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A hole in the heart

Corktown’s lost field of dreams.

Tiger Stadium during livelier days.
Peter Comstock Riley has been trying to bring minor league ball to Tiger Stadium.
Corktown residents envision a Tiger Stadium converted to multiple new uses.
Development plans for the former home of the Tigers have gone nowhere.
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Published 8/6/2003

They were called stakeholders — residents and business owners around Tiger Stadium who had a direct interest in the ballpark’s fate. Early in 1998, more than a year before the team would depart for its new home, about 30 of these stakeholders began meeting with planners and architects hired by the city to help devise a reuse plan for the site at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, where ball had been played for more than a century.

Faced with the prospect of an empty hole in the heart of their community, they constructed a distinctly Corktown field of dreams. Instead of a diamond amid cornrows, they envisioned a ball field surrounded by fitness facilities, lofts and lots of retail space. As with the Kevin Costner film, the stakeholders thought: Build it and they will come. They would come to live and work and play and buy, making a pilgrimage to this place where the Georgia Peach once vanquished foes with his knife-sharp spikes. The draw would be this hallowed temple of a stadium, left largely intact with the hope it would become a big-league money-maker and infuse the city’s oldest neighborhood with new life.

But instead of pursuing this vision, City Hall balked, failing to take the action that fans of the plan say was necessary to advance it. And the stakeholders, hoping for an economic grand slam that would lift their fortunes — and benefit the entire city in the process — were left sitting in the cheap seats, glaring with mounting frustration as deals were fouled into oblivion.

Now Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is saying he has a new vision for the site, one that pictures wrecking balls as room is made for a big-box retailer, with Home Depot or some other such outfit plopping down on home plate.

Faced with criticism that he is ignoring the desires of Corktown’s residents, Kilpatrick can claim that efforts to reuse Tiger Stadium have been futile. That is true. After nearly four years, few developers have shown much interest in the project. There’s no shortage of doubters who say the dream doesn’t pencil out, that the cost doesn’t justify the risk. Even if the field envisioned by stakeholders could be built, there is no guarantee people would come in the numbers needed to support it. This isn’t a movie script.

But there were developers willing to step up to the plate, legitimate players with impressive stats who couldn’t get past first base because of all the junk balls thrown their way by the city. As a result, so far there’s been only one clear-cut winner — Tiger owner Mike Ilitch, whose organization pockets a cool $420,000 or so annually for maintaining and securing that empty shrine known far and wide as The Corner.

A dream conceived

When the stakeholders came together in early 1998, urban planner Diane Jones was one of the pros brought in by the city to advise them. Jones says most thought at the onset that the best thing to do with Tiger Stadium was level it.

“Three-quarters of the people in the room were more interested in clearing the site to make way for new development rather than saving the old stadium,” says Jones.

Outside of the owners of parking lots, bars and a few other businesses, most of Corktown wasn’t terribly thrilled with the stadium’s impact on their community. Their streets would clog with parked cars. Beered-up fans were a nuisance.

But, as they explored their options, the idea of keeping the stadium and converting it to new use took root.

“The thing I found most remarkable was how genuinely engaged the community was, and how interested people were in seeing the right thing happen,” recalls Jones. “A lot of energy was funneled into that.”

Len Lazich, a 22-year Corktown resident, was one of those genuinely engaged.

“Initially the idea was to have a big box in there to help fulfill the community’s shopping needs, but what we found was that the site was not appropriate size-wise [too small] for something like that,” he says.

As they explored the issue, the group came to believe that the stadium provided a unique development opportunity. Along with Chicago’s Wrigley Field, Boston’s Fenway Park, and Yankee Stadium in New York City, Tiger Stadium is one of only four vintage big-league ballparks standing. That history, they decided, had value. True, no baseball stadium had ever been converted for reuse. But the way stakeholders saw it, being the first to do so would shine a spotlight on Detroit as an innovator.

“Ultimately, we concluded that this is a unique site in many ways, and that we had the opportunity to do a landmark development,” recalls Lazich. “We saw this as a chance to do something that hadn’t been done anywhere else in the United States. We had the chance to be unique and exciting, and at the same time meet the immediate needs of the surrounding community.”

So they set to work devising an innovative reuse plan that would preserve much of the old ballpark while providing a variety of elements Corktown residents coveted. Housing would come in the form of as many as 200 lofts that would be retrofitted into the historic structure. A multilevel sports facility would provide recreation. There’d be nearly 100,000 square feet of retail, and a sports-related museum. And it would all surround the grassy field of Cobb and Kaline, with as many as 8,000 seats remaining so that games could be played and watched through the next century.

“It was kind of fantasy land,” admits Lazich, “but we were really hopeful. We thought, if this happens, it would be incredible.”

For Jones, the process represented the epitome of good planning. It was organic, with those most affected producing a blueprint they thought would lead to optimum benefits. No one expected that every aspect of the proposal would become reality, but the overall vision had been created.

By the time they were ready to deliver their plan to the city, says Jones, 100 percent of the participating stakeholders supported the plan. In their view, renovating Tiger Stadium could spur development all along Michigan Avenue.

“The buy-in was incredible,” says Jones. “It was a perfect world there for a while.”

Dreams meet reality

Although enthusiastically embraced by the administration of Mayor Dennis Archer, the plan submitted by the stakeholders met immediate delay. It was distributed to developers nationwide in July 1999, but builders had only six weeks to submit proposals. As one paper reported at the time, it was a deadline apparently designed to guarantee only local companies could respond.

There were other problems as well. With the economy still booming, there was no shortage of projects drawing the attention of developers — projects less complicated and less risky. The diverse elements were problematic. It would be difficult finding one developer capable of handling residential and commercial construction while adhering to the constrictions of a project grounded in historical preservation.

It had been hoped that a developer would be selected by the time the Tigers played their final game at The Corner. But after only three developers submitted partial plans by the August 1999 deadline, city officials extended indefinitely the timeframe for accepting proposals.

Soon afterward, the St. Louis firm of McCormack Baron & Associates submitted a proposal that would have required the city to pay for an extensive feasibility study to determine just how realistic the vision was. Estimates for the cost of such a study, which included architectural and structural analysis, as well as market analysis to gauge demand for the lofts, shops and fitness center, ranged from $100,000 to more than $500,000.

But such an analysis was crucial, says Jones. No developer, she says, would commit to a project without some assurance it was actually doable.

“You had to have a feasibility study in order to know if this was a useful project,” she says.

U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, who followed the issue closely and is supportive of the reuse plan, offered to help get federal funds to pay for the study. The city declined the offer.

“We were advised that the city had a pot of money that could be used for that purpose,” says Levin staffer Cassandra Woods.

The pot is $2 million in ticket surcharge money the Tigers were required to give the city once they left their old stadium. The money was earmarked to maintain the facility or pay for its demolition.

Representatives of McCormack Baron declined to comment for this story. But Jones says that the company was interested in more than producing a feasibility study. The firm had an eye on taking on the whole project. The study was to be just its first step.

In April 2000, however, two things effectively killed McCormack Baron’s prospects. The first stumbling block was an article in the Detroit News, which quoted McCormack Baron vice president Jack Hambene as saying he’d heard no response from the city in the eight months since submitting a proposal to study the stadium.

“We are not obligated to get back to McCormack Baron,” Planning and Development Department spokeswoman Sylvia Crawford told the News. “We are putting a contract together for a predevelopment study. We are doing a study to see if it’s feasible to renovate Tiger Stadium.”

According to Jones, the public airing of concerns about the city’s lack of response torpedoed McCormack Baron’s chances.

“The timing of that article was bad,” says Jones. “Once that hit, the project was stopped.”

In an October 2001 letter to Kelli B. Kavanaugh, administrator of the Corktown Citizen’s District Council, Archer wrote that there were a variety of reasons the city didn’t act on the McCormack Baron proposal, “including budgetary considerations, and serious problems originating from the communication skills and compatibility of McCormack Baron with the needs of the city and this project …”

The other stumbling block was Archer’s announcement that he would not seek a third term. “Once the mayor made the announcement he wouldn’t run again, it became hard to remain focused on finishing projects,” says former Archer spokesman Greg Bowens. “The announcement created a looming deadline of uncertainty. No one knew who the new mayor would be, or what he would want. And that uncertainty was a killer. It’s not surprising funding didn’t go forward in that climate, because if the new mayor was opposed to the project, you would have just been throwing money into the air for no reason.”

No feasibility study was ever done.

Minor league problems

Less than a year after the Tigers played the last game in their old home, Peter Comstock Riley began pitching his plan to use Tiger Stadium for minor league baseball and such amateur sporting events as NCAA postseason baseball games and city football championships.

Riley, a computer consultant, had previously worked for the Tigers for 10 years, serving stints in operations, sales and scouting. Riley put together a partnership called Michigan and Trumbull LLC.

Riley has been relentlessly pitching the city for nearly three years now, getting nowhere. He wasn’t interested in developing the stadium; he simply wanted to use it for as long as possible. He contacted Archer in the fall of 2000, and was directed to the Planning & Development Department.

A letter written to Archer in November 2000 shows how quickly Riley hit obstacles in his attempts to negotiate with the city.

“I can’t tell you how disappointing the last 2 months have been in trying to sift over the confusion of who wants to take responsibility for answering questions on the future of Tiger Stadium,” wrote Riley.

He turned to the City Council for help. The reaction was decidedly mixed. Council President Maryann Mahaffey signaled her support, but Brenda Scott and Sheila Cockrel slapped Riley down. “I thought one of the issues was that the Comstock Riley proposal doesn’t have the money and what they were looking for was money from the city to leverage the deal so that they could do us all a favor and take over Tiger Stadium,” said Cockrel at the time.

The bottom line, Riley learned, was that the Tigers controlled who used the stadium and how much it would cost.

“… [I]t’s up to Mr. Comstock Riley to decide if he wants to go to the Tigers to see if he wants to negotiate a deal,” said Councilwoman Cockrel.

In Riley’s view, that’s a clear conflict of interest. Obviously the Tigers, with a cellar-dwelling team that’s having difficulty putting fans in the seats at Comerica Park, have little desire to see low-cost minor-league competition play at their old stadium.

“They’re looking out for their own interests, not the interests of the city,” says Riley. “Ilitch has always been fearful of anyone getting close to his empire.”

That empire is considerable. With a fortune gained from founding Little Caesar’s Enterprises, Ilitch owns the Red Wings as well as the Tigers. Other holdings include the Fox Theatre and other entertainment venues. His wife, Marian, has a part interest in the Motor City Casino.

“Dealing with the Tigers has had a crushing effect on our efforts,” says Riley, who insisted that the city should be in charge of leasing the city-owned stadium.

According to council minutes from May 9, 2001, Kerry Baitinger of the Planning and Development Department told council that the Tiger Stadium management agreement with the Tigers had expired, but that it was being extended until a new contract could be finalized.

According to documents received by Metro Times through a Freedom of Information Act request, there is no evidence such a contract was ever reached.

Riley attempted to offer the city a better deal.

In the fall of 2001, after struggling to get a few college games played at the stadium, Riley’s group presented a new plan. He says an agreement had been reached to purchase a minor league team in the Frontier League, and that $2.7 million in funding had been obtained to both close the deal and cover operating expenses. What was needed was a place to play. He added that if and when a developer was found to renovate the stadium, his group would attempt to negotiate a deal that would allow a minor league team to continue playing there. If that didn’t happen, his enterprise, Michigan & Trumbull, would walk away and move the team to another city.

To remove the obstacle posed by being forced to deal with the Tigers, Michigan & Trumbull proposed taking over management of the stadium.

“Our intention is to first stop the bleeding,” the group’s proposal stated. Instead of paying the Tigers $420,000 annually to maintain the ballpark and provide security, Michigan & Trumbull offered to pay the city a minimum of $240,000 a year, with projections as high as $350,000 a year.

But the city wasn’t interested.

Riley contends that the Ilitches have used their political influence to kill any attempts at reusing Tiger Stadium. It’s in their interest to collect the $420,000 in yearly management fees as long as possible, then let the stadium be demolished so that there is no threat of any sort of competition from The Corner.

He’s not the only one holding that view.

“I think what the Ilitches want is to see Tiger Stadium torn down,” says Council President Mahaffey.

“We have no say in what’s going to happen there,” says Tiger spokesman Cliff Russell. “That is solely up to Mayor Kilpatrick. Our role is to maintain the grounds, cut the grass and stuff like that.”

Likewise, Planning & Development Director Henry Hagood says the Tigers have made no attempts at arm-twisting.

“I never receive any calls from anybody connected with the Tigers organization,” says Hagood, who nonetheless tells Metro Times that the city can’t support both the Tigers and a minor league team.

“We don’t believe another ball club should go in there,” he says.

A new player

In October 2001, the City Council was again discussing Riley’s proposal to bring a minor league team to Tiger Stadium.

Mahaffey was still going to bat for Riley, saying: “This is an interim proposal … Who knows how long it will be before there is a total development proposal, and in the meantime the field could be used … it could make us some money and could, for example, even solve the problem of our paying out $420,000 a year for management …”

But the Planning Department’s Kerry Baitinger indicated that wasn’t likely to be a problem for much longer. It appeared that the Archer administration, as it was about to vacate City Hall, had finally found a solution.

“The City of Detroit has received a credible response to the RFP (request for proposals),” he said. “At this time I am not authorized to announce who that is with. They have submitted their financials to the City of Detroit through the Planning and Development Department as part of the RFP process with a commitment of two hundred million dollars to the project … So we do have a developer.”

Indeed.

The proposal was submitted by Nonrahs-Sinacola Stadium Redevelopment LLC. Principals in the partnerships were David Sinacola, a Farmington Hills developer whose letterhead proclaims: “A Family of Contractors Since 1924.” This was no fly-by-night outfit.

And in Nonrahs International, a Lathrup Village commercial contractor, Sinacola had a minority partner in company CEO Carl Corlley.

Funding looked solid. In a Nov. 15, 2001, letter to Sinacola, Norman McCallum, chairman of Houston-based developer Macanusa Inc. wrote: “We stand ready, willing and able to fund this project and others …”

By late November, the city had issued Nonrahs a “holding letter” guaranteeing that no other development proposal would be considered while details of the agreement were worked out. One aspect of the project touted by Nonrahs-Sinacola was its relationship with Riley and his group, and the possibility that minor-league baseball could find a home in a renovated Tiger Stadium.

Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick took office in January 2002. For a while, at least, the change in administrations didn’t appear to alter the course Archer had set for the stadium. As soon as Kilpatrick took office, Nonrahs-Sinacola began attempts to obtain an agreement from the city granting the developer right of entry (ROE) to the stadium. For work to progress, it was vital that the developer be allowed on site to begin evaluating the stadium. Sinacola began sending a series of e-mails to the Planning Department’s Gregory Parrish.

By mid-March, Nonrahs-Sinacola informed the city that a development team was being assembled, retailers contacted, and landowners adjacent to the stadium negotiated with.

But the developers began to sense something was amiss.

In a letter to the city’s chief development officer, Walter Watkins, Corlley wrote: “I would like to know if we could meet with you to discuss what issues the city may have with our development project. We would be more than willing to review issues that the current administration may have and adjust the proposal within reason to satisfy all parties.”

The developers were asking that money remaining from the $2 million ticket surcharge fund be used to help pay for engineering and marketing studies — just as Archer had proposed two years earlier.

On April 6, Sinacola e-mailed Parrish again, asking about a development agreement and entry letter: “As previously indicated and agreed we cannot productively, effectively and efficiently move forward without these two very important and necessary documents. We are receiving requests by several newspapers, magazines and the AP news service, on a weekly basis, for interviews and updates. What shall I tell them?”

Sinacola wrote to Parrish on April 17: “As of this date, the City of Detroit has not responded in any form or fashion to our proposal, communications and subsequent contacts to negotiate the ‘developer’s agreement’ and has seemingly refused to issue the ‘right of entry’ letter as promised. … Since time is of the essence, I would expect an immediate and direct response as to how you wish to proceed.”

According to Kilpatrick spokesman Jamaine Dickens, the administration was in contact with the developers. He says the administration was concerned about financing, and was asking for more documentation. That concern is not reflected in city documents obtained by Metro Times.

Corlley sent a letter to Kilpatrick on April 26, asking for a meeting with the mayor so that any problems could be ironed out.

Corlley wrote the next letter May 2. Addressed to Parrish, it begins: “On Wednesday, May 1, 2002, the Wall Street Journal published an article about the redevelopment of historic Tiger Stadium. The article states that since receiving a holding letter last fall, the developers, Nonrahs-Sinacola Stadium Redevelopment LLC and the City of Detroit are still far from putting a formal development deal together. Regina Strong, the spokeswoman for the mayor, blames the lack of progress on the developers and states that there has not been any activity since the holding letter was issued. As you now know, the statement about the lack of activity is not true …”

Beyond that, the developers learned from seeing Kilpatrick on a local television news program that the mayor believed “their proposal is not the best use for the stadium, and he is just waiting for the (holding) letter to expire so that he can look at other options,” Corlley wrote.

“Now our financial backers are questioning whether to continue to support us because of the uncertainty of this project. This not only could jeopardize the stadium redevelopment project, but other developments the Nonrahs-Sinacola group has been planning to bring to the City of Detroit that could be backed by the same financial group.”

Two weeks later, Parrish was promising that the entry letter was being finalized. On May 15, Parrish e-mailed his boss, PD&D Director Hagood, saying the entry letter was in final form and ready to be signed. A copy was sent to Sinacola.

On May 30, as the holding letter was set to expire, Sinacola sent Parrish one more e-mail: “What happened? It has been weeks since you promised the ROE and a rough draft of the Holding Letter extension. As you indicated to us in our meeting on May 6th, you were authorized to give us ‘whatever we needed.’ We have been diligently, tirelessly and persistently working to move this project forward. Why can’t we get what we need from the City?

“Please respond ASAP.”

There is no indication the city ever responded.

Asked about the sequence chronicled in those e-mails, which are city records, Kilpatrick spokesman Dickens responds, “People can write anything they want in a letter. It doesn’t prove anything. It’s just like hearsay.”

Hagood tells Metro Times the problem was a concern about financing, adding, “We wanted to give the issue some more time and see if there were any other ideas out there. Obviously we’re concerned about Tiger Stadium, but if we are going to err, we want to err on the side of caution. We’re not going to rush into a deal on Tiger Stadium.”

Sinacola, who says upward of $200,000 was spent pursuing the deal, tells Metro Times he still doesn’t know what went wrong.

“Instead of allowing us to go forward and spend all this time and money, why didn’t the city just tell us they didn’t want to pursue the project?” he says. “The way they conducted themselves with this project, the people interested in financing before have pretty much told us the don’t want to deal with the city.”

More of the same

Last November, the Kilpatrick administration issued a new request for proposals — virtually identical to the one issued in 1999. Despite Kilpatrick’s announcement that he had a different vision for the site, his Planning Department apparently still thought the original concept was worth pursuing.

“The Corner is a prime location for a ‘destination development,’” the request for proposals stated. “The expansion of Motor City Casino, north of the stadium, and the relocation of the MGM Grand Casino to the east of the stadium site bring with them tremendous regional drawing power. The casinos, with their attached hotels, will have a built-in customer base that would be able to support commercial development on a grand scale and reinvigorate the city’s most famous intersection.”

Nonrahs-Sinacola resubmitted its plan. Hagood says questions about financing lingered, and he tells Metro Times a letter was sent to the developer asking for more details about two months ago. Sinacola says he never received such a letter. If it was sent, it was not included in city documents provided to the Metro Times through its Freedom of Information Act request.

Two other groups responded to the RFP as well. Both said their plans included using the stadium for minor-league baseball.

There is no indication the city is interested in pursuing those proposals. Instead, recent news has focused on Kilpatrick’s desire to lure a big-box retailer.

That’s not welcome news to the residents of Corktown.

In a March 2002 letter to Kilpatrick, Corktown CDC administrator Kavanaugh wrote: “The RFP (request for proposal) issued by the City was the result of years of community planning — a true Community-Based Initiative. … we were afforded the rare opportunity to chart our own future and decide what we actually wanted to happen in our neighborhood.”

Kavanaugh then quoted Kilpatrick, reminding him of what he said in his State of the City speech: “CDC’s, neighborhood associations, and communities … are at the table at the front end of the planning process and not the back end.”

Kavanaugh says Kilpatrick should practice what he preaches and listen to the people of Corktown when they say they want to see Tiger Stadium reused the way they envisioned it, and not torn down to make way for a big-box retailer.

Kilpatrick spokesman Dickens says, “The responsibility for development lies within the Mayor’s Office and the Planning Department.”

Since Kilpatrick attended the International Council of Shopping Centers convention in Las Vegas in May, adds Dickens, the city has received “several different proposals that I believe Corktown will be very excited about.” He wouldn’t elaborate.

There is certainly skepticism about the viability of the original plan. Hagood suggests the lack of interested lenders and investors (such as pension funds) indicates just how risky the project is.

Lou Beer, part of a group that last year proposed bringing a minor-league team to a downsized Tiger Stadium, says the plan developed by those Corktown stakeholders was just too expensive to pull off. But Beer, an attorney and stadium consultant, also says the financial burden of tearing down Tiger Stadium — it could cost between $3 million and $7 million — will add so much to the development price tag that it doesn’t appear to be a great deal for big-box retailers, either.

However, he is convinced minor-league baseball would work at the site.

Given Hagood’s comments, that’s not likely to happen.

Hagood is, nonetheless, confident a viable project will be found.

“The mayor is operating within a plan,” explains Hagood. Whatever happens at Michigan and Trumbull has to fit with other attempts to develop the city’s riverfront and bring new attractions to the entertainment district, Hagood says.

“We’re not doing this in a vacuum,” he says. “We want to make sure we get something in there that fits within the puzzle.”

As for the stakeholders who developed the original reuse plan, Hagood says that Tiger Stadium, sitting as it does on a major freeway entry to downtown, doesn’t belong to just the people of Corktown, and whatever happens there must benefit the entire city. Noting that the city is now making progress dealing with other “symbols of Detroit decay” such as the Book-Cadillac Hotel and the Michigan Central Station, the hope is that good things are imminent for The Corner.

“We’ve been hitting some home runs,” says Hagood, “and we’re hoping to hit one with Tiger Stadium.”

As with the game of baseball itself, hope springs eternal.

Read the other Corktown features in this issue:

The neighborhood that wouldn't die
By Sarah Klein
Despite abandoned and decaying landmarks, Corktown pulses with life.

On track
By Ann Mullen
Hope gains steam for renovation of train station.

Curt Guyette is the news editor of Metro Times. E-mail cguyette@metrotimes.com.

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