Driving force in Detroit
Chris Ilitch stood outside Little Caesars Arena and pointed to a pair of empty apartment buildings across the street being prepped for construction next spring. The restoration of those historic structures is just one piece of District Detroit, a massive 50-block redevelopment anchored by the arena, the new home of the Red Wings and Pistons.
As president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings, whose assets include the Red Wings and Tigers, the 52-year-old Ilitch is entrenched in the effort to rebuild the Motor City’s core. “We really put our heart and soul into this project,” Ilitch said a few hours before the puck dropped for the Red Wings’ Sept. 28 exhibition game at the $870 million facility.
By virtue of its innovative design, the arena has played a key role in rebuilding the inner city and creating a vibrant downtown scene, a major emphasis after a long-term downturn for the Motor City. “It’s way more than an arena, and I think that comes through,” he said.
Originally, the Red Wings planned to develop a more traditional arena similar to United Center until Ilitch challenged the organization to think bigger and expand on the development already occurring elsewhere downtown. Working closely with their architect HOK, the Red Wings came up with the concept of a “deconstructed arena,” a series of brick buildings surrounding the arena structure, to blend into the neighborhood without towering over it.
Inside, it revolved around designing a seating bowl with a metallic exterior skin as the centerpiece and creating a unique streetscape walkway with stores facing fans along the concourse but also accessible to pedestrians outside the arena.
The arena concourse’s indoor streetscape theme was inspired by the outdoor shopping districts in Italy and France, plus Santana Row, a high-end mixed-use development in San Jose that impressed the late Mike Ilitch during a visit 10 years ago, said Tom Wilson, president and CEO of Olympia Entertainment, the firm running the arena. Port Chester, N.Y.-based Street-Works, which designed that 42-acre property in Silicon Valley, has worked on the arena project over the past eight years.
The Via, a portion of the main concourse at street level, has a pronounced European feel with distinctly Detroit details such as decorative manhole covers celebrating Red Wings and Pistons greats. Overhead, the clear roof cover, made with the same ETFE material used at NFL stadiums in Atlanta and Minneapolis, gives the Via a bright and airy outdoor feel for those walking that piece of the main concourse. The plan is for the Via to be open to the public on non-game days after construction is completed on the streets outside the arena, Wilson said.
As patrons begin to exit the Via walkway in the northeast and southwest corners, they encounter a dramatic change in design and finishes with low ceilings and terrazzo flooring. It signals a separation between the old and the new and a transition to ticketed spaces in the building, Wilson said.
One level above on the upper concourse sits the “jewel,” which sets this arena apart from others in the big leagues. The 600-foot-long aluminum wall, made of a material similar to Epcot’s centerpiece, Spaceship Earth, serves as a giant projection screen, extending from the southwest corner to the northeast.
On event nights, arena officials can display multiple video images tied to the teams, concert acts and sponsors such as Little Caesars Pizza, Coca-Cola and Huntington Bank that can clearly be seen on both concourses.
“It’s a work in progress right now, and we’re still working on the best ways to use it,” said Pete Skorich, Olympia Entertainment’s vice president of entertainment services. “It’s such a big canvas that we can do many different things with it.”
Ilitch picked up other elements along the way. The LED lighting system in the ceiling high above the seating bowl, for example, is something he first saw on a smaller scale at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif. In Detroit, it’s part of the Sky Deck, modeled after a rigging system common in theaters that allows stagehands to walk freely across a metal mesh floor for quicker changeovers between events.
As part of the grid, the LED displays enable arena officials to use those lights as part of the event presentation, whether it’s creating an image of the American flag for the national anthem or turning the ceiling all red for Red Wings games.
The seating bowl itself is steep and tight, designed with catwalk-style gondolas hanging from the roof along the sidelines. They pay homage to the NHL Original Six arenas of the past in Boston, Chicago and Detroit, where the Red Wings played at old Olympia Stadium for more than 50 years before moving to Joe Louis Arena.
The west-side gondola has 14 eight-seat loge boxes, six of which the Red Wings sold for hockey only under one-year deals. The eight remaining units are available for single games, and it’s the only premium inventory left to sell, said John Ciszewski, the team’s vice president of sales.
“The gondolas did two things,” Ilitch said. “They honor the tradition and make the place feel incredibly intimate by taking up more cubic volume. People are energized, and we think it creates a fan atmosphere that’s special.”
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Two summers ago, the Red Wings sold all 62 suites in 40 days. In November 2016, the Pistons completed their agreement with the Red Wings to move to Little Caesars Arena. Forty suite holders then bought the Pistons’ package on top of their original purchase, Ciszewski said.
The Pistons are responsible for selling the remaining 22 suites for their games, he said. All suites have banks of five televisions, something new in the layout of the highest-priced real estate, and the private spaces are available for companies to use for meetings and presentations, Wilson said.
At event level, the Red Wings’ path to the ice goes through the middle of the Comerica Players Club, separated by movable glass walls. The design follows a trend at other NHL facilities such as PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh. In Detroit, Little Caesars Arena takes the concept one step further by providing views of the visiting team walking past the south end of the club.
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Chevrolet highlights its role as a founding partner with some creative activation. The automaker has naming rights to the northeast entrance as well as the outdoor Chevy Plaza on the arena’s southwest side, where up to 4,000 people can congregate for pregame festivities, watch parties and other events. Inside the northeast doors is Chevy’s primary piece of activation, where a new Corvette appears to defy gravity, running up a track where it’s attached to a wall. Nearby is the display of the Red Wings’ logo made of about 200 Chevrolet auto parts.
“Even on sponsor activation we wanted to be innovative,” Ilitch said. “This is the Motor City, after all, so we should have a Corvette on our wall. “We also have one in our fountain in center field at Comerica Park. The automakers are such a big part of the history in this city.”
|The Red Wings’ route to the ice goes through the Comerica Players Club.
The same is true for former owner Mike Ilitch, Chris’ father, who died in February. His legacy is on display inside Mike’s Pizza, with photos documenting his days as a baseball player in the Marines and as a Detroit Tigers minor leaguer. The green neon “Haig’s” sign recognizes the bar where Ilitch first sold pizza out of a converted broom closet in his early days as an entrepreneur before founding Little Caesars Pizza. Today, the nine businesses making up Ilitch Holdings generate $3.4 billion in annual revenue.
“None of this would be here if he didn’t start that little pizza bar,” Chris Ilitch said. “I thought it would be an appropriate tribute to him and he took a lot of comfort when I told him we’re going to do this. He was honored.”