The owners of the proposed Detroit MLS team released renderings of their proposed arena yesterday, and it looks just like a sketchily drawn soccer stadium. But more important, they revealed some of their financial and siting plans, and it’s far more revealing of just what Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and Pistons owner Tom Gores are up to:
Billionaire Dan Gilbert and Pistons executive Arn Tellem announced plans today for a $1-billion investment at Wayne County’s unfinished jail site for a 25,000-seat Major League Soccer stadium and other developments, including restaurants, hotel rooms, and a commercial office tower…
If the unfinished jail site can’t be used, it’s unlikely that MLS will seriously consider Detroit, [MLS commissioner Don] Garber and Gilbert both said.
“If you have a Plan B, it distracts from Plan A,” Gilbert said. “There really is no Plan B.”
The proposed site, in other words, doesn’t involve any of the land that Gilbert already owns in downtown Detroit, but rather a prime parcel near the Tigers, Lions, and Red Wings venues that is currently home to a county jail complex that has gone way over budget. By announcing their designs on it for a soccer stadium — and getting Garber to deliver a “their way or the highway” message — Gilbert and Gores can use the desire for MLS (and for the ever popular “mixed-use development”) as a way to stage a land grab for a potentially valuable downtown property. It’s the Atlantic Yards model, in other words, though with a much cheaper sports facility as the hook.
So would it make sense for the city and county? Fortunately, county elected officials seem to be asking that question. Wayne County Executive Warren Evans said in order to do the deal, a new jail (plus courthouse) would have to be able to be built at the city and state’s Mound Road site for no more than the estimated $175 million it would cost to finish the current jail plan. Evans didn’t say anything about a fair price for the downtown land, but it’s presumably on his mind: The county recently rejected a $50 million offer from Gilbert for the land, something that the soccer-plus-the-kitchen-sink proposal is no doubt designed to get the county thinking twice about.
In theory, there’s nothing wrong with using centrally located land for sports and retail and hotels instead of for a jail — so long as there’s no huge giveaway of public assets involved. Too often, cities that have been facing a long history of disinvestment and abandonment like Detroit end up fighting the last war once there’s an uptick in interest from well-off newcomers in resettling the area, throwing money (or land and development rights that are worth money) at any developer offering a construction project rather than trying to see what its assets are really worth. (I’m just wrapped up writing a Brooklyn Wars chapter that addresses exactly this, so it’s close to my mind.) Gilbert and Gores are clearly looking to dangle that “$1 billion investment” as an enticement to get the county to give them what they want at their price; how the county responds will go a long way toward determining the next stage of Detroit’s problematic revival.
Oh, right, I promised you renderings, so let’s do those now. There are fireworks and searchlights! (There are always fireworks and searchlights.)