“It’s been a long time,” Eric Williams mused. “Five years.”
As one of the members of the Neighborhood Advisory Committee (NAC) for the Detroit Hockey Arena development, Williams has been there from the beginning. On September 19, at the final meeting of the NAC for what’s now District Detroit, he got a little thoughtful about his time on the committee before delving into the history of the construction of Little Caesars Arena, acquisition of land by Olympia Development, and the formation of the NAC.
He wasn’t sure whether it was all worth it.
In 2013, Olympia Development and the Downtown Development Authority revealed details of the $650 million plan (which would eventually cost $862.9 million) to build a new arena for the Detroit Red Wings. Public funding for the development would reach $324 million.
Thanks to the efforts of a brand new city councilmember at the time, Raquel Castañeda-López, the NAC was created as part of the 2014 transfer of land from the city to Olympia, and was required to meet with the 16-member committee on a regular basis.
“I don’t know whether to be thankful or angry with [Castañeda-López],” Williams joked to the gathering at the University of Michigan Detroit Center. Castañeda-López was also in attendance.
Ultimately, the NAC didn’t have any authority to enforce its recommendations. Instead its role was mostly oversight and advisory. Olympia could choose what to accept or ignore—it mostly chose to ignore.
Many are familiar with the saga over the last few years. In 2017, Olympia unveiled grand plans for the area it called “District Detroit,” which would consist of five vibrant, mixed-use neighborhoods.
Almost none of it has come to fruition. Olympia did complete the arena in 2017. The Mike Ilitch School of Business, part of a $40 million gift made to Wayne Station University, opened in 2018. And the $150 million Little Caesars HQ is nearly done after trouble installing its pizza-slice windows.
Besides those self-serving developments, Olympia has demolished or tried to demolish historic buildings, replaced them with surface parking lots, left many others undeveloped, missed numerous development deadlines, and interfered with nearby small businesses so it could route LCA visitors to the freeway. It actively fought against the creation of the Cass-Henry Historic District, which prevented demolition of affordable apartments. And it didn’t meet the requirement to hire Detroiters for 51 percent of the construction work on the arena, instead paying a $5.2 million fine.
Today, there are fewer businesses and residents than when the Ilitches began acquiring property, despite downtown Detroit being in the midst of an enormous development boom.
All the while, the NAC drew attention to Olympia’s behavior, writing near-weekly emails to Detroit City Council and talking to the press. NAC chair Francis Grunow appeared on the HBO segment critical of District Detroit.
But in the end, less than 10 percent of the NAC’s recommendations were accepted. The rest were denied or are still in limbo.
The NAC is still seeking more accountability for existing affordable housing, more enforcement of the city’s blight ordinance, better support for historic designation, oversight around traffic, and more. It has been successful in creating a working group that includes Olympia and Midtown Detroit Inc. around improving traffic routing. Grunow called the talks promising.
It also lobbied for the residential parking ordinance to ensure locals have a place to park. Despite being empty most of the time, Olympia does not offer spaces in its surface lots to nearby residents. Another group with similar aims, Detroiters for Parking Reform, have organized for a moratorium on construction of new surface lots.
Though the NAC didn’t get much of what it asked for, and fought tooth and nail for everything it did, its vigilance shed light on the actions of Olympia. Now that it’s ending, who will take responsibility for that oversight?