A rendering of The District Detroit's Woodward Square.

Detroit’s efforts at a comeback story continues to be written with new projects such as Olympia Development’s The District Detroit.

Olympia Development is a privately held business of the Illitch Cos., which owns the Little Caesars pizza chain. The 50-block mixed-use project consisting of retail, parks, restaurants and event destinations represents a $1.2 billion investment, including the Little Caesars Arena, which will open in 2017, and the surrounding residential and retail developments.

While Shinola gets credited for jump-starting the rebirth of downtown in 2011 — four months after the City of Detroit declared bankruptcy — Mike and Marian Ilitch have been involved in revitalizing Detroit for much longer.

Mike Atwell, vice president of real estate for Olympia Development, explained that the Ilitches in 1959 founded Little Caesars in suburban Detroit. “They had a strong interest in the city,” he said. The Ilitches in 1989 purchased the historic Fox Theater building in downtown and painstakingly restored it. “We moved [our corporate headquarters] from the suburbs to a building adjacent to the theater,” Atwell said. “That was their commitment to come to downtown Detroit. At that time, companies were leaving Detroit en mass. It was quite a leap of faith for the family to commit to revive the historic Fox Theater.”

The real estate, acquired by Olympia, aims to connect The District Detroit with the downtown city center, which still has a gritty feel. Until about three-and-a-half years ago, the area was down-on-its-heels, with a high unemployment rate. In addition to Shinola, retailers such as Nest and City Bird have opened in the Willis Canfield District, along with Ponyride, a 30,000-square-foot maker-space for burgeoning entrepreneurs.

“The District Detroit is a critical connector between the central business district, which goes south and across the river to Windsor, Canada,” Atwell said. “To the north, there’s an exciting resurgent area with Wayne State University. Our project fills that gap and makes that connection.”

The District Detroit is divided into five unique neighborhoods. Woodward Square, which is adjacent to the new Little Caesars Arena, will have more than 200,000 square feet of restaurant, retail and office space on Woodward Avenue and Henry Street. The four-level buildings will be occupied by the Detroit Red Wings and Olympia Entertainment, among other businesses.

“The area is so much more than just an arena,” said Atwell of Woodward Square. “We’ll activate [the arena] throughout the year. The other essential part is the retail component. This is a true mixed-use development, with office, retail and residential.”

Wildcat Corner is home to two national ballparks, Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers, and Ford Field, home of the Detroit Lions. Adams Street, the main drag, will be characterized by a brick avenue with architectural details harking back to the city’s industrial roots and lined with bars, shops and street vendors.

Columbia Street is a neighborhood near the Fox Theater with a small town sensibility, including a quaint Main Street with gas-lit lamps. Columbia Park will have new offices, specialty stores and loft-style condos surrounding one of Detroit’s newest urban green spaces.

Cass Park Village will feed off the creative energy of Wayne State University, Cass Technical High School and the 90-year-old Masonic Temple. Atwell said independent shops, local markets and galleries will be sought as tenants for Cass Park Village.

“The apparel retailers we’re looking for in the first couple phases will be sportswear-related,” Atwell said. “We’ll try to strike a nice balance between national and local and entrepreneurs trying to build a brand.

“Between Woodward Square and retail around the arena, we’ll see athletic shoes and stores for female sports enthusiasts,” he said. “We may have some dress shops ending up in various neighborhoods like Cass Park Village.”

Atwell said Olympia is in discussions with a number of retailers, but declined to reveal names. Retail space at the project ranges from 1,200 square feet to 10,000 square feet.

“With the sports venues and entertainment venues, we have a far-reaching trade area,” Atwell said. “We can appeal to folks as part of the resurgence of Detroit but also attract a much wider and diverse audience. There will be a constant flow of regional shoppers.”

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