Council expected to vote Monday on Wings arena rezoning

Christine Ferretti and Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

Detroit —City Council is expected to vote Monday on whether to allow construction to begin on the new Detroit Red Wings arena after months of delays.

On Tuesday, council again agreed to push back its vote until next week as the city reviews changes made by Olympia Development of Michigan given to city staff hours before the hearing.

"This is a very big deal for the city; a half-billion dollar project," Councilman Gabe Leland told reporters after the Tuesday meeting. "We want to make sure that all of the council's recommendations get in that document so that when it comes to the table to be voted up or down, at the very least, we've done our job to vet this project appropriately."

The proposed site of the new Red Wings Arena bordering Fisher West on the south end between Park and Woodard.

Council granted Olympia its first delay on Nov. 25. The vote is to allow a change in the zoning where the new arena will be built — a desolate patch of Cass Corridor north of downtown. The zoning change seemed a routine bureaucratic step, but, it has become a test of whether Olympia can satisfy concerns over parking, traffic congestion and the fate of two historic buildings. Olympia Development is part of the Ilitch family empire of businesses, which include two professional sports teams, the Little Caesars Pizza chain and a number of downtown Detroit properties.

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 latest delay comes after a council subcommittee last week unanimously voted to advance a revised zoning plan from the Ilitch organization that calls for added green space, a scaled-back parking plan and the revitalization of a vacant 1920s hotel.

Leland noted Detroit's planning officials didn't receive the new language hammered out last week until late Monday, which didn't leave enough time for city lawyers to conduct an adequate review.

In recent weeks, Olympia has revamped its proposal and has committed to revitalize the vacant Eddystone Hotel to residential space with an affordable housing component. Under the plan, another vacant building, the 90-year-old former Park Avenue Hotel, will be razed.

Olympia officials who attended the meeting declined to comment after the vote was delayed and did not speak during the meeting.

Among the amended terms detailed last week was an agreement the developer will not seek a permit to demolish the Park Avenue, now in the planned development area, without first securing necessary approvals to have the Eddystone restored for retail and residential use. Olympia has committed to an affordable housing component of 20 percent.

The Park Avenue, also known as the former Harbor Lights, needs to be demolished because it is in a high-security zone of the proposed arena, the developer has said.

In its place, an underground loading dock would be built to ensure the multipurpose venue can accommodate major concerts and other events.

Olympia is seeking the zoning change so construction can begin on the $450 million arena that’s expected to open in the summer of 2017.

Some preservationists oppose plans to tear down the Park Avenue, saying that it, too, could be spared and revitalized. Olympia's original plan called for both hotels to be torn down.

Nick Miller, an urban planner and Midtown resident, presented to the council during public comment Tuesday a rendering he crafted that he claims would allow both hotels to be preserved and resolve controversy and legal questions.

Miller says Olympia could relocate the arena 200 feet south to land they own. He also presented a petition signed by more than 1,100 people, including several hundred Detroiters, that recommends saving the hotels.

"If we work together we can get a great plan," he said. "This can really improve our city but it has to succeed in promoting additional development."

Last week, Olympia consultant Richard Heapes has said preservation will be a "key cornerstone" for the developer as it moves forward in the coming months.

Olympia is cataloging the buildings it owns in and out of historic districts in the city and preparing a district-wide historical asset strategy, Heapes said last week.

On Tuesday, resident Thomas A. Wilson Jr. says he supports the arena project. Concerns over traffic and parking have been raised over prior developments in the city and have always been resolved, he told the council Tuesday.

Preserving the hotels shouldn't be the priority, he added, noting visitors aren't flocking to the city for its "ancient relics."

Leland said he approves the compromise.

"At the end of the day, my attitude is: raze one, save one," he said, adding they plan to "push and work with" Olympia on the affordable housing percentages.

The council, Leland added, wants to see new drawings and language that reflect requests made during the Planning and Economic Development subcommittee meeting last week. Olympia is "absolutely" all right with waiting until Monday, he said.

"I don't think we are backing ourselves into a wall in any way, shape or form," he said. "A little more time at this can give us a better result."

The $450 million arena is expected to open in the summer of 2017.

It's unclear how the plan will be received by the full council. Councilwoman Raquel Castaneda-Lopez, who was absent from Tuesday's meeting, had expressed concern about traffic having a negative impact on the Cass Corridor neighborhood.

President Pro Tem George Cushingberry Jr. said he's confident that his colleagues will approve the rezoning plan.

"We've done as best we can. I don't want to put any more pressure on the people who are making such a big investment in our city," he said. "I think the votes are there."