Finley: Ilitches owe the city answers

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News
"The Ilitches promised Detroit would see The District rising with the arena, giving the city a vibrant link between downtown and midtown."

There may be good reasons the Ilitch organization isn't delivering on the promises it made to Detroit when receiving $340 million to help build its new Little Caesars Arena.

But the Ilitches aren't telling anyone what they are, or when the city might expect to see some progress on its grand plan for The District, which was supposed to redevelop 50 blighted blocks north of downtown into five distinct neighborhoods offering housing, offices and entertainment.

Under the timetable laid out for The District, two phases of the project should be well on their way to delivering nearly 700 new apartments.

Instead, the area where the swanky neighborhoods were supposed to go are covered with 27 surface parking lots — the last thing Detroit needed. The lots are servicing the LCA and producing revenue for the Ilitches, but not the transformation CEO Chris Ilitch promised when he revealed the company's vision.

Last week, HBO Sports aired a damning report on the unmet promises, following a similar expose in Crain's Detroit Business last month.   

The Ilitch organization's response was to criticize HBO for sensationalism and remind critics of all the good things it has done for Detroit. That can't be ignored — the new arena is fabulous, as is the Wayne State University business school that sits next to it and is named for the late patriarch Mike Ilitch.

But the Ilitches promised much more. The company's statement doesn't explain why those commitments aren't being met, or whether they will be in the future.  

One of the obstacles reportedly tripping up the project is that the partnership between the Ilitches' real estate arm, Olympia Development, and Baltimore-based Cordish Cos., one of the most successful big-project outfits in the country, has either broken off or seriously frayed. Olympia doesn't have the infrastructure to handle such a massive development on its own.

But by now the Ilitches should have figured things out. At the very least they should be transparent. Instead, they've gone dark. When they don't fill in the blanks of The District story, they allow Rep. Rashida Tlaib and other anti-development activists to do it for them, as was the case with the HBO report. 

MoreIlitch group pushes back on HBO report on arena development

MoreHBO Sports examines undeveloped promises around Little Caesars Arena

MoreResidents of Cass apartments owned by Ilitch firm feel squeeze

They also fuel the narrative that the Ilitch organization is reverting to old habits of buying up buildings and either letting them stand vacant for years or tearing them down to make way for parking lots.

That's not the way things work in Detroit today. Look at what Bedrock, The Platform, The Roxbury Group, Broder & Sachse Real Estate and others are doing in the city. No legitimate developers are sitting on property, or demolishing buildings. The demand for space downtown is too hot.

Olympia's inaction damages those other developers, who will find the ask much harder should they need to go to the city for public financing. 

The statement from the company makes the audacious claim that it has already exceeded its commitment to the city. 

Huh? The Ilitches promised Detroit would see The District rising with the arena, giving the city a vibrant link between downtown and midtown.

Had they said what they'd actually deliver is a wasteland of parking lots, they might not have got that $340 million.

Catch “The Nolan Finley Show” weekdays 7-9 a.m. on 910 AM Superstation.