Finley: Cut off property-hoarding Ilitches

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Let's stop talking about what the Ilitches have done for Detroit, and discuss instead what they're doing to Detroit.

The family behind Little Caesars Pizza, Olympia Entertainment, the Red Wings and Tigers is a drag on Detroit's resurgence. Their unfulfilled promises and failure to put land they control into productive use are keeping the city from fully exploiting this moment of comeback.

A man plays basketball in the yard of the Mariners Inn, a shelter and treatment center, surrounded by an Ilitch-run parking lot and a block of Henry Street buildings owned by Ilitch-linked entities. One block away is Little Caesars Arena in the area known as 'The District Detroit.'

The Ilitches are property hoarders.  While other developers are working feverishly to rehab old buildings to meet the demand for offices, apartments and restaurants, the Ilitch organization has torn down far more structures than it's restored and is sitting on vast acres of empty land.

The family has been riding their reputation as Detroit boosters since 1987, when they agreed to move their headquarters into the Fox Theatre on Woodward Avenue, becoming a pioneer of downtown's rediscovery by the region's business community. 

Since then, they've been more tops than taters.

An excellent investigative report from Louis Aguilar of The Detroit News quantifies the extent of the Ilitches dereliction, and how it is damaging Detroit:

  • Ilitch companies own or control an area larger than downtown in the section of the central city it now calls The District Detroit. Their properties comprise nearly 84 acres, or 34 percent of the area. Much of it has not been developed.
  • Despite their claims to have helped bring back downtown, they've rehabilitated only two historic buildings, The Fox and Hockeytown Cafe. The other 27 structures have either been torn down or are still rotting. The list includes the graceful Madison-Lenox Hotel across from the Detroit Athletic Club, which before it was leveled by the wrecking ball in 2004 was on the list of the nation's most endangered historic places. The site remains a parking lot today.
  • In total, the Ilitches control 46 empty parcels and 24 vacant buildings. 

Going back to its late patriarch, Mike Ilitch, the family has exhibited a pattern of gaining property with the help of the city by offering up elaborate plans for transformational projects. It almost never delivers.

While Comerica Park and the new Little Caesars Arena are certainly major downtown assets, they were built with heavy infusions of public dollars and are not delivering the return of spin-off investments the Ilitches described.

That's certainly the case with LCA. CEO Christopher Ilitch unveiled elaborate plans five years ago for The District Detroit, a 50-block redevelopment around the arena that would connect downtown and Midtown via five distinct neighborhoods. Detroit officials bought the promise and helped the organization acquire land and demolish buildings. 

Ilitch said last week the vision was too aggressive, but is still alive. The family's history would suggest otherwise.

In the lead-up to the opening of Comerica Park in 2000, the Ilitches made similar promises to create a neighborhood called Foxtown, with a Motown Museum branch, a new school and loads of other great stuff. And just as with the LCA, they convinced the city to help them acquire buildings and land. Foxtown never materialized. Two major buildings that were part of the promise, Detroit Life and Blenheim, remain empty today.

The Foxtown sham should have been fair warning to Detroit. But it took the bait on District Detroit. Now, where homes and restaurants were supposed to be rising, there are 29 surface parking lots churning out revenue for the Ilitches.

Detroit's leaders keep making excuses for the Ilitches, and keep giving them money. Earlier this month, the Downtown Development Authority awarded them a $74 million bonus on the ludicrous basis that they'd fulfilled the promises made in exchange for $334 million in public financing for the arena. 

Now, the Ilitches are asking from even more money to convert the Eddystone Building in the Cass Corridor into affordable housing units.

Cut them off. Detroit should not give the family another dime of taxpayer money, nor should it approve of their obtaining another piece of land. 

Further, attempts should be made to claw back property the city sold or gave to the Ilitches that has not been used for the intended public purpose.

And Detroit should use building codes and tax assessments to make it extremely uncomfortable for the Ilitches to hang on to the many buildings they own that are either vacant or deteriorating.

The wide swath of land the Ilitches control sits in one of the hottest development corridors in the nation. Eight billion investment dollars are pouring into the Woodward strip between downtown and New Center.

Too much of it is being hoarded by the Ilitches, who have proven themselves to be speculators and slumlords.

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