One-time Detroit gems stand in way of Red Wings arena

Louis Aguilar and Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

The fate of two empty, vandalized buildings in Detroit's Cass Corridor has become a major stumbling block in the plan to start building a $450 million arena for the Detroit Red Wings.

A view of the proposed location of the new Detroit Red Wings hockey arena shows the Eddystone on the left and the old Park Avenue Hotel on the right. The Park Avenue would be razed under the arena plan.

For decades, no one could find a use for the sister buildings, both of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The towering Italian Renaissance-inspired structures have been abandoned for years as the neighborhood around them became symbolic of Detroit's decline. Now, as in the 1920s when they were built, they sit on prime real estate.

That's why they have taken center stage in a months-long conflict between the Detroit City Council and Olympia Development of Michigan, the real estate arm of the billionaire Ilitch family. The council needs to decide whether one of the buildings should be demolished to make way for the arena. Olympia needs to convince the council it will follow through on its promise of resurrecting the one that will remain.

Tuesday's City Council meeting will be another test on whether that hurdle may be cleared after months of delay. There's no guarantee that it will be resolved then; it's been delayed repeatedly. As of Monday afternoon, the Council was still waiting to see changes in the resolution intended to break the stalemate.

Councilwoman Raquel Castaneda-Lopez, who pushed for a strengthened ordinance with a commitment from Olympia to redevelop the building, wants to advance the project but also to ensure it's right.

"I'd like to support the project; however, I want to make sure that we have the strongest language as possible that's legally enforceable ... to make sure Olympia follows through on the things that they verbally have said they would do, versus just trusting they would do so," she said Monday.

The 156-room Eddystone, which opened in December 1924, would be preserved under the new Red Wings arena plan.

Unless the conflict is resolved, construction of the arena won't begin. Time is running out to meet the goal of opening the venue by summer 2017, Olympia officials said. The issue will be taken up again at Tuesday's City Council meeting.

Until now, Olympia had executed a formidable power play to get the complex arena deal, including securing $250 million in tax dollars to help pay for construction, through various levels of bureaucratic approval. Then came the zoning change request. The council has made it a test of Olympia's track record of historic preservation and downtown development — issues the developer hadn't expected to be so thoroughly addressed.

Olympia wants to raze one building, the former Park Avenue hotel, and restore the former Eddystone, which also was a hotel in Detroit's heyday. Preservationists are rallying to save both.

"The Park Avenue and Eddystone Hotels are all that remain of a vibrant mid-1920s nightlife district north of downtown Detroit," reads the petition signed by more than 1,000 to save both buildings. "Together, these two high-rises contribute authentic urban character to the lower Cass Corridor. Redeveloping them would also have a positive economic impact in a neighborhood where real estate demand is already on the rise."

Eddystone Hotel building seen from Woodward Avenue in Detroit on April 14, 2015.

Apartments for Eddystone

Olympia wants to convert the 13-story Eddystone, on the northwest corner of Park and Sproat, into 100 rental apartments. Olympia aims have to 20 percent of those apartments reserved at affordable housing rates. The general definition of affordable housing is monthly rent that's within 30 percent of a tenant's household's income.

Olympia had hoped that promising to set aside units for people with limited means — a big issue in an area in which rents are steadily rising as more and more people move downtown — would satisfy the council and critics. But the council and others wanted more guarantees.

"Restoring the Eddystone Hotel helps preserve an important piece of Detroit's rich architectural history while creating much needed job opportunities and affordable housing for Detroiters," said Rod Blake, director of development for Olympia.

The 90-year-old Park Avenue building, which Olympia seeks to demolish, is across the street from the Eddystone on the southwest corner of Park and Sproat.

The Park Avenue building must be razed because it is so close to the proposed arena that it raises security concerns, Olympia officials contend.

Both buildings were designed by Louis Kamper, who created many of the city's leading hotels, including the Book Cadillac, which was rescued from the scrap heap and reopened in 2008 as a luxury hotel with some pricey upper-floor condos. A Book Cadillac condo is up for sale now at $345,000, according to the building's website. Both Kamper buildings were built for Lew Tuller, who shaped Detroit's hotel scene in the early 20th century.

The 156-room Eddystone opened in December 1924, according to the website, and the 250-room Park Avenue the following year. Their long decline began decades ago, around the time of Detroit's 1967 riots.

The former Eddystone eventually became a flophouse, then closed in the late 1990s. The Park Avenue became a Salvation Army Harbor Light mission before it closed in 2003.

Around 2008, the two buildings became part of the mysterious series of land acquisitions that were being reported in Cass Corridor. Public records of those sales provided little information on the buyers. It turned out to be Olympia and the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., the quasi-public agency that fosters city development, accumulating land for the future arena.

There was hope a decade ago for the Eddystone when the state awarded a developer tax credits for 60 lofts. But the plan went nowhere.

The Wings' 785,000-square-foot, 20,000-seat arena is slated to be ready for its season opener in 2017. The professional hockey team is owned by Mike Ilitch, whose Olympia Development is part of the Ilitch family's billion-dollar collection of businesses that includes Little Caesars Pizza, the Fox Theatre and Detroit Tigers.

The $450-million arena is the linchpin of Olympia's goal to transform 45 blocks of Detroit, creating a new district larger than the current downtown that includes retail, residential and offices.

The Ilitch organization has vowed to speed up the other $200 million in mixed-use development so that much of it can be complete around the time the arena opens.

Olympia is 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 the many unknowns. Still, the Ilitches continue to say that much of their plan can be finished in five years.

The  156-room  Eddystone opened in 1924.

'Find way to save both'

Midtown resident Nick Miller is among those who continues to plead with the council to save both former hotels. He's an urban and regional planner who comes to council meetings with drawings that suggest the arena should be moved to save the buildings.

"It's inconceivable that they cannot find a way to save both of these buildings," Miller told members at last Monday's meeting. "We do not need to choose between jobs and historic preservation. We won't save the city by tearing down what makes it special."

On April 13, the council delayed for a third time the rezoning request that would allow arena construction to start. Council members and Olympia representatives sparred over ordinance language about the two buildings.

Last week, the ordinance required Olympia to go through the entire approval process for its plans for the two empty buildings. Olympia officials say that could take months it doesn't have. It wants to show it's going through the approval process as other construction work begins. City attorneys and Olympia have been going back and forth on that requirement since last week's delay, hoping to reach a compromise.

Council President Brenda Jones wants written guarantees for Olympia's plans.

"I have been here 10 years. I have seen trust come and go ... but what I do trust is seeing something in writing," she said last week.

Council President Pro Tem George Cushingberry Jr. said new drawings were provided late last week. But council members still await revised resolution language. Cusingberry said Monday he expects it will be presented Tuesday. Cushingberry said the panel can't hold off any longer and members "need to act" to move the project forward.

"From my perspective, the Ilitch organization has been a very good partner to the city," he said.

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