DETROIT -- Ilitch Holdings Inc. is quietly increasing its control of a run-down patch of downtown long considered a potential site for a new hockey arena for the Ilitch-owned Detroit Red Wings.
After decades of little activity, a rush of buying, selling and construction work is taking place in the area known as Foxtown, just west of Ilitch Holdings' Woodward Avenue headquarters at the Fox Theatre complex. This week a vacant and derelict building at 138 W. Columbia St. that was once the Hotel Vermont is being razed.
One block away on the corner of Elizabeth and Clifford streets, Ilitch Holdings Vice President of Tax Affairs John Kotlar has taken ownership of a parking garage that has been vacant for decades. Kotlar purchased the structure through a company called Elizabeth Street Properties LLC. The address for the company is listed as the Fox Theatre, according to records from the Wayne County Register of Deeds.
County deed records also show that Olympia Development LLC, the downtown development arm of Ilitch Holdings, now owns the former Chin Tiki at 2121 Cass Ave. The Polynesian-themed restaurant was featured in the Eminem film "8 Mile" but was shuttered in 1980.
The activity comes at a time when the Ilitch family is fast approaching a deadline on whether to build a hockey venue or renovate the Joe Louis Arena. The Ilitches' lease on the city-owned riverfront arena expires in 2009. Mike Ilitch, co-founder of the Little Caesars Pizza chain that started it all, has hinted that he prefers building a new hockey arena near the Fox Theatre.
No decision has been made about whether the Wings will stay at The Joe or move to a new venue, said Karen Cullen, spokeswoman for Ilitch Holdings.
"The bottom line is nothing has changed," Cullen said. "Even without an arena being built there, we care about what is over there," Cullen said. "We continue to study our options."
Whatever options come up for Ilitch Holdings, there will be plenty of land to accommodate them. All told, one Ilitch-related firm or another controls a nearly open swath of land that spans four blocks containing only a few vacant buildings, a nightclub and two transient hotels. The holdings span an area from the Fisher Freeway service drive to Grand Circus Park and all the space behind the Fox Theatre.
The Ilitches already have a huge presence in the area. Their Detroit Tigers play at Comerica Park across the street from the Fox Theatre. The company also owns Hockeytown restaurant on Woodward and the Detroit Life Building on Park, which the Ilitches intend to restore as a high-end residential development.
Olympia Development also has big plans in the adjacent Grand Circus Park area.
The company is looking for tenants for the possible redevelopment of a five-acre site that includes the United Artists Theatre building and the former Statler Hotel parcel, which is owned by the city. Olympia continues to market that site along with the city, including talking with Rock Financial/Quicken Loans about moving its headquarters there, Cullen said. Olympia is also seeking tenants for the former Madison-Lenox Hotel land, which is now a parking lot, and the Fine Arts building at 44 W. Adams, just north of Grand Circus Park.
While Ilitch Holdings remains mum about its plans regarding a new home for the Red Wings, other downtown property owners say they are counting on something big.
"Frankly, I think it's a logical place for a new hockey stadium" said Chuck Forbes, founder of Forbes Management whose company owns the Gem Theatre and the State Theatre just down the street from the Fox. Forbes also owns two properties on Park Avenue, the Women's City Club and the Colony Club buildings, and says he's already invested more then $700,000 in recent upgrades.
"We're talking about a formidable, unique district," Forbes said. "You have top-rated theaters, professional sports stadiums, upscale nightclubs, luxury housing. We're really optimistic of the opportunities back there."
Ilitch Holdings agreed the area has plenty of potential.
"If there are opportunities to purchase properties that are adjacent to ours, we take a look at those properties," Cullen said. "That area is a tremendous sports and entertainment district and we are committed to seeing that develop and grow."
Also near the Fox Theatre, the former C&C Bar at the corner of Cass Avenue and Columbia was partially demolished within the past month and is now being rebuilt. Ilitch Holdings does not own the property.
The Joe Louis Arena opened on the Detroit riverfront in 1979 after former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young built it to keep the Red Wings from moving to Oakland County. The team was under different ownership at the time. Joe Louis is the fifth-oldest arena in the National Hockey League. A new facility would bring the Wings at least $10 million in additional revenue each year from naming rights and luxury box sales alone.