Lost in Hockeytown: The Joe Louis Arena Story

by Matthew Lewis and Aaron Mondry

Joe Louis Arena (JLA or simply “The Joe”) is hallowed sports ground in a city whose many nicknames include “Hockeytown.” The Red Wings have won four Stanley Cups since moving to JLA from Olympia Stadium in 1979, and the arena itself deserves some credit for the franchise’s consistent success beginning in the early 90s. Thanks to the crowd noise and extra elasticity of the boards, the Wings enjoy a distinct home ice advantage. Their recent 23 game home winning streak (an NHL record that had stood for 36 years) is a testament to this. Beyond the joy of watching a team that has made the playoffs for 20 consecutive seasons, which is the longest active streak in any major American sport, spectators are treated to good sightlines from any seat. The Joe, named after the legendary Detroit boxer, is only one of three NHL venues not named for a corporate sponsor.

But the endearing features of the Joe’s interior (banners, statues of past Red Wing greats, and other memorabilia) are not unique to the arena’s structure.  A great deal of JLA’s charm derives from the rich on-ice history. One does not laud the arena’s architecture, as was certainly the case with the Joe’s precursor Olympia Stadium. Nostalgia is the primary reason for fans’ loyalty to JLA.

This tenuous loyalty will not be enough to save the Joe—its days are numbered. The city-owned arena is showing signs of age, magnifying design issues dating back to its construction. Olympia Entertainment, the entity managed by Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch, let its 30 year JLA lease agreement with the city expire in 2008.  The company continues to lease it on an annual basis, purposefully avoiding a long-term commitment. Since the lease’s expiration, LLCs likely controlled by Mike Ilitch have been purchasing land in Detroit’s lower Cass Corridor at prices well above market value, leading many to speculate that this will be the site of a new arena. Most recently, Head Coach Mike Babcock has urged the building of a new arena, claiming, “If you want the city to come back, you got to revitalize downtown, and a big part of that’s going to be the new arena.”

Much regard has been given to the new arena, but surprisingly little has been said about what will become of the current one. A proper evaluation of JLA is necessary in order to 1) consider the fate of the valuable riverfront site it occupies and 2) inform the design and construction of the new facility.

A Vision of the Future

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From pre-historic times when Native Americans settled in Southeast Michigan to the present day, one of Detroit’s defining features and most valuable assets has been its riverfront. During Detroit’s industrial heyday, the western portion of the riverfront currently occupied by JLA and Cobo Center was heavily utilized as a transshipment point where raw materials were conveyed from lake freighters to railroad cars. By the 1950s, the west riverfront was seen by city planners as an area of great potential for redevelopment. The zeitgeist in major cities was to restructure downtowns into regional entertainment destinations in order to combat the exodus of residents and tax base to rapidly developing suburbs. Detroit was no different.

In 1947, the Detroit Chapter of the American Institute of Architects contracted the firm Saarinen & Associates to develop a plan for a new civic center in downtown’s west riverfront district.  Most elements of this plan were largely incorporated into the city’s 1951 Master Plan, which called for a widened Jefferson Avenue, a county-city municipal building (the Coleman A. Young Municipal Building), a “large landscaped plaza” on the riverfront (Hart Plaza), “a convention hall and a civic auditorium” (Cobo Hall and Cobo Arena), and a “downtown expressway loop” (the John C. Lodge Expressway) that passes underneath  the convention center and connects with Jefferson Avenue. The near west riverfront of today looks remarkably like the conceptual drawings of the 1951 plan.

This period of massive scale downtown redevelopment coincided with the early stages of Detroit’s long-term population decline. By 1960, when Cobo Center was completed, the city had 180,000 fewer residents than in 1950, experiencing its first drop in population since its founding. Many of these residents, however, had not left the metro area and still used downtown as an occasional playground.

The near-west riverfront pre-Civic Center development, occupied mostly by warehouses and rail yards

The ’73 Master Plan continued the course set by the ’51 plan, prescribing further redevelopment of downtown into an entertainment destination. Special attention was given to the riverfront:

The plan is designed to assist the city in making maximum use of its riverfront resource and to capture more fully the potential of the Detroit River as Detroit’s most outstanding natural resource.  A major objective of the city is to encourage and facilitate the development of the riverfront by uses which derive a particular benefit from a riverfront location. [emphasis added]

The plan is also the first document to suggest the development of a sports stadium near the civic center:

Special commercial-residential areas are indicated just east of and west of the Civic Center … These areas should be developed with a major office headquarters complex, an international gateway, or a major spectator sport facility of regional significance and supporting uses such as hotels, restaurants, major institutions, medium-rise offices, and apartments. [emphasis added]

It is clear from these excerpts that planners expected the Joe to have a harmonious relationship with its riverfront location and generate economic spillover for the rest of downtown.

By 1977, Mayor Coleman A. Young’s administration was set on developing a new downtown arena for the Red Wings to retain them in the city. The Wings were playing in an aging Olympia Stadium, located on Grand River Ave at McGraw about three miles outside of downtown. Underutilized warehouses, railroad yards, and docks in the west riverfront district were demolished to make way for JLA, the final piece of Detroit’s downtown civic center. Joe Louis Arena opened in 1979 and the Red Wings signed a 30-year lease to make the Joe their home. Olympia Stadium was abandoned and eventually razed.

Joe Louis Arena is emblematic of the type of urban redevelopment project favored by the administration of Coleman A. Young: massive, modern, and expensive (see also: Renaissance Center, Millender Center, Riverfront Towers, Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant). It also was a major investment in downtown development, perhaps at the expense of neighborhood stabilization and core service provision.

As a way to showcase Detroit’s downtown transformation on a national stage, Mayor Coleman A. Young, a lifelong Democrat, succeeded in attracting the 1980 Republican National Convention where Ronald Reagan, a man Young once referred to as “Pruneface,” accepted the GOP’s nomination inside of Joe Louis Arena.

Mayor Coleman A. Young awaiting the convention

In his autobiography Hard Stuff, Young writes:

Although Detroit was and is an overwhelmingly Democratic city, and although I have traditionally been at cross-purposes with the prevailing ideology of the Republicans, as a champion of the United States Constitution and the spirit of bipartisan cooperation, I fully supported their right to assemble and spend lots of money in our hotels, shops, and restaurants. I also appreciated what the national exposure could do for the city’s image, which was still characterized by the ’67 riot and out-of-date murder charts. And I was thrilled to see Joe Louis Arena enjoy such a conspicuous and honorable christening. At the same time, the convention was an event that I find difficult to index historically. To this day, it sticks in my craw that Ronald Reagan was nominated in the damn building that I put myself on the line for.

The choice of JLA as the sight of Reagan’s nomination acceptance speech was oddly fitting.  Though Detroit was the largest majority African American city in the United States and had not elected a Republican mayor in decades, the Wings’ fan base was and is dominated by suburban whites. Many of the people who packed the Joe on gamedays would come to be known as “Reagan Democrats” for their role in helping the Gipper win the White House. The 1980 GOP convention was appropriate symbolism, for it soon became evident that the Joe was designed for Detroit’s visitors, not its residents.

30 Years Later

Some have argued that Detroit has lacked effective planning over the last half century—that the city has failed to get things done. The large-scale redevelopment of downtown and the near-west riverfront, however, has been immense in scale and anything but ineffective. The planners succeeded in setting out a vision that would take shape in glass, concrete, and steel. Whether the effects of this thorough implementation have been good, whether, the ‘73 Master Plan made “maximum use of its riverfront resource,” is another question entirely.

After the 1980 GOP convention, Joe Louis Arena would be used primarily as a venue for hockey and other large scale entertainment spectacles like concerts and wrestling matches. The Red Wings play 41 home games in a given season and a handful more in the event of a playoff run. Approximately 25 other sporting and entertainment events are held at the Joe throughout the year. Despite these uses, there are hundreds of days each year during which the arena sits idly.

Many variables determine an arena’s true worth. The Joe’s interior adequately provides everything necessary to enjoy a game or show, though it lacks many of the amenities and design features found in newer stadiums (e.g. LED screens and “gourmet” restaurants). A sports venue’s value to society, however, goes beyond a slick interior, ticket sales, and a winning franchise. We must also consider an arena’s potential to enhance the liveliness of the city beyond its walls. Sadly, JLA’s exterior is an unqualified disaster. It has glaring aesthetic shortcomings and lacks synergy with the central business district.

A basic concern of every fan attending a sporting event is arriving at his seat easily and on time. In the Joe’s case, this process is needlessly troublesome.

The authors have experienced this difficulty firsthand. At one point living about a mile from the Joe, it seemed silly for us to drive to games. Unfortunately for us, walking and cycling clearly were not primary concerns for JLA’s designers. There is no obvious pedestrian route from anywhere in Detroit. Way-finding signage is all but non-existent. The only hope for a first time attendee is following the throngs of more seasoned fans who have learned the idiosyncrasies of approaching the Joe on foot. Coming from downtown, fans can make their way circuitously around Cobo or head away from the Joe several blocks south to the Riverfront or north to Howard Street and cross the Lodge freeway. A rarely used alternative is through the Jefferson/Lodge tunnel, which has a narrow sidewalk that stinks of exhaust and feels hazardous as traffic zooms by. Any of these routes involve navigating a dystopian, gray-washed hardscape where the actual earth is entombed below several feet of concrete.

So close, yet so far: a disconnected downtown

Pedestrian helplessness is the result of an infrastructure that itself seems to be confused—the modes of transit surrounding the Joe are poorly integrated. A skein of vertical silos and horizontal concrete tubes litter the landscape. The Jefferson/Lodge freeway creates a moat-like impasse directly in front of the Joe’s entrance. The path is made less certain by the constant intrusion of walls, fences, bollards, and gratings. Peeling paint and cracked concrete add to the sense of chaos.

Veteran fans and clever businesses have developed their own methods to cope with the flaws in pedestrian access. Of course, a fan can pay $15 on top of his ticket and park in the nearby structure owned by the city and operated by Olympia Entertainment. One of the few times you see the People Mover near capacity is during the hours before and after a Wings game. Patrons park in paid lots along Broadway or some other street with easy access to a stop. Some choose an ad hoc transportation service provided by a bar or restaurant. Nemo’s, a classic Detroit sports bar, offers free parking and round-trip shuttle service to the arena for a small fee. Nemo’s is indeed within “walking distance” from the Joe, but no simple route exists.

In addition to being the hub of an impractical infrastructure, the Joe is also the locus of an uninspiring west riverfront district. Unlike the handsome barn-style brick structure of JLA’s predecessor Olympia Stadium, the Joe is nothing more than a big white box in a sea of concrete. It resembles an industrial warehouse more than a sports venue, making for pitiful aerial footage during TV broadcasts. The total blandness is striking. Except for the sign above the main entrance and a few modest, “inspirational” billboards, only a single strip of red trim adorns the exterior. The building’s designers seemed indifferent to the riverfront location. The Joe’s bland presence cuts off views of Detroit’s defining natural feature. Newer arenas such as Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh incorporate glass atriums in their designs to make the most of their surroundings. JLA’s architects, the Smith Group, did not heed the clear advice of the drafters of Detroit’s ’73 Master Plan to “[make] maximum use of the riverfront resource.” We must overemphasize this point since the ’73 planners themselves seemed obsessed with the idea.

The western side of "The Big White Box," aka Joe Louis Arena

It might be easy to overlook aesthetic and infrastructural shortcomings given that the city receives 10% of all spending at the Joe. According to an article in Crain’s Detroit Business published in August 2011, Detroit “collected $2.1 million from its share of concessions, suite leases and ticket surcharges, the rental fee and another $1.4 million from parking fees.” This is not an insignificant sum for a city on the brink of insolvency; however, a major sports arena should provide other indirect benefits.

In addition to frustrating spectators, the Joe’s flaws in pedestrian access have economic ramifications. Mark Rosentraub attempts to determine the value of sports venues in his book Major League Losers (the title implies his conclusion). One way in which their economic worth is measured is when “people from outside the city or county attend a game and spend money they would not have spent in the city or county for some other type of entertainment.” Using simple parameters, Rosentraub assumes that individuals will budget a set amount for entertainment that remains constant regardless of what they spend it on. Since a good percentage of the fan base is suburban, each Wings game presents an opportunity to capture outside spending of the kind detailed by Rosentraub.

Unfortunately, this potential revenue is squandered. The fees imposed on parking and merchandise is great for Olympia Entertainment and a source of income for the city, but local businesses receive little to no boost from the Red Wings, apart from the clever few that offer shuttle services. JLA’s spillover effects are inadequate given the Wings consistent success and loyal fan base.

The Joe’s disconnect with the city incentivizes fans to purchase the $15 parking voucher rather than deal with navigation hassles. When patrons park at the Joe Louis structure, they are likely to show up for the opening face-off, attend the game, and leave afterwards. If they arrived early, where would they go and what would they do? There are no storefronts, restaurants, or bars in sight. Not all fans come exclusively for hockey, and a great deal who would spend money outside the arena don’t because of poor pedestrian access.

Inside a parking structure silo

In the article “Cities and the Financing of Sports Facilities,” Adam Zarestsky writes, “When studying this issue, almost all economists and development specialists … conclude that the rate of return a city or metropolitan area receives for its investment is generally below that of other projects.” Despite economic indicators, America has an infatuation with building the most advanced sports venues. Construction costs regularly run into the hundreds of millions and can only be afforded by the agglomeration of many rich investors or through significant municipal subsidies. The Joe was paid for entirely by the city of Detroit at a cost of $30 million, significantly less than what it costs to build stadiums today, even when adjusted for inflation. Sports franchises perpetually demand newer venues. By leveraging cities with the threat of departure to another city that will subsidize a venue, their demands are often met. Medium to small markets are the victims in this “sports war,” as Rosentraub calls it. As a result, vacant stadiums can be found around the country. These enormous buildings have a narrow function and costly upkeep. In his article “Landover and Other Cities Are Forced to Find New Uses for Old Stadiums,” Charles Mahtesian describes America as suffering from “throwaway stadium syndrome.”

These venues are burdens for cities as they sit empty year-round except for the rare event. The Pontiac Silverdome, former home of the Detroit Lions, is one such example. Since the Lions stopped playing games there in 2002, the Silverdome has hosted some one-off events such as a Monster Truck rally, an international soccer exhibition match, and a welterweight boxing bout. According to a Metro Times article, as of 2009 the Silverdome cost the city of Pontiac $1.5 million in upkeep annually. Since Pontiac was over $100 million in debt at the time—and has since gone into receivership of the state—the city decided to sell the stadium at auction with no minimum bid. The Silverdome, once the largest NFL stadium and built at a cost of $55.7 million (unadjusted for inflation) in 1975, sold for an embarrassing $583,000. In the absence of a buyer, the fate of a vacant stadium is demolition, as was the case for Olympia and Tiger Stadiums in Detroit. Neither of these sites have been redeveloped.

According to the Crain’s article cited above, “The Ilitches and the city have been in talks for three years on a new lease, one that’s expected to allow the team an easy exit [from JLA] for a new arena when the time comes.” It is hard to see how this outcome will be favorable for the city. As it stands, Detroit will be saddled with a facility that has poor ties to commercial zones and would prove exceptionally difficult to adapt for purposes other than professional sports and major entertainment events.

What will become of the Joe once, not if, the Wings vacate? The Crain’s article speculates that it will be demolished and the area redeveloped at a further cost to the city. It’s difficult to propose a worthier plan. Mahtesian writes, “When an arena is downtown, it can sometimes be used to compliment a convention center trade.” The current plans for Cobo Center’s expansion and redevelopment, however, do not include the potential of utilizing an abandoned Joe Louis Arena.

Already a cause of considerable pedestrian confusion, the problems created by aging, unsightly, and intrusive infrastructure around the Joe will also need to be addressed upon the Wings’ departure. These walkways and parking structures are opened only during the evening of events at JLA. They take up space and make the west riverfront district a veritable dead-zone during the Joe’s off-days. This infrastructure, essentially a part of JLA itself, will be rendered immediately obsolete and need to be torn down along with the Joe, adding to the already considerable expense.

We can only hope that the designers of the new arena are cognizant of the many reasons why Joe Louis Arena fails.

Additional Sources:

Major League Losers by Mark S. Rosentraub

Cities and Sports Stadiums edited by Roger L. Kemp

Hard Stuff by Coleman A. Young

5 Comments

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5 responses to “Lost in Hockeytown: The Joe Louis Arena Story

  1. Very interesting and well written post. The Joe is eloquently told and the points raised merit real consideration.

  2. Anonymous

    A shame. Well-written article.

  3. Anonymous

    That obstruction cannot come down soon enough. I’ve considered the Riverfront Towers both times I’ve moved in Detroit – when I first got here and again a year ago. Both times I’ve given up on them without even going over there because I’m not entirely sure how I’d get to my job in the CBD by bike or on foot. The value of those condos would go up significantly if the JL and it’s associated structures were leveled and converted to green space.

  4. Ryan Healy

    Thanks for writing this. The ugliness of the Joe’s architecture is, as you know, a sacrifice to save on construction and design costs. Aesthetic considerations are made for additional investment, which requires the investors to expect the attractiveness of the building will add to the ROI. In Detroit, owners have little incentive to use architecture to help make their stadiums (and, hence, their product) more attractive–Detroit fans are consistently reliable to support local teams. Large architectural statements have become out of character and unnecessary for Detroit, which instead should focus on livability by improving infrastructure and city services. Even culturally, focus has shifted to granularity and detail of design.

    Your points about the accessibility and remoteness of the Joe are critical to understanding the flaws of attracting visitors to an attractive and desirable location. A Cass Corridor facility would provide visitors the chance to enjoy more local businesses and would be much more accessible.

    I vehemently believe local residents should not subsidize a profit-seeking enterprise through tax shifts or increases. Hockey games are not public services that improve people’s lives materially. They are entertainment. Should Mr. Ilitch threaten to move the team or abandon new construction, Detroit still must act in its citizens’ best interests. The city or region could offer Olympia Entertainment a competitively-priced loan as an alternative. But Detroit can’t be held hostage by its sentiments.

    What remains to be decided is what should happen to the land of the JLA when it is demolished. I think another riverfront park would be redundant. Mixed-use residential/commercial would be much more profitable to the city and would probably encourage further development and infrastructure improvements. There are ample public spaces in Detroit, many of which suffer from lack of investment and upkeep. Creating another, even in a desirable location, is a mistake.

  5. Robin Boyle

    Excellent piece of writing.

    Question: last summer (2011) the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation issued an RFP (Request for Proposals) for redesigning Hart Plaza. Would it not make sense to have such a planning and design exercise extend west, to the Joe? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

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