$221 million Cobo revamp to add river view, replace arena in downtown Detroit

Cobo Center officials have unveiled details of a long-awaited, $221 million facelift of the city’s main convention center that includes panoramic views of the Detroit River and sweeping changes to its façade.

The bond-financed project will also mean the demise of Cobo Arena, the legendary but aging concert venue for acts from KISS to Jay-Z.

Two years after Detroit officials ceded oversight of the 51-year-old facility, regional leaders were to gather today in Cobo to unveil artist renderings of the project that is expected to begin in July and last until 2014. The work is the final stage of a $274 million project to revamp the 2.4 million square-foot facility that was last updated in 1989.

One highlight of the renovation is a three-story glass wall that will surround the light-gray building and provide a view of the Detroit River, as well as access to the Detroit RiverWalk from the building.

Cobo Arena will be replaced with a new 40,000 square-foot ballroom with meeting room beneath.

“It’s going to be a major change” said Larry Alexander, chairman of the Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority. “It’s more open and accessible.”

Alexander said the renovation will make Cobo Center more inviting.

“It’s truly going to shine when you come down and look at the building,” he said. “We’re making use of what we have and better use of the footprint we have available to us.”

The announcement follows years of complaints by the center’s major tenant — the North American International Auto Show. Organizers spoke of leaving because they considered the 700,000 square-foot of exhibit space too small. Leaks and heating problems bedeviled exhibits, and some car manufacturers left the show that is said to generate $500 million to the southeast Michigan economy.

The improvements include new hydraulic systems powerful enough to lift cars so they can be exhibited on the second level of Cobo Center.

“We’re looking for space always. Things are getting better and better. Porsche came back, and Nissan is coming back in 2012. Everyone wants space,” said Jim Seavitt, owner of Village Ford in Dearborn and president of the Troy-based Detroit Auto Dealers Association that sponsors the January show. “We’ve got a space problem. We’re trying to make everybody happy.”

Cobo became a flashpoint for city-suburban divisions in 2008 and 2009, when the City Council initially balked at transferring control of the facility to a regional authority. Eventually, the city relented, and a five-member authority has overseen operations since September 2009. The first two phases of the renovations fixed the roof and other problems.

Named for former Detroit Mayor Albert Cobo, the center is the 19th largest of its kind in the nation, but its reputation has caused some conventions to look elsewhere. Alexander said the project will help bring back conventions and exhibitors.

The $221 million renovation project also includes:
• The creation of a new three-story glass atrium “signature space” for Cobo Center that links the main floor of Cobo with a new entrance. The glass atrium surrounds most of the building, allowing for a view of the Detroit River and linking the facility to the city’s RiverWalk.

• Major renovation to Cobo’s primary façade facing downtown, which will include a high-tech, computer-generated “media mesh” billboard announcing current and future conventions and other bookings.

• Reconfiguration of meeting and breakout rooms along Cobo’s south side, the area facing the Detroit River. Most of the exterior walls of the meeting and breakout rooms will be replaced by high-efficiency glass walls.

• Twenty percent increase in parking spaces.

• Construction of an additional loading dock ramp to street level.

• Additional electrical provision capabilities in exhibition areas.