Finley: Ilitch vision for downtown District was a mirage

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News
FILE - Chris Ilitch speaks during the ribbon cutting ceremony for Little Caesars Arena in Detroit on Sept. 5, 2017.

Milwaukee is getting what Detroit was promised.

The Fiserv Forum opened last season to host the Milwaukee Bucks NBA team at about the same time Little Caesars Arena became the new home of the Detroit Red Wings and Pistons.

Like LCA, the Forum benefited from public financing, and in return promised the new sports palace would anchor a much larger retail, entertainment and commercial district. Team Chief Financial Officer Patrick McDonough told CFO magazine the approach “gets away from the idea of a stadium built on an island surrounded by a sea of parking lots.”

Sounds like the same plan Little Caesars' CEO Chris Ilitch laid out for The District, which was to be built on 50 blighted blocks around LCA.

The difference: In Milwaukee, that promised spin-off development is rising on 30 acres adjacent to the forum. Already, an entertainment strip with restaurants and a public plaza is open, as is a new medical office building. And the team is aggressively pursuing phase two, which will include apartments and condos, more restaurants, hotels and office space.

Team President Peter Feigin pledged this spring, “in the next two to five years there will be no empty lots.”

Detroit, meanwhile, is looking at a future of empty lots — 27 of them — creating a desert of surface parking spaces and an ugly doughnut hole in downtown Detroit’s celebrated renaissance.

Ilitch has not emerged to explain the delay in starting work on The District, five distinct neighborhoods that would connect Downtown with Midtown. The grand plan helped him secure $340 million in taxpayer money for the arena project. A statement from his real estate arm, Olympia Development, claims it has already honored the commitment to invest $200 million in arena related projects. No word on the fate of The District.

It is increasingly looking as if the vision of a transformational investment for Detroit was a mirage. Or an outright deception, crafted to give Olympia a sea of revenue producing parking lots.

And not much can be done about it, even though the city helped the Ilitches acquire the land, in some cases selling it city owned property for little or nothing, and issued demolition permits, including for historic structures.

The city can’t reclaim the land, force the Ilitches to deliver the promised neighborhoods, or even require Olympia to sell the lots to developers who are willing to put them into more productive use.

And there are plenty who would love to do so. The Woodward Corridor is one of the hottest real estate strips in the country, with $8 billion in committed investments since 2013.

Surface parking lots are profitable and low risk. But they suck the energy out of a city, and Detroit still has far too many of them. Multi-story parking decks with first floor retail space are a more attractive and efficient use of downtown land.

It appears the only leverage the city has to move the Ilitches is to hold hostage any other public cooperation they’ll want for future projects. But Mayor Mike Duggan seems uninterested in making the organization accountable.

When asked about the unmet promises a few weeks ago on a local radio program, Duggan dodged the question, saying his focus was on the neighborhoods and downtown could take care of itself.

That’s a lame answer, particularly given the city’s investment in LCA. The money for the arena should have come with some firm benchmarks for delivering on The District. It didn’t.

So now Detroit can only hope the Ilitches will someday do the right thing.

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