26 May Ilitch, Olympia aim to reboot District Detroit narrative
After public criticism and media scrutiny for failing to more fully deliver on their District Detroit plans after five years, the Ilitch family is trying to make a fresh start.
In interviews last week with Crain’s and the Detroit Free Press, Ilitch Holdings Inc. President and CEO Christopher Ilitch acknowledged that the timeline outlined in 2014 to build it all at once was too aggressive, and was stymied further by business relationships with developers going sour. Going forward, with a new in-house development team, the Ilitches plan to re-assess their district master plan and rely on market demand by third-party developers to drive the project timeline.
In 2014, while the city was wrestling with municipal bankruptcy and grim headlines, Ilitch promised a grand vision of new housing, shops, restaurants, offices and parks spread across 50 blocks around the Little Caesars Arena. Five years later, the Ilitches have delivered on the arena — it is widely praised — but the rest of the district is a couple of parking garages and office buildings.
A small handful of stores and eateries are in the works. There’s no housing yet.
It’s an open question whether the Ilitches can regain any lost public goodwill built up via their successful pizza business and stewardship of their Detroit Tigers and Red Wings — two franchises struggling with their own issues after years of success.
Much will depend on the organization getting over a steep learning curve in a business that is complicated even for veteran developers — and moreso for a company that has never built an apartment.
Ilitch told Crain’s and others that his organization has additional progress in the district coming soon: Last week’s groundbreaking on a $70 million building for the Detroit Medical Center and the law firm Warner Norcross + Judd; and a new agreement to redevelop the Hotel Eddystone building that has sat windowless for years north of the arena.
“I’m always hopeful, but I think what we need to start evaluating is the system of metrics that look at actual results and not plans or projects in financing mode,” said Francis Grunow, chair of the Neighborhood Advisory Committee for the District Detroit area and often a critic of the Ilitches’ handling of the District.
One local public relations veteran said the Ilitches have a lot of work still to do to repair any lost reputation.
“In these situations, what companies have to remember is that they are never just one tactic away,” said Matt Friedman, co-founder of public relations firm Tanner Friedman in Farmington Hills. “Chris Ilitch sitting down and doing a couple interviews is not going to turn the tide on its own. It could be a step in the right direction, as long as there is more to it than that. A groundbreaking can’t turn the tide on its own. There is going to need to be a series of steps that show the community that the District Detroit is real, and if they want to do that, it’s going to take time and consistent attention.”