Detroit — High-rise apartments with views of Windsor’s skyline. Restaurants overlooking the Detroit River. A promenade that connects new development with the western riverfront.
It’s all part of a vision mapped out by city stakeholders for the nearly vacant Joe Louis Arena that is expected to be demolished soon.
The arena closed this year when the Detroit Red Wings moved to their new home at Little Caesars Arena.
By most accounts, the 5-acre property is prime real estate for new development that connects the area to downtown and the riverfront.
Maurice Cox, director of Detroit’s Planning & Development Department, said he envisions a more walkable area, a destination for visitors and an attractive place to live.
The city wants to see “high-density” structures that stand out and create an address and identity for the west riverfront, Cox said.
Retail development could especially benefit neighboring Cobo Center, which hosts 10-15 major conventions each year.
“There is no question that you can accommodate residential, retail and commercial all mixed together,” Cox said. “We have a chance to make a very vibrant place that has its own kind of unique identity.”
Court documents pegged arena demolition for Sept. 15, 2017, or earlier with completion in one year. However, Kim Klein, spokeswoman for Olympia Entertainment — which manages the Red Wings — said the company extended its lease at Joe Louis and expects to move out by November. Its new offices will be at Little Caesars Arena.
While the city and its partners are mapping out prospective uses, Detroit is required to give the land to bond insurer Financial Guaranty Insurance Co. once the arena is demolished as part of a bankruptcy agreement. FGIC was a major creditor to the city and lost $1.1 billion when Detroit filed Chapter 9 bankruptcy in 2014.
The deal also stipulates the state loan the city $6 million to raze the arena.
The agreement involving FGIC also says the city must demolish the building within 90 days of lease agreements expiring.
FGIC did not respond to requests for comment. So it’s unclear exactly what will replace Joe Louis.
However, the bankruptcy agreement lists options including a hotel with at least 300 rooms, offices, retail locations, recreational uses and residential such as condominium units.
The property’s developer is prohibited from building an industrial facility, adult entertainment or anything that would create a nuisance to the area, according to the agreement. Buildings also may not exceed 30 floors.
Once a developer is selected and closes on the Joe Louis property, the agreement says it has one year to begin construction and three years to achieve “substantial completion.”
No matter when the arena comes down, city planners and developers agree that an open site will pave the way for booming development on the property, which has primarily served as the Red Wings empire since it opened in 1979.
The city of Detroit, which owns the arena, has met with stakeholders, including the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., to discuss the future of the Joe Louis site.
But redevelopment may not be easy.
Joe Louis is located in an area that could be less appealing to developers because it’s largely isolated from other downtown activity.
For example, it’s hemmed in by a parking ramp, expressway, the Detroit People Mover and a loading dock area near Cobo Center. It’s also not connected to any of the main downtown streets.
Cox said most activity and traffic near Joe Louis had solely focused on events inside the arena.
“Now without the Joe Louis Arena being there and without thousands of people, you recognize it’s a dead zone,” Cox said. “No one was strategically thinking about its future. How does the public access the river from there?”
Ideally, the new development should have something like a promenade connecting it to the riverfront, Cox said.
“You could begin to make connections, kind of like Campus Martius is connected now through Spirit Plaza and Hart Plaza,” Cox said.
Larry Alexander, chairman of the Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority which oversees Cobo, said having a hotel attached to Cobo would be appealing to convention planners and attendees.
But consultants have discouraged the idea because the location faces the opposite direction of most downtown amenities, Alexander said.
“Activity in Cobo could help support occupancy,” Alexander said. “But a hotel owner or operator would look for locations that provide them the opportunity to maximize occupancy 365 days a year.”
Alexander said he would support building high-rises with residential space and restaurants on the property. The draw would be living or dining with a view of Windsor and the Ambassador Bridge.
“The views would be astronomical,” Alexander said.
The Detroit Riverfront Conservancy also has a vested interest in seeing the development connect the city.
Mark Wallace, president of the conservancy, said he wants the site to support riverfront activities similar to how the Renaissance Center complements the RiverWalk.
Wallace said the conservancy wants the new development to have a link to the West Riverfront Park. The 20-acre park was transformed from a former newspaper printing facility at 1801 W. Jefferson.
Wallace said the conservancy launched a design competition earlier this year with hopes of identifying a creative concept for the park.
If Joe Louis is replaced with residential space, Wallace said he believes the park could also be a draw.
“I think that (Joe Louis) property is incredibly valuable,” Wallace said. “The site has been a place that people have found their way to for years. As we make improvements to the riverfront, we think that site is going to be more valuable.”
Downtown real estate developers are also hoping for a development that links the site with nearby amenities.
Dietrich Knoer, president of The Platform — a Detroit-based development company that owns a parking lot west of the arena — said linking it to the riverfront and Cobo Center should be a priority for FGIC.
“It is a prominent downtown site,” Knoer said.