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Motor City Plans Giant Sports, Entertainment District

By T.R. Witcher

The new arena for the Detroit Red Wings is only part of a larger urban development plan that is meant to revitalize a large portion of downtown.


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A proposed stadium for the Detroit Red Wings will anchor a 50-block mixed-used redevelopment between the city’s downtown and midtown areas. Dennis Allain Renderings/Olympia Development of Michigan

November 25, 2014—Steve Marquardt, a vice president of Olympia Development of Michigan, wants to make one thing clear: the new Detroit Red Wings arena project is going to be a lot more than a stadium.

 "It starts with the fact that this project is a district," Marquardt says. "It's not just about an arena. It's about a 50-block central urban core that we're going to be redeveloping."

Olympia is owned by Ilitch Holdings, which is run by the Ilitch family, the owners of the Red Wings franchise as well as the Detroit Tigers, Little Caesars pizza, and the lavish, art deco Fox Theatre. The company is investing heavily in the ambitious project, which will cost an estimated $650 million—roughly $450 million for the arena and the remainder for the surrounding district. Funding for the arena will come from both private and public sources, while the ancillary development will be entirely privately funded.

The new urban district, which will open concurrently with the stadium, is meant to revitalize a largely underutilized section of the city, connect the city's downtown and midtown areas, and even spur development in neighborhoods to the east and west.

Situated in the heart of central Detroit, the development is bounded by Charlotte Street to the north, Grand River Avenue to the west, Grand Circus Park to the south, and Brush Park and Ford Field on the east. Woodward Avenue is the main spine of the project (and the city), and the 50 blocks encompassed by the plan are split almost evenly north and south of I-75. The stadium itself will occupy 10 blocks just west of Woodward and a block north of the freeway.

The arena, conceived by Kansas City-based 360 Architecture, has been designed to seat 20,000 within 785,000 sq ft, replacing downtown's aging Joe Louis Arena. Though most professional hockey and basketball teams located in the same city share the same arena, it is unlikely that the Detroit Pistons will decamp from their arena in suburban Auburn Hills.

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The proposed stadium will extend 37 ft below grade, lessening its impact on surrounding blocks. A retail concourse, shown at right, will link the stadium to the city. Dennis Allain Renderings/Olympia

The surrounding district will feature office space, retail—much of it centered on food—and condominiums and apartments. Care is being taken to ensure that the district is accessible to employers who want to set up businesses there, first-floor retail and four-story office buildings fronting Woodward, and residential buildings to the south of the project. On the western edge of the development, Marquardt says, "Instead of having a parking garage pushed right up against Cass Avenue, it will be fronted by rental town homes." And the stadium will be close to a stop on the M1 Rail streetcar that is currently under construction. (Read " Construction Begins on Detroit Streetcar Project" in Civil Engineering magazine, October 2014, pages 26-27.)

"We believe this is the next innovation," Marquardt says of the way the stadium integrates with its surroundings. "We believe this is going to set the new standard."

The result will be uncommon: three major sports venues (including Comerica Park and Ford Field) and several major theaters (the Fox, the Fillmore, the Masonic Temple, and the nearby Detroit Opera House) will combine to form an expansive sports and entertainment complex that, despite its size, remains appropriate to its urban context, Marquardt says. For example, the playing surface of the stadium sits 37 ft below grade, "so the arena itself is a great urban companion to this mixed-use environment. It isn't some 220 foot hulking monolith," Marquardt explains.

A covered pedestrian arcade will line one side of the stadium—a kind of indoor-outdoor public promenade with retail and other amenities. At the southwest corner, developers envision a piazza-like space with screens that crowds can gather around to watch sporting events.

Marquardt calls the stadium a "Detroit-fueled design."

"What we mean by that is [that] the bowl is going to be very intimate," he says. "You'll see wall-to-wall people. There's going to be intensity. A place where opposing [fans] will fear to come."

The contextual design was a "design vision that led us down the path of having a fairly deep excavation," says Brian A. Dickson, P.E., S.E., a senior principal of Magnusson Klemencic Associates, the Seattle-based firm that is performing the structural engineering of the stadium. "[On] large venues like this, you're dealing with vast amounts of program that occur at the event level," Dickson says. "That vast amount of program leads to a really big hole in the ground."

There are straightforward issues facing the contractor when excavation work begins: how to keep this large hole from filling up with water while maintaining slope stability. And then there's the logistics of removing all that material.

For the engineers—including the geotechnical engineers, NTH Consultants, Ltd., of Detroit—the question is mostly about making the below-grade structures robust enough to resist lateral earth pressure. Dickson says this job is not like a normal office building with below-grade parking for which the typical floor-to-floor heights are generally 11 or 12 ft. This building has floor-to-floor heights of 37 ft. A conventionally sized concrete wall might only be 18 in. thick; Dickson anticipates that the walls here will need to be 3 ft thick to withstand the earth pressure.

And placing such a large amount of concrete will in and of itself lead to large pressures on the wall forms. This will require the contractor to develop special procedures. "I would characterize it as needing thicker walls that are appropriately reinforced to address the much larger earth pressures acting over the height of a tall wall," says Dickson. "If you think of traditional retaining walls, they might have a large heel or a large key, or other shoring to resist lateral forces at the bottom of the wall." Here the project will end up with a "fairly substantial" 12 in. basement slab, when a 6 to 8 in. slab is more typical.

Demolition and abatement should be underway soon; by next spring mass excavation will begin. Infrastructure in the area, including roads, hardscape, signalization, and utilities will be relocated or upgraded. The project is expected to be completed in summer 2017, the stadium ready for the 2017/2018 season.


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