Michigan-Made Detroit-Built Little Caesars Arena

Words: Ashley Johnson

Words: Ashley Johnson
Photos: Nadir Ali, Rick Lipski

Digging into the history, economic impact, and culture of the center of the District Detroit by itself, Little Caesars Arena is a futuristic megasphere located in midtown Detroit. It is home to the city’s NHL team, the Detroit Red Wings, and NBA team, the Detroit Pistons. Since opening to the public in 2017, the arena has showcased its modern design and technological innovation with countless headlining concerts and events. 

Detroit has long been known for its derelict, abandoned buildings in seas of grass, as well as municipal bankruptcy resulting from a number of factors, the largest being the disappearance of the once-thriving automobile industry and corruption by city leaders. 

In recent years, the city has begun to make a comeback through the emergence of new business and outside investment. One of those new businesses is Little Caesars Arena. But the arena is more than just another place to see a hockey game or the latest Kid Rock concert. 

Little Caesars Arena is the anchor and cornerstone to the District Detroit, a sports and entertainment hub that connects downtown Detroit to midtown Detroit. All four of Detroit’s sporting teams are within walking distance of one another. 

The District spans 50 blocks and embodies the vision and future of an economically viable Detroit that represents $2.1 billion since its inception. It consists of the densest concentration of sports teams than any other urban area. Situated in the Woodward Square neighborhood across from Brush Park, the District incorporates six major entertainment venues within blocks of each other.  

The arena has been recognized for its environmental impact, focus on safety, and progressive architecture. Since opening, the arena has welcomed more than 4 million visitors.

Behind the arena

In 1959 Mike and Marian Ilitch opened a pizza restaurant they named Little Caesars Pizza Treat in Garden City, Mich. Mike Ilitch, who played minor league baseball in the 1950s for the Detroit Tigers and other minor league baseball teams, purchased the Detroit Red Wings in 1982 for $8 million. In 1992 Ilitch purchased the Detroit Tigers from Domino’s Pizza founder, Tom Monaghan. 

Shortly thereafter the Ilitch family purchased and renovated the illustrious Fox Theater to serve as headquarters for the family’s business operations. Ilitch Holdings comprises Little Caesars Pizza, the Detroit Red Wings, the Detroit Tigers, Olympia Entertainment, Olympia Development of Michigan, and others.

In 1993 the idea began to take shape for a sports and entertainment area in downtown Detroit near the Fox Theater. The Ilitch family spent more than $50 million purchasing a property in that area. Up to this point, the Detroit Red Wings called the Joe Louis Arena their home. 

A new arena was proposed to replace the Joe Louis Arena as the home of the Detroit Red Wings and would be owned by the Downtown Development Authority. The land for the new arena would be leased for free to Olympia Development of Michigan for a period longer than 35 years. 

Similar to the Joe Louis Arena, Olympia Development would have control over sales of game tickets, parking, concessions, and souvenirs. Unlike the Joe Louis Arena, any naming rights would not be subject to revenue sharing with the city of Detroit. 

In 2016, the name was officially chosen as Little Caesars Arena after the Ilitch family pizza chain that started it all. Ilitch Holdings declined a potentially lucrative offer to name the arena by a separate business. The reason for this being to focus instead on the family legacy and the founder’s initial dedication and vision to redevelop and reinvigorate the declining area and economy.  

The Downtown Development Authority and Olympia Development unveiled a plan in 2013 to not only build a new arena, but an entire mixed-use business locality covering 12 acres. This economically viable sector would be called “The District Detroit.” 

This 50-block section of midtown Detroit would feature new restaurants, stores, bars, entertainment venues, green spaces, and business offices that would stimulate the local economy by creating thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. 

A tentative deal was approved with the Ilitch family to build the future arena and the District Detroit. This $650 million deal would be paid for by public and private funds, with the Ilitch family contributing an additional $200 million to build spinoff businesses nearby.   

Breaking ground on a new arena

Construction for the new Detroit arena began on April 24, 2015, by the Commercial Contracting Corporation in partnership with Tooles Contracting Group. An official groundbreaking ceremony took place on September 25, 2014. 

The arena serves as a crux to the city’s vision to resuscitate Detroit, including five key neighborhoods. These neighborhoods - Columbia Street, Columbia Park, Woodward Square, Wildcat Corner, and Case Park Village - would be surrounded by new locally owned and operated businesses that today include restaurants, bars, offices, retail stores, residential spaces, and parks. 

Preparing the ground for the 360-foot by 460-foot 785,000 square foot arena was not without challenges. Excavating the enormous footprint for Little Caesars Arena required more than 50 double train trucks that removed 482,813 cubic yards of soil.

Throughout the project, 50,000 cubic yards of self-perform concrete was used to reinforce, place, and finish the foundation for the event center and slab-on-grade. A 39-foot perimeter cast-in-place wall was also installed, as was a shear wall and dock wall form work, and foundations for all other buildings. 

Despite efforts to save it, the historic Park Avenue Hotel was demolished to make room for a parking garage. A similar historic hotel northwest of the arena, the Eddystone Hotel, was converted into ground-floor retail space and upper-level apartments, 20 percent of which are affordable housing. 

To blend “Old Detroit'' with “New Detroit” 13 different colors of hand-laid brick were applied to the exterior. The use of cast stone lends the appearance and effect of multiple buildings. Inside, articulated paneling used around the seating bowl allows projected images to be displayed during games and events.  

A 61,000 square-foot concourse covered with glass connects to a parking garage and three mid-rise buildings with offices on top and retail spaces at ground level. The facade of the building features a blend of brick, glass, and metal. 

Glass is a prominent feature of the design with 30,100 square feet of Tubelite Inc., 400TU curtainwall in 7.5-inch- and 10-inch-deep systems for storefronts and applied to the facades and interior spaces. 

Linetec applied 70 percent PVDF resin-based architectural coatings in gray and black and the Red Wings custom colors. Class I Clear anodize was used on the outside of the curtainwall and doors. Class II Clear anodize was chosen for the outside of 11,500 square feet of Tubelite storefront systems. 

Incorporating Tubelite systems contributed to better energy performance and thermal efficiency. All of the aluminum curtainwall, storefront, and entrance systems are 100 percent recyclable. At ground level, 1.25 inch insulated, Solarban 60 Low-E glass was chosen for security and because of its resistance to impact.    

In 2018, the arena was awarded the Sports Facility of the Year by Sports Business because of excellence, growth, innovation, sound planning, implementation, and outcomes. 

Designing for the hosts

The 785,000 square-foot bowl-shaped arena was designed by HOK, a global design, and architectural engineering firm, along with ROSETTI and input by Street-Works Development. By designing a deconstructed footprint of multiple buildings over four blocks, the designers hoped to blend the new architecture with the surrounding historic neighborhoods.

An ice rink 40 feet below street level and steeply ascending eight stories or 75 feet above grade lends an iconic feel embraced by early historic arenas. This style of arena seating improves sight lines and infuses live events with energy through dense walls of spectators. During hockey games, Little Caesars Arena can seat 19,515 people and 20,332 during basketball games.  

The designers also incorporated a practice rink for the Red Wings. The BELFOR Training Center features a practice facility not just for the city’s hockey team but for amateur hockey groups as well.  

The late addition of the NBA basketball team the Detroit Pistons from the Palace of Auburn Hills to Little Caesars Arena required thoughtful planning and clever design of spaces. The 9,700 square-foot area designed and built for the Detroit Pistons includes a practice facility, a 1,200 square-foot locker room with 8-foot doorways and 12-foot ceilings to accommodate players, a lounge, and access to hydrotherapy and cryotherapy pools.

Inside the arena, customized metal ceiling elements with wood finishes were used to add warmth. Hunter Douglas Architectural incorporated linear ceiling panels that form an inverted “V” peak that curves around the concourse. 

Outside the arena is a plaza with a large video screen where visitors can watch games without having to purchase a ticket. This video screen can also be used to host movie nights and gatherings before and after events. 

Hanging inside above the arena is the world’s largest center-hung scoreboard measuring 5100 square feet. Innovative two-story gondola seats suspended in the air 100 feet offer spectators a unique top-down perspective. 

An award-winning eco-friendly masterpiece

Little Caesars Arena has been acknowledged for its environmentally sensitive design, construction process, and use of locally sourced and recycled materials. 

The “Via” is a centralized temperature-controlled causeway enclosed by a translucent roof manufactured with Ethylene Tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE). This increasingly popular polymer originally designed as a heat-resistant coating for the aerospace industry is becoming more prevalent for large-scale agricultural and architectural designs. By using ETFE to enclose the arena, space maintains a uniform temperature during winter and summer months while also relying on natural lighting instead of artificial daytime lighting. As a result, energy costs have declined by more than 17 percent.  

ETFE is often used during construction as a cost-effective alternative to glass or hard plastic because it more effectively regulates environmental conditions. When compared with glass and other similar materials, ETFE lets in more light insulates better and weighs 1/100 of glass. It also naturally repels dirt and dust, making it easy to maintain. Additionally, ETFE is self-extinguishing, which protects against fire and other extreme weather conditions.  

Using these types of environmentally friendly materials in combination with the latest ventilation system ensures healthy standards for interior air quality and breathability. Not only are the materials used well for humans but for the planet too. More than 20 percent of recycled materials were used during construction, and more than 13 percent sourced from local businesses. 

Little Caesars Arena has already received a LEED Silver Certification in 2019 for a commitment toward improving visitors’ experiences through environmental stewardship. The EPA approved an erosion and sedimentation control plan. Water usage throughout the buildings features efficient fixtures to reduce potable water use by more than 40 percent.  

The arena also received a SAFETY Act certification by the Department of Homeland Security shortly after opening in 2017, the highest level of protection offered by the Department. Any visitors interested in dining at any of the restaurants within the District have to pass through metal detectors. 

The National Weather Service also designated the arena as “Storm Ready” and certified it to identify, report on, and prepare for a multitude of weather conditions.  

Electrifying the arena

The deconstructed design of the footprint around the Arena brings together stores and businesses. This ensures that even when a game or event is not taking place inside, Little Caesars Arena is still alive and buzzing with life outside. In designing the structure this way, the arena consistently engages the community every day of the year. 

Because the state-of-the-art facility so heavily relies on creative lighting, effects, and technology during events, it was necessary to work with a business that understood the complex nature of the project and could confidently handle this formidable endeavor. Motor City Electric (MCE) Company completed 99 percent of the electrical work and 1 million electrical terminations. This includes designing and creating thousands of feet of conduit, brackets, and supports along with mountain brackets for roof-mounted sky tracker fixtures. 

A 13.2kV to 120kV Type S temple substation had to be built to provide power to the arena and the District. This substation features three main power transformers, two power distribution centers, four metal enclosed capacitor banks, nine reactors, five high-voltage breakers, and several high-voltage and low-voltage disconnect switches. 

By the end of the project, MCE installed more than 1,300 high definition televisions, a combination NHL/NBA LED sports lighting system and a modern theatrical lighting system. More than 22,000 LED light fixtures were installed, as well as an LED grid lighting system over a mile long that transforms the ceiling of the arena into any design you can imagine. 

A boost to the economy

The construction and development of the District contributed more than $600 million to businesses based in Michigan, with $400 million of that directly going to Detroit-based businesses. 

More than 12,000 jobs were created during the construction phase of the project, including 3,900 permanent jobs after construction ended. The addition of Little Caesars Arena was also a boon to the construction industry, serving as a launching point for people entering the construction business for apprenticeships and internships. 

The annual revenue generated by the retail business in the District exceeds $100 million annually, and to date, more than $1.5 billion in taxes have been paid to the city. And Little Caesars Arena and the District are expected to continue making an impact on the city of Detroit long into the future. 

Since the construction of Little Caesars Arena, more than 200 other projects that include hotels, residential projects, and office space have contributed to $2.8 billion in outside investment. More than $18 million has been invested in landscaping and enhancing the safety of nearby areas. This includes resurfacing roads, improving expressway onramps, adding more than 100 decorative street lights, upgrading water lines and sewers, and planting more than 350 trees. 

Business is projected to grow with Google joining the District in a 30,000 square-foot office space. A new medical and office building is planned for the space around the arena and the new Mike Ilitch School of Business opened in 2018. 

This new Mike Ilitch School of Business was built from a $40 million gift from Mike and Marian Ilitch and is part of Wayne State University. The business school has brought more than 4,200 students closer to Little Caesars Arena and has increased MBA enrollment to more than 66 percent. 

Opening the arena to the public

When the $863 million dollar project finally opened on September 5, 2017, it heralded the arrival of a state-of-the-art entertainment metropolis with a series of concerts by infamous country-rock musician Kid Rock.

As one of the busiest arenas in the world with more than 50 concerts and shows since opening, Little Caesars Arena has hosted a multitude of events from musicians like Lady Gaga, Paul McCartney to sports events like WWE SmackDown Live and the first and second round of March Madness. And more than 100 private events have been held at the arena. 

Little Caesars Arena is the future of Detroit, not just financially but also with regard to its infrastructure. And it serves as an archetype for other metropolitan areas that hope to reinvigorate their communities and economies.

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