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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Report likely means a new Red Wings stadium will happen, but several questions remain

It's well known the Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch has interest in a new arena in downtown Detroit. That desire was further put into motion with the report that Ilitch's company has lined up developers for a new arena released Monday by the Sports Business Journal.
The Ilitches reportedly chose Dallas-based HKS as well as Boston-based Chan Krieger NBBJ, which specializes in urban arenas. That should be the first nugget pulled from this report -- the Red Wings are actually serious about staying in downtown Detroit.
Joe Louis Arena in 2007
(It's also worth noting in SBJ's report that the Ilitches passed over the designers of Comerica Park and Ford Field for this assignment.)
It has been speculated an area in the so-called "Cass Corridor" behind the Fox Theatre was being bought up by the Ilitches. SBJ also puts that on record.
"The team is considering a few sites for a new arena, sources said, including property behind the Fox Theatre, headquarters of Olympia Entertainment."
Such an arrangement would of course leave Ilitch with a stranglehold on that side of the block -- save for Ford Field, of course.
It's also worth pointing out: "Chan Krieger NBBJ’s work includes a West Riverfront mixed-use project in Detroit, according to its website. The project, part of a 5 1/2-mile stretch of redevelopment along the Detroit River that includes Joe Louis Arena, remains in the planning stages."
The SBJ report later attributed sources in saying the development team will be tasked with turning Detroit into an entertainment district "similar to Nationwide Arena in Columbus and Staples Center in Los Angeles."
At 33 years and counting, Joe Louis Arena isn't getting any younger. But when a team gets a new home, it typically leaves a vacant stadium. It begs the question: What will cash-strapped Detroit do with an empty Joe Louis Arena? Surely, riverfront property will be redeveloped quicker than the ruins of Tiger Stadium, but what becomes of the large building until then?
Concerts will likely jump at the new arena or one of its neighboring stadiums and the Fox and Fillmore auditoriums aren't a bad second choice. And there's always The Palace as well, where the Ilitches once floated the idea of temporarily sharing with the Pistons prior to Tom Gores' purchase of Palace, Sports and Entertainment. The only revenue producer that jumps out would be hosting minor league hockey -- and that's not going to pay the bills, especially if Ilitch's Olympia Entertainment, which operates the city-owned JLA, packs up for the new digs.
It took some 10 years for Tiger Stadium to get torn down  and the lot still sits vacant -- despite the city's apparent hope to lure a big box retailer to Michigan Avenue. The Red Wings' former home, the Olympia, wasn't demolished for eight years after the Wings moved to the riverfront. For a time after the Wings move, Joe Louis Arena is likely to be empty. Notice the city hasn't been quick to throw out ideas in the more than a year since the Ilitches floated the idea of building a new arena.
(This is not to mention the under-utilized Pontiac Silverdome which Pontiac leaders are still scrambling to redevelop 10 years after the Lions left for Detroit.)
Ilitch is a wealthy man, no doubt, but how will the arena be financed? Is struggling Detroit supposed to pick up the tab? Ilitch and the Tigers got $90 million in public funding for Comerica Park. The Lions got $200 million for Ford Field. How much does it cost to build a multi-purpose arena a decade later?
That's why the idea of sharing a venue with the Pistons made sense and excited suburbanites while riling city residents. It looks like, as many expected, Ilitch won't be leaving Detroit. As Oakland Press columnist Pat Caputo pointed out more than two years ago when the idea of this double-bunking surfaced, Detroit is one of only three sports cities featuring separate venues for all four of its professional sports teams. Several major cities including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas (built in part by HKS) and Atlanta share venues.
And The Palace isn't the only other arena capable of housing hockey. Ford Field hosted the Frozen Four in 2010. 
The SBJ report mentions a seating capacity of 18,000 in a potential new Red Wings arena, which is roughly 2,000 fewer seats than Joe Louis Arena. Why else would an owner reduce the number of seats? Possibly to create more luxury suites and drive up the demand for "regular" seats. It's also possible the lot dimensions simply don't allow for it.
And in an era of ubiquitous corporate sponsorship, Joe Louis Arena is one of just three NHL arenas without such backing. It's hard to believe this new arena could escape its destiny as a branch of the Little Caesars marketing empire, possibly as "Hot 'N Ready" Place. (It would be ironic because hockey arenas are cold, get it?)
Some will argue you can't replace the nostalgia of short steps, trough-style urinals and the worst cell reception in the city. My co-worker even once called it "an 8-track in an iPod."
Wistful fans will point to the four Cups and will have to be dragged back up town. They cannot be reasoned with and will likely beg for the Joe to be renovated. (If that was going to happen, it already would have.) 
Regardless of how fans feel about the arena (which would be within close walking distance of many popular drinking establishments including Cheli's Chili), it's likely the media will feel more at home in a new Red Wings arena -- as long as those chosen architects remember to plan for a press box in this one.


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