The Ilitch organization, facing months of public criticism over its unfulfilled promises to build "District Detroit" neighborhoods around its taxpayer-subsidized Little Caesars Arena, was hit broadside with another detailed report Thursday night. Louis Aguilar of The Detroit News delivered the smackdown high up in his major investigation:
Despite promises that the district would transform a forgotten area of Detroit by 2017, more than a dozen of its 50 blocks are now more vacant than when the plan was launched in 2014, according to the News analysis.
The News story is comprehensive, and damning, with maps, expert and neighborhood voices and one black hole of silence -- the Ilitches themselves.
Among the bullet points:
- The Ilitches own and control an area of the central city larger than downtown itself -- 83.8 acres. (Downtown is just over 77 acres.)
- Twenty-four of the buildings within their footprint still stand empty, many of them historic.
- The company's 29 parking facilities are the only new developments beyond the arena, the still-under-construction Little Caesars corporate headquarters, the Mike Ilitch School of Business and its other projects along Woodward Avenue.
The story covers, in depth, what the HBO Sports report earlier this spring did in brief, but on a national stage: Lay out the extent to which the family's interests have failed to deliver on what it promised in exchange for hundreds of millions in taxpayer funding for the new arena.
Meanwhile, over at the Freep, company president Chris Ilitch briefly broke the silence, with John Gallagher, a business reporter/columnist whose byline has appeared over many stories about the arena. But it didn't go well, as Gallagher summarizes in one withering paragraph:
In a 15-minute interview with the Free Press arranged after several weeks of requests, Ilitch read a short opening statement and answered most questions about District Detroit by returning to his prepared talking points.
Ilitch's points were those Detroiters have heard before -- that these things take time, that the projects will happen eventually, etc. And then delivers the coup de grace:
"The District Detroit is home to four major pro sports teams and many theaters," he said, including Ford Field and Comerica Park with LCA. "We have millions of guests traveling into this area each and every year in automobiles. We don't have mass transit in our city. ... Where's everybody supposed to park?"
Good question, which other cities have managed to figure out without paving acres of surface lots, which profit the Ilitches themselves. Some answers: With parking garages, rather than lots; with park-and-ride arrangements at remote lots; and by improving public transit so not everyone has to drive all the way in to the city center.
It's not been a good year for the Ilitch organization; this is only the latest public criticism over the company's empty promises to the city. From the grassroots to the favored publications of the city's C-suites to premium cable, the drumbeats are growing that the family is failing to deliver what it agreed to in exchange for so much taxpayer support. Its reponse has been tepid.
Just in the last week, the family has announced plans to restore and renovate the Hotel Eddystone, a historic structure it agreed to preserve after knocking down its neighbor, the Park Avenue Hotel, in 2015. Gallagher's story notes a shift in the wind:
There was a small indication Wednesday that the City of Detroit may be demanding a least a little more from Olympia. That came at Wednesday's meeting of the Downtown Development Authority, where the DDA board approved the latest Olympia plan to renovate the old Eddystone Hotel, a vacant tower located just north of the arena.
The DDA board approved the plan only with the conditions that will allow the city to seize a $33 million performance bond that Olympia is required to put up so the city could complete the project if Olympia fails to meet a series of specific deadlines.
Olympia did not ask for, and the DDA did not approve, any new tax incentives for the Eddystone project.