Detroiters are dreaming of replacing a flat parking lot outside Comerica Park with a well-lit park including hometown food pop-ups, outdoor music festivals, fire pits, fitness space and accessible public restrooms.
Roughly a dozen residents attended a brainstorming session this week focused on possible amenities in a public plaza planned between two new buildings holding offices, residences and ground-level retail. The projects are part of a $1.5 billion real estate investment for District Detroit, a long-stalled vision to redevelop northern downtown properties under control of the Ilitch organization’s Olympia Development of Michigan and New York real estate tycoon Stephen Ross’ The Related Cos.
The Columbia Street plaza would be straddled by an 18-story office building at 2200 Woodward Ave. that was originally expected to start construction in July and another 18-story residential building at 22500 Woodward Ave. expected to break ground in fall 2024. Both sites are planned to include space for retail businesses and restaurants on the first floor.
Developers held two design charrette meetings to gather feedback from residents and people who work around the proposed plaza. Jeff Pongonis, an architect with Columbus, Ohio-based MKSK Studios working with the joint development team, described the area as an “evolving neighborhood” situated between entertainment destinations and civic institutions.
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Renderings presented Wednesday showed a central lawn with a pavilion connecting to underground parking facilities. Pongonis said the park is being designed to include larger gathering areas and intimate spaces, but the vibe is casual and spaces can adjust alongside Michigan’s distinctive seasons.
“We’ve got fire pits, a place to warm up, a place to grab lunch and grab dinner, there’s a splash pad for cooling off on hot summer days, and lots of places to celebrate (before games and concerts),” Pongonis said. “Lots of fun shops and restaurants flanking the park, nice broad walks along those retail uses and lots of park elements for seating, landscape and this big lawn anchored by the stage.”
Pongonis said common themes are emerging. Feedback collected from two sessions show residents want a place to try local food vendors, celebrate art and music, take their kids to youth programs, enjoy fitness classes, host cultural events and relax among natural landscapes.
Angela Borden doesn’t live in Detroit but works at the Little Caesars headquarters on Woodward Avenue. Borden commiserated with other attendees over the lack of dining options, especially after 10 p.m.
“There’s not much food around,” she said. “Why does Campus Martius get all the food trucks?”
Borden said she encourages visitors to seek out interesting things to do, she said she’s dragged a few friends on the QLINE and People Mover to take a tour of the downtown area. But Borden said there needs to be more venues that allow people to spend more time there.
Groundbreaking is also scheduled to start sometime this year on the University of Michigan’s Center for Innovation, a proposed education building on an Ilitch-owned surface parking lot located between Cass and Grand River avenues, and between West Columbia and Elizabeth streets. The outdoor plaza is meant to help connect Comerica Park and the U-M center along Columbia Street.
Other parts of the District Detroit plan continue to take shape, but with some snags.
Construction on the first of 10 planned building projects, the office building at 2200 Woodward Ave. directly adjacent to the Detroit Tigers’ stadium, was anticipated to start in July. Developers pushed City Council members to support approval of a $615 million subsidy in part to ensure construction would begin this summer. The deal, which also received approval from a state board, diverts tax revenue to partially reimburse developers once the projects are finished.
Olympia President Keith Bradford said an updated groundbreaking date has not been set. The development team has an idea of when construction will start, but contractors have not yet been selected and Bradford declined to share a specific timeline. He said developers held several contractor fairs to solicit bids. Property planned for development next to Comerica Park is owned by the Detroit-Wayne County Stadium Authority, and a sales agreement is still pending.
“It’s a complex issue that we’re working through,” Bradford told reporters Wednesday. “And as soon as we’re ready to break ground, we’ll let you know.”
The development team promoted signs of progress at a Wednesday ribbon cutting ceremony for an “opportunity center” on the first floor of the Fox Theatre building. The office is meant to connect residents to job and housing opportunities created by the District Detroit projects and partner with the city’s Detroit At Work career training programs and Wayne County Community College.
Mayor Mike Duggan said he isn’t concerned about the construction delay. One way or another, he said, the promised jobs are coming.
“Nothing happens as fast as we would hope,” Duggan said. “The key thing is to keep grinding and one day you wake up and 1,200 people are working at the Amazon Center, 5,000 people are working at the Jeep plant. We’re just going to keep pushing forward.”
An analysis by the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. assumed Detroit residents will hold 26% of on-site construction jobs and 35% of post-construction jobs. Developers expect to create 5,790 ongoing jobs and 12,450 construction jobs, according to brownfield documents.
Council Member Fred Durhal III said local small businesses expect access to retail and restaurant opportunities created by the new developers. He celebrated the opening of a downtown location for Good Cakes and Bakes, a Black-owned bakery located across from Comerica Park.
“It takes time, but we need to keep pushing and advocating for small businesses, Detroit-based businesses,” Durhal said. “We get calls to our office all the time from folks asking how to get information on how to buy or rent. I can only imagine it’s more difficult in downtown or Midtown Detroit. If you’re a small business owner, it’s hard to imagine that you could be in a space like this, let alone know where to find information. That access to information is very important.”
Wayne County Executive Warren Evans said he’s seen a “disconnect” between growth and inclusiveness, but the job connector is an important step toward ensuring Detroiters have access to new opportunities created by development.
“Anybody who remembers what the city looked like 10 years ago, and sees what the city looks like now, they’d have to be crazy to not see the improvement,” Evans said. “There’s always this narrative of a downtown versus the neighborhoods, and District Detroit is part of a neighborhood. There are Detroit residents and citizens who live here and work here and are passionate about this community.”
The opportunity center was requested by a neighborhood advisory council organized to secure community benefits negotiated with the development team through a legal process. Olympia and Related agreed to create a physical space to promote housing, job and business opportunities.
Tom and Renee Toft are looking forward to moving back to Detroit once they finish rebuilding a historic home in the Brush Park neighborhood. They previously lived in the area but sold their home before Little Caesars Arena opened. Tom said he’s hoping the plaza will add more things to do that aren’t tied to events at downtown stadiums.
Renee said there aren’t enough stores that offer basic services like laundry, haircuts and fresh groceries on the north end of downtown. They also want casual restaurants, Tom said there’s pricey high-end food options and low-cost coney island restaurants but nothing in between.
“I like it when people enjoy Detroit as much as I do,” Borden said. “People come down for the Tigers but they don’t explore.”