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B.Arch Thesis: Precedent Study - District Detroit

One of the most recent and on-going urban development projects in the US, District Detroit has the chance to revitalize a suffering downtown. Through its five years of development there have been many of moving parts at play, some have led to positive movement in bringing growth, but other pieces have delayed, slowing the overall development down.


2014 - Present

Location: Detroit, Michigan

Size: 50 blocks

Developer: Olympia Development

Programming: Mixed-use commercial, residential, recreation and educational


Revitalizing an Urban Core

The District Detroit is a long-term redevelopment of a dead area of Detroit, a town looking to re-brand itself after recent turmoil. The site covers 50 blocks of land in the heart of downtown Detroit and is connected to the near by attractions like the Fox Theater, Ford Field and Comerica Park.
Rendering depicting the connection between LCA and Comerica Park.

A large amount of the land planned for redevelopment is already owned by the company spurring on the development, Olympia Development of Michigan. The plan involves nearly $1.8 billion in economic impact over the life of the initial development and over 9,500 jobs, 8,300 of which would be construction related jobs.23

The project looks to connect existing and new development efforts in downtown and midtown Detroit. This project has been regarded as the catalyst to help reinvigorate the city of Detroit as a whole.

The Program

The development focused on bringing in a wide variety of programs ranging from residential apartments to tech companies, such as Google renting out office space to finally the crown jewel of the project, Little Caesars Arena, a home for two of Detroit’s indoor professional sports teams, the Red Wings and Pistons. This arena would bring all of Detroit’s sports teams within a half of a mile from each other.

Along with the building projects there would be renovations and large investments in the infrastructure around the area. The goal was to create a more walkable and pedestrian environment for the people of Detroit to enjoy.

The District Detroit Master Plan

This master plan looked to break up the larger 50 block area into 5 new neighborhoods, that would be apart of the larger district development. The goal of the development was to bring new vibrant, walkable live-work environment.

A breakdown of the neighborhoods contained within District Detroit. Plots highlighted in red represent entertainment venues. (Image credit: Olympia Development of Michigan)

Project Analysis

Development Hurdles

As successful as this project has been in the creation of the arena district and filling in the larger more critical areas, there does seem to be a lack of development in the connecting of the two areas of the LCA and Comerica Park. The development here seems stunted and it is beginning to have an effect on the surrounding businesses.

As of May 2019, there were 46 empty parcels of land and 24 vacant buildings.24 This is a bit troublesome for the area as it seems since the opening of the LCA the surrounding developments have since not arrived.

Local businesses had moved into the area expecting a certain amount of customers to be in the area because of the increase in residential property as proposed initially. But these businesses are still waiting for that migration of residents to begin pouring into the area. There has been increased pedestrian traffic due to the addition of the tram line that runs down the west side of the LCA.

Hope is Not Lost

Although there seem to be many negative aspects to this project, there have been some positives. For instance, there have residential developments built in the area surrounding the district. These properties do not have ties to Olympia Development of Michigan, but are actually connected the Dan Gilbert owner of Quicken Loans.25 These developments have a focus on keeping the local community around by designating affordable units.

In fact, a lot of the development that has been done in the area outside of the LCA-Comerica corridor has been completed by developers not working with Olympia. This is good news, because the even if the primary district which Olympia owns nearly 34% of the acreage. In the end, it is tough to not criticize the current progress so far, however, there should still be hope with development still taking place.

Precedent Summary

The development is a good case study in activation and shows how the hub of the project can be a catalyst for starting to revitalize the community. At the arena level, the project utilizes transparency to bring people into the commercial space around the building that also allows people to enter into the arena.

The project does show how the lack of funding and urgency to continue to push throughout the entire project can lead to community push back on the entirety of the project. It also could have an adverse effect on the arena area if more development does not take place in the near future.



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