Ilitches set to launch new Wings arena and $650M dream

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

Twelve years ago, during a Red Wings road game in San Jose, California, members of the family that owns the Detroit hockey team walked around the new $450 million Santana Row, a walkable "village within a city" full of trendy bars and eateries, upscale shops and high-end residences.

Santana Row in San Jose, California, provided the inspiration for the Ilitches’ new arena district.

The 42-acre San Jose development is built around a main street that had seen better days. Its Mediterranean-themed streets have fountains and plazas and outdoor cafes. Among the shops are Gucci, H&M and Crate & Barrel. Now, there's even a Tesla car dealership. Santana Row made an deep impression on the Detroit entrepreneurial Ilitch family. The Ilitches quickly contacted one of the key designers of the project, Richard Heapes.

For years now, Heapes has been working with the Ilitches on their massive plan to redefine downtown Detroit. On Thursday afternoon, the Ilitches' long-anticipated urban vision takes a step closer to becoming reality.

The event comes after years of secret land acquisitions by the Ilitches in the largely blighted area it intends to transform. The Ilitches spent about $48 million for the properties. The location of the arena wasn't revealed until July 2013.

Santana Row, the 42-acre San Jose, California, development with Mediterranean-themed streets, made a deep impression on the Ilitches.

Since then the Ilitch organization has executed a formidable power play to get the complex deal, involving $250 million in tax dollars to pay for the arena, through levels of governmental approval.

At 1:30 p.m. today, the "launch" of its arena and entertainment district is scheduled. It will be on the desolate Woodward Avenue site just north of downtown where the arena will be built. Opening date of the arena is planned for summer 2017.

Even the launch, as it is being described, is wrapped in some mystery, since Ilitch officials insist it's more than a groundbreaking. From 6-9 p.m., the site becomes open for a family-friendly event with food trucks and live bands. A temporary public ice rink will be set up.

As their long relationship with Heapes shows, the Ilitches had set their sights on building far more than a new ice palace for the Red Wings. They want to create a 45-block area that will attract at least $650 million in new investment.

They envision five new "neighborhoods" that will be home to thousands of residents and dozens of retailers. They hope to revive the blighted sections of two main streets, Woodward and Cass, and form a link between surging Midtown and rebounding downtown.

An artist rendering shows Columbia Street in the future arena entertainment district proposed by the Ilitches.

They are thinking big. Very big. If things go as planned — and it is still more concept than reality — the Ilitches' vision will have created something bigger than the current downtown Detroit. Bigger than New York City's Greenwich Village or Washington's Georgetown.

The challenges are big, too, and include economic factors. San Jose, for example, had the highest median household income of any major city in the country: $77,000 in 2012 — well above the national median of $51,000 and three times that of Detroit.

"We've done business in Detroit for nearly 50 years, and this is our most significant and ambitious project," said Christopher Ilitch, president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings, Inc. in a recent speech to a group of successful former Detroiters.

His parents, billionaires Mike and Marian Ilitch, co-founded Little Caesars Pizza. Mike owns the Wings and the Detroit Tigers, whose home ballpark is a few blocks from the planned development. Marian owns the MotorCity Casino Hotel that is just a few blocks from the intended development.

Even the design of the arena is intended so that it won't be a silo, but rather the linchpin of a new neighborhood.

"Throw out of your head every other arena that you think about," said Heapes last week as he outlined the designs for Detroit's City Planning Commission. "You've not seen anything like this in the United States."

Heapes says the arena will be chocked full of features designed to make it as unobtrusive as a 785,000-square-foot, 20,000-seat building can possibly be.

For one, the actual space where the Wings will play is about 40 feet below street level. And many of the seats will be below street level. The venue will rise only about 75 feet above grade, roughly the height of an eight-story building.

Further, the arena is planned to be surrounded by retail, offices and residential buildings. A glass enclosed walkway will link the arena with those 184 residences and shops. The walkway will be open to the public even when the arena is in use, so shops can remain open.

Plazas, a fountain and meeting spaces will be nearby — just like what the Ilitches saw 12 years ago at Santana Row.

The arena district is bounded by Woodward on the east, Henry Street to the south, Clifford Street on the west and Sproat Street to the north.

The family knows what it wants, as well as what it doesn't want: bail bond services, topless clubs and tarot card readers. Representatives have said the Ilitches are aiming for a mix of well-known national retailers and local favorites.

But what kind of shops, restaurants and offices will set up in new neighborhoods is one of many things still unknown about the overall development. Still, the Ilitches continue to say that much of their plan can be finished in five years.

Twitter: LouisAguilar_DN

Entertainment district, arena timeline

■1979: Detroit Red Wings leave Olympia Stadium for the city-owned Joe Louis Arena, a venue built in haste to keep the team from moving to the suburbs.

■1982: Mike and Marian Ilitch buy the Wings for $8 million.

■2002: The Ilitch organization begins talks with architects, urban planners about a new arena.

■2010: The Detroit News reports a series of secret land deals are taking place in the blighted Cass Corridor; the sellers sign confidentiality agreements and public information of the buyers is scant.

■2012: The framework is announced for a 45-block, $650 million entertainment district that will be anchored by new home ice for theWings.

■2013: The location of the new arena is revealed.

■Sept. 2014: The public launch of the arena district — one of five planned "new neighborhoods."