Fate of historic buildings next to new arena delayed

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

Detroit — The fate of an historic building targeted for demolition to make way for the new Red Wings arena has again been delayed. A special meeting by the city’s historic commission scheduled for Tuesday 5:30 p.m. has been called off.

The Detroit Historic District Commission issued a statement late Monday the meeting had been “canceled/postponed.” No reason was given, nor an alternate date. The sole agenda item of the meeting was to discuss the plans for two empty, vandalized buildings that stand next to the new home ice for the Detroit Red Wings. The owners of the hockey team want to raze one of those historic buildings and convert the other into apartments. Preservationists are rallying to save both.

That plan helped spark a months-long debate between Detroit City Council and Olympia Development of Michigan, the development arm of the Wings’ owner. That debate delayed major work to begin on the new Wings arena,which is expected to be open in 2017. Most of the issues were settled in April when council approved allowing construction of the venue to begin in full.

But the fight over the two historic buildings continues. Olympia Development needs approval by the Detroit Historic District Commission for its plan.

Olympia intends to save one empty historic building, the former Eddystone Hotel, for residential use, including a section reserved for affordable housing, while the adjacent historic building will be demolished. The building to be revived, the former Eddystone, is on the northwest corner of Park and Sproat.

The building targeted for demolition is the 90-year-old former Park Avenue Hotel, on the southwest corner of Park and Sproat. Olympia contends the former Park Avenue must be razed because it is so close to the new arena that it violates Homeland Security protocols followed by the National Hockey League.

"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."

A spokesman for Olympia couldn’t be reached late Monday or early Tuesday.

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.

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 HistoricDetroit.org, and the 250-room Park Avenue the following year. Their long decline began decades ago, around the time of Detroit's 1967 civil unrest.

The former Eddystone eventually became a flophouse, then closed in the late 1990s. Olympia wants to convert the building into rental apartments.

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.

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 of Michigan 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 district that includes retail, residential and offices.

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


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