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The District Detroit: Concept vs. Reality

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50 blocks of residential, office, and entertainment... someday?

A swinging gate leads to an empty concrete parking lot. A nearby screen says “$30.” Many buildings are in the distance.
Beyonce was in town, so parking is extra.

Little Caesars Arena opened almost a year ago in a section of the city Olympia Development deemed the “District Detroit.” The new hockey arena, which came at a steep price for taxpayers, is the centerpiece of the 50-block district. Renderings came out in 2014, and many of the same descriptions for the surrounding areas remain on the District Detroit website.

But what does the District look like today, now that it’s at least partially built?

Photographers Michelle and Chris Gerard hit the most prominent sections around the arena district to document the progress. Note that these areas are directly adjacent and just outside of downtown, which has seen a lot of new construction and historic rehabs in the past five years. The District also sits across Woodward from Brush Park, where residential development has taken off in the past three years.

We understand that large developments take a long time. The Ilitch family (Olympia Development) bought large parcels of land in the area known as Cass Corridor for years, promising to build an entertainment and residential district around the new hockey arena. Currently, instead of a dense, urban area, it looks more like a suburban stadium surrounded by parking lots.

We notice a few themes: new construction continues to go up in the area immediately surrounding the arena, no residential has opened, and areas outside the arena continue to be leveled for parking.

Will this change in the near future? Considering how much the Ilitch family makes with their surface parking lots, it’s unlikely. Crain’s has reported that a residential high-rise could be planned overlooking Comerica Park, although Olympia won’t confirm details. In recent months, Olympia has backed away from residential plans, instead moving to build more office space. It also announced historic rehabs over a year ago, but little to no progress has been made.

We have reached out to Olympia for updates on the District, but they don’t have comments at this time.

Here’s a look around the district.

Woodward Square

Two buildings, a parking deck and the other boarded up, on a quiet street. Michelle Gerard

Construction continues at a rapid pace in the blocks surrounding the Little Caesars Arena itself. The Mike Ilitch School of Business opens this fall. A sports medicine institute should take shape in between the LCA and the School of Business soon. A new parking deck with some offices in front is located around the corner, next to the doomed Alden Apartments. More new offices and parking continue to take shape along Henry Street and Cass Avenue. The holdout house still stands, although its neighbor was demoed. The Hotel Eddystone stands in the middle, awaiting its fate.

Columbia Street

Earlier this year, Olympia announced a “European-style promenade boasting Cobblestone paving, festoon lights and al fresco dining space” along Columbia Street, in between the Fox Theatre and the new Little Caesars World Headquarters. The release said that storefronts would be open this summer. Work is well underway, but summer is quickly running out.

Columbia Park

A huge surface parking lot. Many buildings stand in the distance. Photo by Michelle Gerard
Past rendering for Columbia Park
The District Detroit

Moving behind the Fox Theatre is the infamous sea of parking lots. We can see exterior work being done on the Detroit Life Building. But in the renderings and on the District Detroit site, Olympia has named this section Columbia Park, saying “New offices, retail specialty shops and loft-style condos will surround this tree-shaded respite,” and “Once again, people will be able to stroll through the manicured gardens, people-watch while lounging on the lawn, or give the pup some exercise at the dog run. Columbia Park will soon offer boundless opportunities to play, interact, relax, and connect.” Considering the leveling of this area in the past 10 years, and the big business parking brings in for Olympia, we have a hard time seeing the become a reality. It’s a shame, since Beacon Park opened just across Grand River last year.

Cass Park Village

A vacant rectangular brick building at an intersection.
Hotel Fort Wayne
Photo by Michelle Gerard
A multi-story boarded up building whose bricks have been painted red and white.
The Alhambra
Photo by Michelle Gerard

Moving down Cass Avenue toward Midtown, we see two buildings that we hope will see life again. Plans were announced last year for both the Hotel Fort Wayne and the Alhambra, but work has yet to be started. They’d make great residential in an area that needs more residential.

Plans called this area over to Grand River Avenue “Cass Park Village,” and honestly, Cass Park is looking rough these days.

Past rendering for Cass Park Village
The District Detroit

This park is surrounded by the Masonic Temple, Cass Tech, and the old Kresge Headquarters. This district could be a great connection between Midtown and downtown, and this park could be key in that connection. Instead, there are cracked sidewalks, garbage, and emptiness. Olympia sets this area up as an artsy place: “Cass Park Village will be home to independent shops, local markets and galleries, and residents will sense a relaxed atmosphere with a free-spirited attitude that is not pretentious or flashy.”

Again, it’s hard to imagine it here. As they say, we hope for better things.