, walkway, and streetscape is collectively being called a "covered via" by Ilitch and will also feature trees, retail, dining, and the franchise's administrative buildings.
While hockey season only lasts from October to June, the via portion of the structure and certain spaces within it will be open all year, according to Ilitch.
"New retail connected to the arena structure will be open even when the arena is not in use, featuring a first-degree for a glass-structured streetscape inside the complex with threes and other urban amenities. The below ground-level playing surface and sleek building design are meant to give the arena a human scale unlike more imposing and monolithic arenas in many cities."
A 32 foot below ground-level playing surface is particular intriguing for the Red Wings. The decision to put the surface underground fits very well into the Detroit sports vein with both the Lions and Tigers playing below ground as well.
Another exciting -and perhaps the most eye-grabbing- feature of the new arena will be its lighted roof design. The top of the arena has been designed to have a lighted red backdrop with the Red Wings' famous logo shining bright in the foreground. Ilitch said his intention with the roof was to create a big "part of the romance of an urban setting; it's things like this that give you a romance that you can't find anywhere else." He additionally described the roof as "classy, not gaudy" and said it would be visible from downtown skyscrapers. The most recent renderings and pictures for the plan can be found here.
The construction and development of the project will be spearheaded by a subsidiary of Ilitch Holdings, Olympia Development LLC. Olympia, which has by and large been the architect behind the downtown's renaissance in recent years, enters this project boasting an already impressive menagerie of successful builds and revamps. Headlining the list are major sport developments including the Tigers' Comerica Park and the Lions' Ford Field. Elsewhere, Detroit's Fox Theatre, the MotorCity Casino and Hotel, the Detroit Opera House, and currently-being-built M1 Light Rail Line down Woodward Ave. are also significant Olympia productions.
A modern and well-designed hockey arena is certainly exciting for a city that is known internationally as Hockeytown, but the project is creating buzz even for non hockey fans in Detroit. That is because the 45 block renovation packaged with the arena will come a completely improved part of the city just past Comerica Park and before midtown full of viable housing, eating, and entertainment options.
Most of the land within the 45 block span is already owned by the Ilitch family, although the family has indicated interest to purchase more property during the fall. And while the area is being christened an entertainment district, it will truthfully be all-purpose. The development plans include 500 new residential units that will grow to 2,000 along with over dozens of retail shops and restaurants. Most of the housing units will be either modern style or studio style apartments, which will keep the transition from downtown to midtown looking natural. For an area that is right between two of Detroit's trendiest areas yet plagued with empty lots and some dilapidated structures, more housing and spending comes as a great byproduct of the hockey arena.
Another essential part of the cleanup will be tens of millions of dollars invested in cleaning all the infrastructure of the area. Streets will be re-paved and pot holes will be removed, with parks and other recreational spaces built up. Streetlights will be both fixed up and added to the area. A new hotel and parking garage space is also in the works which bodes well for an already stadium packed region of the city.
Improved infrastructure is not the only immediate positive result. In addition the plan also says that approximately 80 percent of all raw materials and parts will come from Michigan based manufacturing suppliers. Of the construction jobs themselves, over 50% are planned to be reserved for Detroiters and another 30 percent of subcontracting duties will be given to Detroit based firms. Ilitch has said that throughout the building process, well over 8,000 construction jobs will need to be filled for the project.
All of this is good news for the city, but perhaps the most important economic gain from the project is specifically the new residential units. The new apartments will make up the final part of the district and will ultimately be used to build five brand new neighborhoods. Ilitch's goal from the project's inception has been to create a "thriving, urban community," meaning that adding five new neighborhoods to the urban core that will help generate $1.8 billion dollars in impact. Currently four of the five neighborhoods have working names, and while a lot of work is still to be done, Ilitch seems to have a vivid and idiosyncratic vision in place for each:
Neighborhood 1: "Cass Park Village"
• Geography: Area includes Cass Technical High School as well as the Masonic Temple theatre; area bounded by Grand River Ave., I-75, Cass Ave., and Charlotte Street.
• Ilitch's take: "This is where the frontier people might want to go. The thing folks love about Detroit is it's real, it's authentic, and it's even a little bit gritty in spots." Some have dubbed the area as the perfect hipster community full of creative energy great for Detroit's rapidly growing 35 and under professional population looking for a good urban experience.
Neighborhood 2: "Columbia Street"
• Geography: Area includes the Fox Theatre, Fillmore Theatre, Bucharest Grill, and Cliff Bell's Jazz Club; area bounded by Park Ave., Adams Street, Woodward Ave., and I-75.
• Ilitch's take: "Intimate, charming, might have a cobblestone; builds on the characteristics of the Fox Theatre and the Fillmore Detroit." It has been compared to a street in Europe and will be covered in retail and restaurants throughout the entire area.
Neighborhood 3: "Wildcat Corner"
• Geography: Area includes Comerica Park, Ford Field, 36th District Court, and the Detroit Athletic Club; area bounded by Woodward Ave., Madison Street, St. Antoine Street, and I-75.
• Ilitch's take: "Anchored by Comerica Park and Ford Field, this neighborhood's name is a play on the baseball and football teams' mascot names." The area is also a subliminal reference to historic Tiger Stadium, which was long at the corner of Michigan and Trumbell, not in this area but also not far away.
Neighborhood 4: "Columbia Park"
• Geography: Area includes Town Pump Tavern, Centaur, and Bookies Bar and Grill; area bounded by Grand River Ave., Bagley Ave., and Park Ave.
• Ilitch's take: "Supposed to exemplify the contemporary, open feel as a gathering place." There is a park planned nearby at the corner of Columbia and Cass and Ilitch estimates that demand for housing at this particular place will boom progressively through the next five years.
Neighborhood Five: Name TBD
• Geography: Area includes Harry's Bar right near I-75; area bounded by Cass Ave., Woodward Ave., Charlotte Street, and I-75.
• Ilitch's take: "It's going to be local hot concepts from the city, the region, maybe the Midwest [emphasis on the local restaurants and bars opposed to national brands." The area will create a holistic hockey environment in addition to its residential, office, and retail properties; retail will focus less on national and corporate brands.
$1.8 billion dollars in impact is a large amount, but it doesn't look like Ilitch will have to work very hard creating that value off the neighborhoods; the demand is already there. Granted Detroit has experienced severe population loss for multiple decades and many perimeter neighborhoods still face extreme challenges, the little known truth about Detroit is that in the last few years there has actually been an explosion of people moving in and even greater demand to live in the city.
The demand to live in Detroit is encouraging in one respect and evident in another. Encouraging is new research that shows that Detroit's population decline is finally ending and new people are calling Detroit home. During the 60's the city was the fourth largest in the country with roughly 1.8 million. After years of decline, the city fell to 18th with a population of 713,777 people as of the 2010 census. The worst years were in the last decade where the city lost near a quarter of its population due to the auto-crisis and housing-crisis, but the margins of decline are finally getting smaller and smaller in the last few years, which sits well with most experts. There are reports now that indicate the 2014 population is just above 680,000, yet to most academics this signifies that the worst is finally behind. Demographers currently predict that the population will stabilize in the 650,000 to 700,000 range with the most skeptical estimates saying that the city will finish declining at between 600,000 and 615,000 people.
The end of the decline is certainly encouraging, but the demand to live in Detroit is what is now driving the future and dictating gradual population increase. The demand is evident in a new generation of young professionals and entrepreneurs creating start ups in the urban core of the city and taking advantage of steady living prices. In the last few years, Corktown, midtown, and downtown have all drawn in many new Detroiters with their trendy atmospheres and a surplus of newly built coffee shops, restaurants, retail, fresh food markets, and more and more businesses moving in.
The city has also seen a lot of good come its way with new, unsubsidized developments, as well as new economic sectors emerging with significant job growth and diverse job pools (Detroit has become a top five tech city and is now becoming a major hub for watch manufacturing). Additionally, rising income and education levels with falling unemployment in recent history have all been beneficial for growth. The momentum should also benefit well from a finished light rail system running down Woodward Ave. in the next couple years.
Ilitch's new neighborhoods will serve the area well to ease a housing crunch that has come with the demand. The surge of young professionals has been so large that while many buildings have been leased-out, multiple waiting lists have had to been created for those who can't find a place. According to Ilitch, the demand is now to the point where Detroit needs to add hundreds of units every year to keep up with its interested renters. According to Kurt Metzger, the director of the non-profit demographic study firm Data Driven Detroit, the demand will continue for years as Detroit continues to become a gritty, urban playground for young, creative, city enthusiasts.
"Today we don't have enough capacity to meet demands for rentals in Detroit. It's 100% filled right now," said Ilitch. "Millennials have a desire to live in urban settings. That's not just in Detroit; that's happening all throughout America."
The lesson of the story is that quietly Detroit has a lot of good things working for it these days, and within the story it's evident just how crucial the new district plans are. A new hockey arena is exciting and great for a variety of reasons, but what Detroit needs so badly right now is more people; more creative people; more young people; and more enthusiastic people intrigued by Detroit. The demand is overwhelmingly and obviously there and has created flight to the city; the key is facilitating it further. 45 blocks of renovated of space to live, work, and play is exactly the answer. For that reason, this new district holds a big part of Detroit's future.
To some people this new district has been called the boldest and most significant development since the Renaissance Center's development in the 70s. That description is both true and fitting. The Renaissance Center is the most famous part of Detroit's skyline and also home to General Motor's world headquarters; it is what any person notices first on a Detroit postcard and is central to Detroit's identity. Through General Motors and the automotive industry there was a renaissance in Detroit generations ago. A new industry was born, a new population boomed, a new middle class was fostered, and a great American city was newly famous. That is Detroit's history and to most people it is common American history knowledge. What most people don't know is that aside from being the Motor City and Hockeytown, Detroit has also been known as the Renaissance City throughout history.
The automotive industry is forever different with a globalized economy and so too is Detroit's DNA, but this unique moment in time for the city as well as its new district that is as monumental as Detroit's tallest building is creating one thing: another renaissance in the city of Detroit.