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Ilitch Has Turned Swaths of Downtown into a Wasteland

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Meet a Curbed Detroit contributor: architecture critic Kelly Ellsworth. From time to time, she brings us detailed arguments about local development, buildings, marketing? or whatever else strikes her fancy. And she's quite fancy.

All eyes were on Grand Circus Park and areas south recently with the big construction kickoff at the David Whitney Building and Dan Gilbert's press release extravaganza and bonus primer on placemaking (with renderings!) With the quickening of the downtown real estate market, Detroit is witnessing something it hasn't seen in quite a while: an aggressive push by stakeholders to actually make things happen.

This rapid activity draws a sharp contrast to the glacial pace of development we find in the areas just north of Grand Circus Park, specifically those controlled by the longest-enduring member of Detroit's real estate plutocracy, Mike Ilitch, the founder and owner of Little Caesars Pizza. But you, dear sports fan, probably know him best as the owner of the NHL team, the Detroit Red Wings and the MLB team, the Detroit Tigers. (His wife is the owner of MotorCity Casino).

With an approach that values surface parking over the built environment, Ilitch Holdings has turned wide swaths of downtown land into a literal wasteland and postponed development of a promising area for well over a decade. If Gilbert is our real estate Bedrock, then Ilitch is our real estate Schleprock.

Detroit-area lifers love to talk about the boost Ilitch gave to Detroit when he renovated the Fox Theater and moved Little Caesar's offices downtown in 1988. Twenty-five years is a long time to rest on that laurel, though, and now that kids born that year are moving into their own apartments in the Broderick Tower, it might be time to ask just how (as USA Today put it last year) "driven to rebuild Detroit" Mike Ilitch really is.

Over the last 20 years the Ilitches have managed to gain control of the majority of the land behind the Fox Theater over to Grand River, as well as a large portion of land just north of I-75 west of Woodward. When you throw in Motor City Casino, the ballpark, Joe Louis Arena and various other properties, they control (through lease or ownership, outright or through subsidiaries) an estimated 100+ acres of land in the downtown area. And they didn't even have to jump through hoops for City Council – take that John Hantz! Obviously the takeaway here is that transparency is for suckers.

With this land they've become hoarders in the truest sense. The existing structures seem to have little to no value in their eyes, and as a result they've let historically significant buildings rot. They've torn down most of the streetscape that existed, occasionally using public funds ($2.5 million in 2008, for example). And they've reduced the land to its lowest and worst use: gravel surface parking.

Just when the hoarding starts to seem out of control they throw out a hint that something might happen. Buildings on the Woodward surface lots in front of Comerica Park! The renovation of the Detroit Life Building on Park Avenue! A new building behind the Fine Arts facade! But you've seen Hoarders, you know it doesn't stop. It's a disease, people.

The developments that the Ilitches have built seem stuck in that Detroit mentality dating back to the 70's that big projects will save the city. But neither casinos nor Comerica Park – while assets to the city in their ways – have had any real impact leading to urban revitalization. At the end of the day, like the Renaissance Center, they are so big they are self-contained, and they actually serve to reduce the vitality of the areas around them.

Over the last decade projects have happened all over downtown without a rustle from the Ilitch camp. And Olympia Development has lost not only Atanas Ilitch, the preservationist of the family, to other projects but his replacement Eric Larsen to Bedrock Real Estate earlier this year. You have to imagine it's frustrating to be a developer working for a development company that doesn't develop.

Comparisons to Dan Gilbert make the Ilitch operation look particularly bad. Despite a hyperactive PR machine and some questionable aesthetics, Gilbert is building something out of little blocks. He's not waiting until he owns all of downtown; he's activating the parts he has and connecting it as it happens. It's frenetic, and it feels a little forced, but it's full of life. I've been critical about elements of their direction for downtown, but placing them next to the Ilitches makes me feel like they are development geniuses.

Ultimately, this all leads me to the conclusion that the Ilitch camp isn't actually particularly driven to rebuild Detroit. But the new hockey arena, THAT is something they are driven to build.

It shouldn't be long now before they reveal plans for some kind of arena/entertainment complex. Maybe it will even include retail or residential, as they've announced. But along with these plans you should also watch for the public funding ask – as you may have read it's already in the works.

I'm not arguing the merits of public funding for sports venues. But I am saying this time, maybe Detroit should get a little full-time urban vitality out of the bargain. .

The smart money is on the arena being built north of I-75, which leaves a lot of vacant land south of the freeway. If the Ilitches want public financing, they should turn over the remaining vacant land to an entity such as the Detroit Economic Growth Corp so it can be slated for real development. Otherwise I think we all know we can expect another decade or two of gravel parking lots.

The fact of the matter is that the Ilitch family is no longer the only game in town. Oh sure, it was fun while it lasted, having a single real estate dynasty to obsess over. But Gilbert and other downtown players have upped the ante, and we've finally begun to learn that there are alternatives out there. At long last Detroit is learning to expect more - a lesson it should have learned a long time ago.
· Previous articles by Kelly Ellsworth [Curbed Detroit]
· Ilitchville Real Estate [Why Dont We Own This?}