While the state of Michigan appears to have no interest in “bailing out” Detroit, it is giving a substantial boost to the Red Wings, the city’s professional hockey team. Less than a week after Detroit filed for the largest municipal bankruptcy in history, a press conference revealed a deal that will transform 45 blocks of the city with a new hockey arena (or “events center,” as the jargon goes) and a mixed-use entertainment district meant to link two of the city’s healthiest neighborhoods—downtown and midtown.
“This is a catalyst project,” Governor Rick Snyder said, according to Crain’s Detroit Business. “This is going to be where the Red Wings are. Who doesn't get fired up in Detroit about the Red Wings? Come on now, the people that are criticizing are people from outside of Michigan. This is something that is important to all of us.”
The Red Wings are one of the city’s calling cards most worthy of celebration right now: one of the “original six” teams in the National Hockey League and winner of 11 Stanley Cups, most recently in 2008. The team broke the league’s record for consecutive home wins last season (23), and has nurtured legends of the game, from Gordie Howe to Steve Yzerman to Nicklas Lidstrom. They’ve made the NHL playoffs 22 seasons in a row and counting—the longest such streak in all of pro sports. While Detroit is home to three other professional sports franchises, the city has embraced its “Hockeytown” nickname.
For the last 33 years, the Wings have played in the Joe Louis Arena (or “the Joe”), an uninspiring cube on Detroit’s riverfront bizarrely disconnected from the rest of the city. The 20,058-seat arena is Detroit’s largest indoor venue, and was an outlier when it was built downtown, just as the Pistons and Lions fled the city for suburban stadiums. (The Lions have since moved back into the city.) The Joe made a memorable debut by hosting the 1980 Republican National Convention, which nominated Ronald Reagan.11 In their terrific telling of the Joe’s peculiar history, Matthew Lewis and Aaron Mondry quote former mayor Coleman Young’s autobiography on the arena’s emergence: "Although Detroit was and is an overwhelmingly Democratic city, and although I have traditionally been at cross-purposes with the prevailing ideology of the Republicans, as a champion of the United States Constitution and the spirit of bipartisan cooperation, I fully supported their right to assemble and spend lots of money in our hotels, shops, and restaurants. I also appreciated what the national exposure could do for the city’s image, which was still characterized by the ’67 riot and out-of-date murder charts. And I was thrilled to see Joe Louis Arena enjoy such a conspicuous and honorable christening. At the same time, the convention was an event that I find difficult to index historically. To this day, it sticks in my craw that Ronald Reagan was nominated in the damn building that I put myself on the line for."
For the team’s new downtown home, developers are reimagining a patchy stretch of land inhabited by pubs, cab companies, vacant lots, and largely low-income houses and apartments, as well as historic landmarks like the Masonic Temple and Cass Tech—one of the brightest lights among the city’s schools.
Detroit’s bankruptcy compels developers to make a stronger than usual case for why the arena should be a priority, even as that the city struggles to pay for public services. Otherwise, the deal carries a whiff of war profiteering. To that end, developers tout estimates that the arena will create 2,900 direct construction jobs, along with an additional 1,480 construction jobs on nearby development. Under the public financing deal, half those jobs must be filled by Detroiters.
The financing plan for the arena was put together so that it would be as invulnerable as possible to the uncertainties that come with Detroit’s bankruptcy filing, according to Robert Rossbach, media liaison for the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation. Rather than relying on city coffers, the Michigan Strategic Fund—part of a quasi-public state agency—will sell bonds to cover the public costs on the arena. Detroit’s Downtown Development Authority (DDA) will put in about $284.5 million captured in property taxes from its district to pay off those bonds over 30 years. The DDA will also redraw its district lines to encompass the neighborhood where the arena will be built, although General Motors—headquartered in the Renaissance Center—will remain its largest single taxpayer. The rest of the $365.5 million bill will be paid by Olympia Development, an arm of the family-run organization that owns the Red Wings (as well as the Detroit Tigers and Little Caesars.) The DDA will own the arena, but Olympia will operate it under a 35-year agreement, with multiple renewal options. If all goes smoothly, the soonest the Wings will play in the new arena is the 2016-2017 season.
But some shady deals have blighted the shiny new arena’s aura. An obscure new owner took over three low-income apartment buildings in the area targeted for development this spring. This mysterious landlord gave residents 30 days to leave. A Detroit News expose led to an extended eviction deadline, and then no eviction at all—but not until after many residents had already left. Following the press conference on the arena, the newspaper wrote that, “Since 2012, The Detroit News has reported on a series of mysterious land deals in the Cass Corridor—mainly involving blighted properties. Although it was widely speculated that the property was being amassed for an arena project, the deals have been cloaked in secrecy, with sellers signing confidentiality agreements and buyers not revealing themselves through public documents. The buyers in the land deals, (it was) revealed Wednesday, have been ‘a mix’ of city and Ilitch Holdings.” (Illitch Holdings is affiliated with Olympia Development).
Corridors Alliance (CA) is a group of Detroit citizens, business owners, and neighborhood stakeholders that emerged not in opposition to the new arena, but in support of it moving forward in an equitable and sustainable way. Francis Grunow, a Detroit lawyer on the steering committee, said CA is concerned about ensuring that the arena is built with the connectivity of residential neighborhoods in mind, lest it become an effective blockade between downtown and midtown. “We are worried that such a large single use project, with its large footprint, sporadic but intense use, and need for massive amounts of parking could have a very negative effect on the surrounding community,” Grunow said. “On the other hand, if the arena is designed sensitively and with a high level of community input, we believe these concerns could be mitigated to some degree.”
The way to do the arena right? According to CA, there’s no getting around the urgency of community outreach, giving residents a meaningful way of participating in the project’s construction and lifetime of use. The development should also maximize sustainable infrastructure and quality open space, in part by integrating with existing parks. Traffic—especially pedestrians and cyclists—should be minimally disrupted and parking facilities should not interrupt neighborhood flow. The arena should be built to scale with the streetscape, making the most of opportunities for mixed-use, density, landscaping, and historic building stock.
Grunow tells me that CA has “had a pretty consistent line of communication open since last summer with Olympia Development” about the project. That’s good, because serving Detroit well in this process is the best way to honor a beloved team, and the citizens-turned-fans that stand by it.
While the joy the Red Wings bring to the city would be worth it in its own right, the potency of sports comes from its power in bringing people together—including people very unlike one another—under a common civic pride. This is particularly true in Detroit. In a city spread out over 139 square miles in an expansive metro region, where divisions of class and race have painfully shaped the difficult spot the city is in today, there is no measuring how needed it is to have spaces where Detroiters find themselves on the same side, cheering in a common voice for the home team. At Red Wings games, it’s become a point of tradition for the Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” to play over the PA system—and for the thousands in the crowd, singing along, to crescendo joyously at the line “… born and raised in South Detroit!” (And then proceed to giggle to each other about how there is no South Detroit neighborhood.)
National narratives about Detroit’s bankruptcy have tended to blur the line between City Hall’s finances and private business. While the city is bankrupt, there has been a great deal of investment in Detroit in recent years. While this is great for the long-term economic health of the region, the vulnerability of City Hall right now translates into weakened municipal oversight over businesses that, de facto, have unusually large influence in shaping the city—literally. Particularly for projects with massive footprints, like the new arena, we need vigilance to ensure that it comes through on its potential to play a part in Detroit’s promising future—and does not, instead, through poor planning and limited community involvement, exacerbate Detroit’s divisions and inequities. Corridors Alliance is one of those watchdogs; journalists, like those at the Detroit News, are another. I’d like to see sports fans—not just local ones—become yet another source of scrutiny. If it’s true that the new arena will be a “public benefit”—thereby justifying the subsidized jobs for a private investment—than the public has a right to play a part in the process. I love the Red Wings as much as any Detroiter, but let's be real: it’s not just public money, but actual lives that are on the line.