Field of schemes

On Monday, as the Detroit City Council held a public hearing on the issue of tearing down Tiger Stadium, News Hits had the unsettling feeling of being caught in one of those nightmares where you run and run and run but get absolutely nowhere.

There really is something truly surreal about this whole debate.

What mystifies us the most is the repeated claim by city officials that the stadium needs to be demolished because there have been no credible offers to redevelop the ball field in the years since the Tigers moved to their new playground at Comerica Park.

The way we see it, the truth is that the powers that be never gave would-be developers an honest chance to reuse the historic stadium. As we first reported nearly four years ago, several credible developers have expressed an interest in doing something at The Corner, but the city has effectively found ways to make sure nothing happened.

It began with an intense effort by Corktown "stakeholders" to come up with a plan for the site. The planning began before the Tigers moved out at the end of the 1999 season. Area residents and businesspeople who started out thinking the best thing to do was let the wrecking ball swing ended up producing an innovative proposal that involved retrofitting the structure, building lofts, retail space and a sports-related museum. It also would preserve the field itself, with as many as 8,000 seats so that ball could continue to be played at the historic site.

The St. Louis firm of McCormack Baron and Associates proposed doing a study that included architectural and structural analysis to determine how feasible that plan was. As we were told in '03, such a study was a crucial first step, and that if it looked like it would work, the company was serious about then pursuing the project. But the administration of Mayor Dennis Archer let the proposal languish for eight months without responding. So McCormack Baron walked away.

Then there was Peter Comstock Riley, who wanted to bring minor league baseball to The Corner. But the Tigers were stinkin' things up back then, and had no interest in seeing any form of competition for fans' attention spring up at their old park. The city owns the field, but the politically powerful Mike Ilitch, owner of the Tigers (as well as the Red Wings, Fox Theatre, and a host of other local entertainment venues) continued to call the shots regarding what events could take place at the stadium.

"They were looking out for their own interests, not the interests of the city," Riley told Metro Times back then. "Ilitch has always been fearful of anyone getting close to his empire. Dealing with the Tigers had a crushing effect on our efforts."

Meanwhile, the Tigers continued to collect $400,000 a year to guard and maintain the stadium after it went vacant. We're not the only ones who wonder how much maintaining was actually done. At Monday's public hearing, a few council members expressed dismay at the condition of the place, and former Detroit cop David Malhalab is begging for someone — anyone — to investigate.

But back to our chronology. ...

In October 2001, a partnership that included Farmington Hills developer David Sinacola, whose family has been in the contracting business since 1924, seemed on the verge of inking a deal, but then Kwame Kilpatrick moved into the Manoogian Mansion and Sinacola's partnership couldn't get anyone at City Hall to return their calls.

More recently, Detroit News columnist Neal Rubin reported this spring that Harry Glanz, co-founder of Capital Mortgage Funding in Southfield, twice contacted the mayor's office to pitch a plan that would involve scaling back the stadium to its old Navin Field configuration, with 12,000 to 15,000 seats around the ball field and conference rooms, convention space, shops, a museum and more to generate income and jobs.

Once again, Rubin reported, calls weren't returned.

Back when we wrote our original story, the speculation was that the city would let the Tigers continue collecting cash to maintain and guard the stadium until the pot funding that effort ran dry. Then the call to tear it down would reach a fever pitch, because the city wouldn't be able to afford to keep the old white elephant standing.

That's where we are now. The plan, such as it is, involves selling off whatever can be sold, tearing down most of the stadium to open the way for a mixed-use development that includes condos and shops. There'd also be a ball field.

Last month the city's planning commission considered the idea but balked at taking any action. For one thing — and it's a big thing — there's no developer lined up to actually, you know, build what's being proposed.

At Monday's public hearing, about half the 20 people speaking urged the council to give a thumbs-up to the demolition. It's easy to understand why many of the residents of Corktown want to see something done. The stadium's been empty a long time now, and uncertainty over its future is an impediment to other development in the area. The other half argued that the idea of retrofitting the old stadium has never really been given a fair chance. Some also pointed out that demolishing first and then hoping a developer comes along afterward can have distinct drawbacks. The vacant space where the Hudson's building once stood would be Exhibit A in making that case.

In the end, the council decided to hold off on making any decision until after Thursday, when the planning commission again takes up the issue.

The game's not over yet for Tiger Stadium, but it looks like we're in the bottom of the ninth inning with two outs and a full count. There's still time to see if the preservationists can get a game-saving hit, but they'll need to see something better than the spitballs that have been thrown at them so far.

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]
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