Ilitch entities own 52 empty properties around MotorCity Casino

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

Detroit — The 50 blocks around Little Caesars Arena branded as District Detroit isn't the only area where the Ilitch organization owns dozens of properties that have sat vacant for years. The Ilitch-owned MotorCity Casino Hotel, which is not part of the District, is surrounded by 44 empty lots and eight empty buildings controlled by family-linked entities, according to a Detroit News analysis.

The dormant properties create a dead zone around the casino and hotel owned by Marian Ilitch, matriarch of the Ilitch family empire that includes the Little Caesars pizza chain, the Detroit Tigers and Red Wings, and plenty of Detroit land.

The Ilitch family's history of buying up properties — and then not following through with development plans — is sparking pushback by some Detroit residents as the company seeks to build a 700-space, seven-story parking garage next to the MotorCity Casino complex at 2901 Grand River. The proposed parking structure would stand taller than the casino portion of the property and would replace an existing surface parking lot.

The Detroit City Planning Commission holds a public meeting about the proposed parking garage starting at 4:45 p.m. Thursday at the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center.

In previous meetings, nearly two dozen residents urged the planning commission to reject the plan, mainly due to the Ilitch organization's record of not following through with residential and retail development that were promised as part of the deal to finance the new arena in part with taxpayer-backed construction bonds. Ilitch officials point out the specific agreement for the $324 million in construction bonds for the $863 million arena didn't include commitments for other developments.

However, the political and public relations campaign for the new arena marketed it as the spark for "five new neighborhoods" that would be built quickly. Detroit City Council approved the new arena in part because Ilitch officials said 184 apartments were to open at the same time as the venue in 2017. None of the plans for residential or a new hotel have yet to come to fruition in the District. 

"This organization refuses to do what it promised to do, refuses to do what is right," Jeff Cowin, who lives near the District, said at last month's planning commission meeting. He urged the commission to "act as tough love" and reject the proposal.

Property records and Detroit News analyses show: 

  • 72 properties are owned by Ilitch-linked entities around MotorCity Casino Hotel.  Fewer than a quarter of the properties are occupied. The properties that are active are all related to the casino, hotel or parking for the complex.
  • Of those 72 properties, 44 are empty lots, ranging from a block of grassy parcels on Trumbull near the Corktown neighborhood, to several blocks of vacant industrial sites scattered around Grand River from the edge of downtown to edge of the Woodbridge neighborhood. 
  • There are eight empty buildings, including two warehouses that each take up a square block, as well as several blocks of vacant storefronts on Grand River. Several of the empty buildings include multiple storefronts.

The News shared with the Ilitch company a count of the property that included the number of empty buildings and lots. Company officials didn't comment directly about the data but pointed out the MotorCity complex is a key part of the more than $1.5 billion investment the company has made in Detroit.

The 22-acre casino facility, which first opened in 1999, is in an area that had gone through decades of decline. The casino itself meant the revival of a 93-year-old building, the former Wagner Baking Co., officials said in a Wednesday email. 

A large industrial building at 3200 Hobson, owned by the Ilitch organization, is among the vacant properties near the MotorCity Casino.

"Currently, 53% of MotorCity’s 2,608 employees were Detroiters at the time of hire. Over $1.2 billion has been contributed by MotorCity to the city in taxes," said Jacci Woods, vice president of public relations and community affairs for the casino, in the email.

The new garage would better serve customers and employees who now have to use surface parking lots. It would also mean more concerts and other live events at the Sound Board venue, which has a 1,500-person capacity, company officials said. 

The properties near the MotorCity are outside the 50 blocks of District Detroit, which is north of downtown and home to the Little Caesars headquarters, Comerica Park, Little Caesars Arena and the Ilitch-owned Fox Theatre. A recent Detroit News investigation found various Ilitch-linked entities own or control at least 60% of the properties in the district where the company said it would develop hundreds of new residential units, a major hotel and dozens of shops and offices.

Despite promises the district would be transformed by 2017, more than a dozen of the 50 blocks are more vacant now than when the plan was launched in 2014, according to a Detroit News analysis. In the District, Ilitch-linked entities control or own 46 empty parcels and 24 vacant buildings. Some of those properties have  sat unused for decades. 

In the area around the MotorCity Casino, many of the purchases came after the 2013 announcement that the Little Caesars Arena complex would be built along Woodward, which is six blocks east of the casino. 

The Ilitch-linked entities paid handsome prices for the empty warehouses, empty storefronts and vacant lots around the casino, totaling more than $10 million in at least 15 different sales since 2011, according to property records. The properties were purchased through the entities Detroit Entertainment LLC  or Grand River Property Holdings LLC. 

No development plans have ever been revealed for the properties. Ilitch and city officials told the city planning commission last month there are efforts to find uses for at least some of the holdings.

A rendering of the proposed 700-space parking garage for the MotorCity Casino Hotel.

The Ilitch organization recently gave $875,000 for a city planning study called the Greater Corktown Framework, intended to shape future development of Corktown and North Corktown, city officials said. 

"We look forward to the study that is be being done so that we can get some guidance," said Cheryl Scott Dube, MotorCity Casino Hotel's general counsel, at last month's planning commission meeting. "We intend to be a good neighbor and work cooperatively with the neighborhood."

In particular, the empty lots along Trumbull could be developed based on advice from the findings, she said.

Maurice Cox, director of the city's Planning and Development Department, told the planning commission last month the Ilitch organization has "shown a willingness to work with us." That includes discussing ways to revive the empty Grand River storefronts.

"Today, there are not many shops," Cox told the planning commission. "The community will have to imagine what Grand River will look like in 10 years when it will be an active street."  He added: "I do think there is a way for everyone to coexist."

The city planning commission will make a recommendation to City Council, which must approve the proposed casino garage. The commission is guided by state law to make its recommendation based on zoning, Commission Chairman Alton James said at last month's meeting after residents spoke against the plan. 

"There are some things we don't have control over. We cannot say 'no' simply to make a point," James said. 

"You want to get somebody to say 'no,' you got to take it further than this body, probably the administration. Get your voices heard there."

Twitter: @LouisAguilar_DN