Cass Corridor neighbors see unfilled promises in Little Caesars Arena district

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

Detroit — An advisory group of Cass Corridor residents that meets with the Ilitch organization about its plans to overhaul the neighborhood around Little Caesars Arena says the four-year relationship has been marked by broken promises.

They were promised five new walkable neighborhoods filled with shops, restaurants and housing. What they've gotten so far, they say, has been traffic gridlock, 27 parking facilities — some taking up entire blocks — and fewer places to live.

Francis Grunow, chair of the Neighborhood Advisory Committee for the Arena District, points out the many parking lots and parking structures around
 Cass Avenue and Temple Street .

The 15 residents of the Neighborhood Advisory Committee for the Arena District were appointed by City Council to be the voice of their neighborhood as the billionaire Ilitch family's Olympia Development of Michigan attempts to develop 50 blocks of the neighborhood north of downtown.

The plan calls for high-density neighborhoods with names like Wildcat Corner to attract hundreds of new residents, offices and stores. At the center is Little Caesars Arena, the $863-million sports-and-entertainment complex named after the pizza chain owned by the family. The arena is home to the Ilitch-owned Detroit Red Wings, as well as the Detroit Pistons. 

"The arena is pretty, their people are polite, but there is nothing beyond that," said Karen McLeod, an advisory committee member. McLeod has lived in Cass Corridor for 30 years. She lives two blocks from the arena that opened in late 2017. 

"Most of our parking went away through their new parking lots, and the street parking is pretty much gone because the city wanted to make sure the crowds at the arena could get out quickly," McLeod said.  A nearby party store where many residents relied on for groceries is now closed because the owners took a $3.2 million offer from a suburban developer, she noted. 

The Olympia Development parking lot  at Cass Avenue and Temple Street is one of several parking lots and structures in the arena district in Detroit.

 "So now most of the time, the neighborhood is really kind of deserted," McLeod said. "And then suddenly, when there is an event at the arena, there's just a flood of traffic and we are just kind of trapped."

The advisory group regularly issues sharply critical statements that ask for more information. They say Ilitch representatives usually respond with vague, upbeat comments that the group's concerns will eventually be addressed.

The Ilitch's Olympia Development of Michigan issued a statement Friday about its relationship with the group.

"Our experience working with the Neighborhood Advisory Committee has shown us that the individual members have a wide range of perspectives, interests and ideas and we have been willing and interested to hear all viewpoints from this advisory body," the statement reads. "We have consistently provided NAC members with as much information as circumstances allow, including tours of projects under development, and we have regularly participated in NAC meetings."

The city-owned Little Caesars Arena was built with the help of $324 million in taxpayer money. The Ilitches paid for the rest of construction; their Olympia Entertainment arm manages the venue. Various entities linked to the family own a major chunk of the 50 blocks planned for development. The Ilitch organization says it has invested $1.4 billion in office, retail and other developments in the district.

Meetings between the advisory group and Ilitch representatives are an example of the dual narratives swirling around the billionaire family's plan: The Ilitches say key developments are in the pipeline. There's a new Wayne State University Mike Ilitch School of Business, a new Little Caesars headquarters is being built. 

The two sides have met more than a dozen times over the years.  The meetings "sometimes" get argumentative,  said Francis Grunow, chair of the neighborhood advisory group. He and other members generally describe the interactions as frustrating. 

"We ask questions about plans for specific buildings, about specific plans they have previously announced and we get vague timelines; general statements that this is a long-term goal," Grunow said. 

The 27 parking lots run and managed by the Ilitch's Olympia Development of Michigan have become a major sticking point. The group sees them as a patchwork of desert in the neighborhood. 

Olympia Development said it has "had a great deal of communication with NAC members about parking in the area."

It added: "Convenient parking is highly important to the patrons of this sports and entertainment district that includes the city’s three major event venues, multiple theaters, numerous restaurants and more, which is why we have invested in four new parking structures and significantly upgraded surface parking in the area."

Several advisory members say that there have been too many broken promises by the Ilitches regarding plans to preserve historical buildings and create more residential units. Instead, plans to renovate such as the former Eddystone Hotel have stalled while the Ilitches push forward efforts to raze entire blocks of buildings, such as a block of Henry Street where half the street has already been razed for a parking lot. The other side of Henry has residential apartments the Ilitches aim to demolish but have been thwarted by City Council opposition. 

"My across-the-board position is, 'put up or shut up" as far as (Olympia Development of Michigan) is concerned," said Richard Etue, an advisory member.

"The walkable neighborhood with active restaurants and retail around the arena with year-round activities has not materialized because Olympia doesn't want it to."

Twitter: @LouisAguilar_DN