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Volume 22 No. 35
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Detroit’s new ‘village’

Seating bowl surrounded by unique walkway, mixed use sets Red Wings’ arena apart

A multilayered village concept fills the Red Wings’ planned arena concourse.
Rendering: HOK
Editor’s note: This story is revised from the print edition.

The Detroit Red Wings are smashing the mold for their new arena as part of a massive mixed-use project to help in the city’s resurrection.

To kick-start an ambitious redevelopment spanning 45 city blocks adjacent to downtown, project officials have formed the concept of a “deconstructed arena,” and provided a detailed preview of the $450 million facility to SportsBusiness Journal.

Tom Wilson, CEO of the Red Wings and president of parent company Olympia Entertainment, and sports architect George Heinlein, HOK’s principal-in-charge of the project, are the minds behind a revolutionary design and concept — some of which is modeled after New York City’s High Line parkway. The design offers the feel of a pedestrian walkway adjacent to the seating bowl and lined by retail and restaurant options, all under a clear roof cover.

Officials at Ilitch Holdings, the real estate group owned by Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch, hope that once their initial project begins, it will spur additional development from businesses looking to join the novel design of a “village of buildings,” as Heinlein describes the project.

“The whole concept behind it is much like the city of Detroit and the Red Wings and the history of the franchise,” Heinlein said. “It’s grounded in the past, represented by these outer buildings. The inner arena piece is the sleek modern jewel that speaks to the rebirth of the city.”

The project broke ground in September, and the arena is scheduled to open in 2017.

The deconstructed arena is designed to provide a futuristic seating bowl as the centerpiece, and allow for construction to develop along a streetlike walkway, with store fronts facing fans along the concourse and consumers along the street. Such a design means other key elements of arena operations, such as a ticket office or team store, are developed outside of the traditional arena structure, a departure from typical facility development.

The Piazza area outside and the exterior of the seating bowl (below).
Renderings: HOK
The overall $650 million development approved by the Detroit Downtown Development Authority, 42 percent of which is public money, includes a $450 million arena.

The seating bowl, which project officials call the “jewel” of the design, is covered by a stainless steel shell that functions as a projection screen and can be programmed to display images of the game or sponsor brands.


The sunken bowl design significantly reduces the height of the structure — it will be about half the height of United Center and Staples Center to bring scale for the overall development and make it feel more like a regular neighborhood, Wilson said.

This will allow for other arena functions, including staff offices as well as retail and restaurants, to be developed along a row of brick buildings situated roughly 50 feet from the arena shell. The design of those structures provides a stark contrast from the arena bowl.

Pulling the experience together is a clear roof structure made of ETFE, the same plastic material used for the roof at the Minnesota Vikings’ new stadium.

In Detroit, the transparent roof extends from the arena shell to the exterior buildings, creating a year-round sports and entertainment complex in a climate-controlled environment.

The roof “gives us daylight all day long in that space, and on event nights, the idea is this thing pours light and energy out the top of it,” Heinlein said. “You can see the light and energy coming out of the building.”

As part of the unconventional design, the main concourse, called the Via, is designed as a streetlike path that runs between the seating bowl and the outer buildings. Executives hope for a high-energy pedestrian walkway with cafe seating and restaurants that front the street and the concourse. The upper concourse, overlooking the Via below, is modeled after the New York City High Line, an elevated parkway that weaves between buildings in lower Manhattan, Heinlein said.

“What it feels like is you’re in a neighborhood … and this has been here forever,” Wilson said. “These [exterior] buildings are four stories tall, so they sort of hide from view the actual arena. They flank every side of the arena bowl except for the north side, which is more conventional.”

“One of the things that we want to do is make the experience better,” he said.

“Our goal, since we’re building this district, is to get people to come down two to three hours in advance, have their choice of places to eat and when the game is over, stick around … to really enjoy what downtown Detroit [will] become.”

The Piazza outside the arena, with an LED video board, will be used for special events.
Rendering: HOK
Outside on the west side is the Piazza, the term officials use to describe a plaza space similar to those at Air Canada Centre and American Airlines Center. The Red Wings can program that space for special events and show games on an LED video board.

“It could be for a Lions tailgate,” Wilson said. “On Opening Day for the Tigers, there are 40,000 to 50,000 people just walking the streets down here because it’s like a holiday. Maybe 5,000 of them will be watching our LED board.”

To put the overall development in perspective, the 45-block portion targeted for transformation is one block shy of the entire downtown area of Grand Rapids, Mich., according to Wilson.

“We’re building a city within a city here,” he said.

Wilson gave a presentation of the overall development during last week’s NHL owners meetings in Las Vegas, and many came away impressed by what the Red Wings are trying to do, including New Jersey Devils CEO Scott O’Neil.

O’Neil said the development project is the “cherry on top” for what Ilitch and others in sports, including Cleveland Cavaliers owner and Detroit native Dan Gilbert, are doing to revive Detroit’s inner core.

“The arena is the best of what you’re going to see. It’s like Maple Leaf Square put together with [Bankers Life] Fieldhouse’s atrium and Montreal’s sight lines,” O’Neil said.