Ilitch group vows 'aggressive' timetable on Wings arena

Christine Ferretti and Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

Detroit – — Owners of the Red Wings won a months-long fight Tuesday that will allow major work to begin on a new home arena, a $450 million development intended to launch a dense, upscale district larger than the downtown.

While construction of the arena can now begin in full, the battle over the possible demolition of a historic former hotel, the former Park Avenue, is not yet over. But the developer still aims to raze the structure.

"The vision for a connected, dynamic District Detroit where our community can live, work and play will begin in earnest in the coming weeks," said Christopher Ilitch, president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings Inc., in a written statement Tuesday. Ilitch Holdings is the umbrella company for the billion-dollar empire of professional sports teams, entertainment holdings, downtown property and the Little Caesars Pizza chain.

Work at the arena site will be accelerated this week, including light demolition and the start of mass excavation, Ilitch officials said. The 785,000-square-foot, 20,000-seat arena is slated to be ready for the Red Wings' season opener in 2017.

On Tuesday, the former Comet Bar on Cass Avenue was demolished a few hours after the Detroit City Council voted 8-0 to approve the rezoning request that allows a desolate patch between Woodward and Cass, north of downtown, to be the home of the event center.

Rod Blake, director of development for Ilitch's Olympia Development of Michigan, told the council Tuesday that the company has set "aggressive goals" for the project. He noted more than 15,000 businesses participated in outreach events for construction bids. Blake said $25 million of the $30 million in construction work was won by Detroit firms. Some 75 Detroit residents have been hired through six job fairs, he said, and 11,000 have registered with Detroit Employment Solutions to take the next steps in their careers.

This summer, 24 Cass Technical High School students will have paid internships with the Detroit Tigers, Red Wings and other Ilitch companies, he said.

Zoning approval has been delayed multiple times since last fall amid concerns over parking and traffic. Another major sticking point was the fate of the two historic buildings, the former Eddystone and the Park Avenue hotels.

Olympia's plan calls for the Eddystone to be restored and the 90-year-old Park Avenue to be demolished. 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, generally defined as a monthly rent within 30 percent of the tenant's income.

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

Deal on the Eddystone

Council members wanted a solid guarantee that Olympia would follow through with its promise to restore the Eddystone and provide affordable housing. The compromise came Tuesday. Language in the agreement was strengthened in the ordinance to the council's satisfaction.

Still, Olympia needs further approval for the demolition of the Park Avenue. The Detroit Historic District Commission must vote on it; if the commission says no, Olympia must seek approval from the state historic commission. If that is rejected, then Olympia would need go to court.

The victory for Olympia is that the agreement allows work to begin on the arena as it goes through the approval process for the historic buildings.

Councilwoman Raquel Castaneda-Lopez had been one of the most vocal critics of the plan, but she voted to approve it Tuesday. Olympia and the council agreed to more public benefits, including additional green space, protected bicycle paths and affordable housing measures, she said.

"Those are all key quality of life issues addressed, which is why I supported it," she said.

There is one more city approval needed for the rezoning request; that is expected to happen Wednesday afternoon by the board of the Downtown Development Authority.

Arena is project's linchpin

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.

Ken Harris, president and CEO of the Michigan Black Chamber of Commerce, told council members that a written commitment with Olympia focuses on post-construction jobs for the arena.

Harris said he's looking forward to the effort that will "build this city in the right way, with entrepreneurs."

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan praised the deal. "Affordable and market-rate housing, jobs and historical preservation are all part of this development project," Duggan said in a written statement. "This type of investment is what we need — investment that preserves the old, invites the new and continues to move Detroit forward."

Twitter: LouisAguilar_DN