Wednesday, May 29, 2024
DetroitHistoric preservationReal EstateUrban Planning

The Ilitch Crusade Continues: When Is Enough Enough?

I stopped in the Cass Corridor yesterday for a morning errand and swung by one of the last remaining historic structures in Chinatown. If you hadn’t followed the saga, Olympia Development of Michigan (or ODM, a.k.a. the Ilitch Family) begged for an emergency demolition permit. City council requested a delay, but the city counsel said that they had the right to allow the demolition, and claimed that the building had been first recommended for demolition five years ago, and had to be demolished right now, or else! It goes without saying that a narrative about how the city is right and everyone else is wrong, doesn’t tell the whole story.

The remains of 3143 Cass, a historic building in Detroit’s former Chinatown neighborhood. The neighborhood was sliced up by the construction of the John Lodge Freeway, and has since become an extension of the Ilitch Family’s parking lot district that covers a large portion of the Cass Corridor and the lower portion of Midtown Detroit and Downtown Detroit. The city of Detroit’s downtown is more than half surface parking by area.

On the opening day of the new Little Caesars Arena in 2017, journalist Tom Perkins coined the term “dereliction by design” to describe the land development strategy that ODM went through to assemble the requisite parcels of land to support the arena project, and how they used blight that they themselves created to make their case for receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in public financing for the arena project:

Starting in the late 1990s, Ilitch developed and executed a 15-year plan that critics call “dereliction by design,” in which he quietly bought around 70 properties and left them to rot. That drove down land value and created a redevelopment dead zone that Detroit quickly regenerated around, thus allowing Ilitch to buy up more property for cheap. But — most importantly — it also helped him convince lawmakers that the Corridor wouldn’t redevelop without the public pitching in over $300 million to fund his plan.

It was a clever solution on the part of the nasty pizza family. And it worked! The argument was basically that the area was so messed up and land values were so low, that a project like the Little Caesars Arena can only be built if we get hundreds of millions of dollars. Never mind the hundreds of millions of dollars that we’ll eventually bring in from the preposterous rent-seeking of charging $50 for suburbanites to park– we need the public financing up front to make the math work. Or else! We’ll take our teams to the suburbs! This, the Ilitches argued at the time, was necessary to catalyze the vision for District Detroit, an unimaginatively named entertainment district centered around the arena, but with thousands of units of housing to boot.

In renderings, it was impressive.

The problem is that it never got built.

First, the Ilitches complained that they were unable to source capital for that project, too, and that’s why they haven’t moved on it. The organization dragged its feet on the historic restorations it promised as well, ranging from the Eddystone (which the city basically forced them to develop in the regulatory equivalent of “or else”) to the 1924 Louis Kamper-designed Park Hotel, a stately structure that they demolished in 2015 as part of a crusade to force the city to effectively vacate parts of Park Avenue and Sproat Street for the construction of the pizzarena. A thousand people signed a petition to preserve the Park Hotel. That went nowhere. The argument that “we need to demolish these buildings for space for our project” is at odds with two things: first, how profitably plenty of historic buildings have been renovated in downtown Detroit, and second, perhaps more significantly, the fact that the Ilitch empire is, well, mostly surface parking by land area.

The Chicken Little-ism– of handwringing and claiming they couldn’t source capital to do all of the things they said they could only do if they received hundreds of millions of dollars of public financing- changed a bit when they brought in Stephen Ross, another billionaire and the namesake of the eponymous business school at the University of Michigan, who seems to be constantly under investigation by the IRS for tax fraud. This unholy union is now asking for another $800 million in public support for the project.

The Billion Dollar Hot-And-Ready: Touring Detroit’s Little Caesars Arena

They say that without this vital corporate welfare, the project will never happen!

Perhaps the most messed up thing? They’re probably going to get every cent of it and more, because Mike Duggan is under the erroneous impression that Reaganomics is a thing, and because he is obsessed with marking territory and converting every usable square inch of the city into an urban typology that resembles his home of Livonia. And also because the MEDC is run by people who would rather stick feathers in their caps– by assembling egregiously opaque, backroom deals behind closed doors- than they would ask questions about how to build a more sustainable urban fabric. Lansing won’t help. Again, to quote an interviewee from my thesis research in 2021, Governor Whitmer doesn’t particularly seem to care about or understand cities.

2900 Cass, one of three buildings for which I requested a complaint inspection with BSEED yesterday based on the fact that it is plentifully non-compliant with Detroit municipal code, Sec. 8-15-113, “Minimum requirements for vacant buildings and structures.”

So, guess what, folks?

It’s been decades, and it’s still never happened! The original proposal for District Detroit was authored in the 1990s– not in 2017, not in 2023– the 1990s. And it’s receiving, by some estimates, billions of dollars in public support.

The excuses pile up, and the product does not– unless we’re talking about the streets that are trashed by drunk Red Wings or Tigers fans who then drive home, because that’s the city we’ve built, and that’s what we care about– cars and parking lots. That’s damn near all we care about, it often feels like. Everybody seems aware of the cognitive dissonance involved in a gaggle of some of the wealthiest people in the country crying and whining that they can’t source capital to renovate buildings and must therefore rely on a business strategy of parking lot development. Wrote Nancy Kaffer:

The Ilitches have owned this building for 19 years. That 3143 Cass became irreparably dilapidated was a choice, and it’s one this family — who profit from Little Caesars Arena, own Little Caesars Pizza the Detroit Red Wings and Tigers, and whose members regularly appear on Forbes’ list of the richest Americans — has made again and again, with few repercussions. In 2014, Ilitch Holdings President and CEO Chris Ilitch told the Detroit News that the family spent 15 years purchasing land to build Little Caesars Arena, allowing property to languish, because developing it would have driven up the cost of other parcels the family hoped to acquire.

Complaint List

In any case, I have a fresh batch of complaints out to BSEED. To the uninitiated, BSEED is required to investigate every citizen complaint about properties. There are certain things the department doesn’t deal with, like, “my neighbor built a fence over my property line!” or issues that fall explicitly under the jurisdiction of a federal agency. But anyone can submit a complaint about any property for any other reason. I found out during my research yesterday, going through official and unofficial channels, that BSEED actually has a memorandum of understanding with the Moroun family about their derelict properties, and this probably explains why so many blight tickets have been mysteriously voided, even without correcting the issues. I imagine a similar setup exists with Olympia.

There is no transparency from the city in this case, with the city’s own media spokesperson contradicting the counsel on this matter of the apparently-nonexistent MOU, although the spokesperson did at least say htat

I specifically mentioned to BSEED (and to the spokesperson, so no one can say I didn’t warn them) three buildings that are not maintained in accordance with municipal code:

2900 CASS. This is an Ilitch-owned building in the heart of the not-District Detroit. It’s surrounded mostly by parking lots, and the Ilitch demolition of the Chinatown building will give them another site to build parking. In violation of Sec. 8-15-113.

145 TEMPLE (2929 PARK). This is one of the largest buildings in the Ilitch footprint that remains vacant. A number of years ago, these were all painted with a dark red “stripe” on the first floor or two. It’s ugly, but again, men love to mark territory. The building is similarly in violation of a number of clauses in Sec. 8-15-113.

100 TEMPLE. A smaller building on the south side of Temple Street, just east of Cass. Also in violation of Sec. 8-15-113.

I advised the supervising inspector and media relations officer that I would be following up on these specific ones based on this specific section of code with which the buildings are not in compliance. And I’ll be following up.

Why do I care so much?

Because since I’ve lived here, I’ve seen very little actually get better. Sure, we have a fancier downtown, replete with private security, gleaming office towers that I’m not allowed into, luxury apartments I can’t afford inhabited by people who don’t pay taxes here, restaurants I can’t afford. Instead, I see Detroiters protesting to demand better bus service. I see Detroiters being told that we don’t get a refund on the $600 million that we were found to have been overtaxed, because the city can’t refund that money, but they definitely have literal billions for the Ilitches. I’ve seen very little in the way of paradigm shift. Sure, I have given Mike Duggan credit where it’s due for a few things on which I think he’s made important moves. But in this case, we can either have a Detroit for Detroiters, or a Detroit for suburban billionaires.

Later today, we’re going to hit up the grand opening of the Book Tower, a magnificent historic preservation project that cost oodles of public subsidy, but also resulted in a huge building being renovated. I firmly believe that Dan Gilbert is interested in Dan Gilbert’s billions more than he’s interested in Detroit, and I also firmly believe that it’s kinda messed up that we are subsidizing his eternal quest to amass more billions while Black families struggle in a city that has itself struggled for half a century. But at least Dan Gilbert is getting some stuff done. The Ilitch grift just continues, unabated like the lead dust and asbestos contaminating our air and water. It’s just going to continue unless we demand a better paradigm for economic development, and accountability for the officials and regulatory mechanisms that seem to have given carte blanche to the pizza people. It is time to do better.

I’m often told that this kind of post is “too controversial,” or that it will harm my career prospects. Is it going to harm my career prospects to demand accountability of our elected officials? Is it bad to want a Detroit whose government builds a Detroit for Detroiters? A caller into Stephen Henderson’s show this morning raised this question when he said that “everybody wants to be Detroiters, until it’s time to be Detroiters,” specifically asking whether it wasn’t a bit disingenuous for the press conference organizers to get together only after the demolition had taken place, to talk about preservation. Those of us who have been living here for a minute have seen the fictions and fabrications of the District Detroit. It is perhaps time for us to finally say “enough.”

Another Ilitch project that never happened: an apartment building that is listed on using a District Detroit rendering.

Nat M. Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP, MBA, is a city planner and energy professional based in Detroit, where he writes about infrastructure, sustainability, tech, and more. A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he attended Grinnell College in Iowa, the Kogod School of Business at American University, the POCACITO transatlantic program, the SISE program at the University of Illinois Chicago, and he is also a StartingBloc Social Innovation Fellow. He enjoys long walks through historic, disinvested Rust Belt neighborhoods at sunset. (Nat's views and opinions are his own and do not represent those of his employer).

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