There was an earlier era of development of the "modern" Detroit when the city began to reclaim its waterfront. Remnants of an older industrial era began to come down and new uses with civic purpose began to occupy the land along the Detroit River in the downtown area – convention center, public auditorium, park.
Hart Plaza, a large open park and event space connecting the downtown core to the riverfront, was the only one of these developments that actually delivered the promise of making the riverfront accessible to the people and freely usable. Other developments ironically both restricted access to the river and even closed themselves off from it. Cobo Hall, a large convention and display center and the home of the annual International Auto Show was one of these – a huge box with blank walls, shutting out the outside to control lighting on its displays and in its halls and in the process closing views of the international waterfront and Canada across the way. Ford auditorium was another closed box, turning its back to the river. Eventually the notorious Renaissance Center was constructed with an entirely inward focus and no comfortable access by pedestrians to its riverfront site, and giving a better view to thousands of parked cars that to people.
Joe Louis Arena was another of these. Although its program was as wrong for the riverfront as these others, it began with better intentions. It was designed initially as a general purpose civic arena. It had a low concourse accessible by a circumference of ramps and enclosed with glass to allow people attending events to look out one way over the river and another way over the cityscape. It had restaurants up at its roof level where people could look out over the action on the interior of the arena or out over the riverfront on other locations.
I entered the design team just as the trusses were beginning to move by barge from the steel mill to the site. The city had just made a deal to make the arena a home for a sports team, and I had the task of reshaping the design for a 14,000 seat general purpose arena into a 21,000 seat hockey arena with foundations already poured and steel already in shipment.
I presided over what I've called "a year of undesign." Every week I would enter a roomful of engineers, attorneys, event planners, team owners, and city representatives to present some new version of the design. Every week, I left with the same result, a direction to take even more features out of the design and more cost out of a construction budget that contract agreements kept secret from the design team.
In order to increase the number of higher paying seats, the concourse was raised several rows. As a result, the ramp system was no longer feasible, so stairs had to be used, instead. The stairs, initially inside of the shell of the building, became exterior stairs as the amount of concourse space, the overhanging restaurants, and other features were progressively stripped from the design in order to reshape the building's section for 50% more seats within the same envelope. The glass walls enclosing the concourse turned into opaque panels. Materials like stone and brick became painted metal panels. Lighting fixtures in the concourse became exposed fluorescent tubes.
I recall this as the news that the arena may soon be torn down. That is probably good news. It will be torn down because the team owners will now build a publicly financed arena in the center of the downtown sports and entertainment district. That is probably a more appropriate place for it.
My recollection of the design history of the earlier arena may have value to those who are part of the current planning and negotiations. Although the concept of the new site is right, the path to the final design may have many of the same issues and justifications that compromised Joe Louis Arena.
The new project should have a very strong set of guiding principles the reinforce the civic intentions of public funding and the rights to a thoughtful, well-designed, urban experience for the community. These principles should be derived from a deep study of the best examples of similar developments around the world, and from the unique and defining characteristics of a newly emerging Detroit. An informed and professionally-advised body representing the interests of the community and of the surrounding sports and entertainment interests should be formed and be given the power to influence the building's context. The resources that can make the urban context succeed should be separated from the resources that the team owners will claim to shape the interior experience.
Without these conditions and more, the program that eroded the best intentions of the earlier arena may deliver to Detroit another four decades of failure but at a different site.
Develop a narrative describing the process that led to Joe Louis Arena. Then find a way to avoid repeating every bit of it.