Inside Detroit’s crumbling train station that Ford plans to transform into a mobility labJune 20, 2018
Yesterday, Ford Motor Company announced its long-rumored plan to buy the abandoned Michigan Central Station and restore it as hub for its future mobility ventures. The news quickly created a sense of awe across metro Detroit.
For decades, the dilapidated presence of the once majestic train station stung residents as an ominous reminder of widespread neglect. The 18-story building towers over Michigan Avenue, and while it made for a lucrative set piece on the film Batman v Superman, it represents a deep, complex wound. It is a physical reminder of what the city was, and what it many thought it would never be again.
It’s a punchline, a romanticized and ruined tourist destination, and a divisive, unavoidable barrier between the Southwest and Corktown neighborhoods. But all that may soon change.
Ford’s purchase of the station is a grand, symbolic gesture that seemed unlikely only a few years ago. As its intention materializes to transform the station into a center for autonomous driving and innovation in the next three to four years, it’s a poignant move that resonates deeply in the city and around the state of Michigan. It’s what prompted a thief (née collector) that “acquired” the station’s original antique clock to return it last week.
On Tuesday morning, Ford laid out the details and made the purchase official in a public ceremony. The occasion was festive as the automaker threw a giant party ahead of the speeches and invited performers such as the hometown artist Big Sean to the stage, as its leadership presented the scope of its vision.
About 2,500 company employees, the majority from its mobility team, will work in the renovated building and surrounding area where Ford has bought additional land and properties, including the Detroit Public Schools Book Depository and a former factory. Projects will range from parking experiments to public transit projects — a once unthinkable business move for a company that subsists on the profits of its trucks and SUVs. Imagine a train that shuttles workers between Ford campuses in Ann Arbor, Dearborn, and Detroit.
“Michigan Central sits at one end of a prime corridor for autonomous vehicle development,” says Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst from Autotrader. “Michigan Avenue connects to Ford’s worldwide headquarters in Dearborn, to the American Center for Mobility, which vows to be the nation’s, if not the world’s, largest, most comprehensive autonomous vehicle testing and validation center. Beyond the ACM is Mcity, an autonomous vehicle testing center already in operation, and then the University of Michigan, where Ford has a robotics center on campus.”
The space will also house an additional 2,500 workers in related businesses. No specifics were given on which businesses would move there, but Ford has supported Techstars Mobility, which is based in Detroit and is one potential source for startup tenants. The remainder of the space will house retail, community areas, and residential housing. The auto giant says it will restore the grand lobby, the station’s staple space, for public use. It’s an ambitious endeavor and in doing so, Ford makes a formidable commitment to tie its future to the city of Detroit, steeped in the company’s indelible relationship with its history.
In an interview with The Verge, Ford chairman Bill Ford said he was touched by the multigenerational crowd that turned up at Tuesday’s ceremony. He recalled how his grandmother traveled from the station by train to New York City. And he expressed his personal frustration with its disrepair. “As somebody from this area, for years when I traveled, I would see this station as the poster child for the decay of Detroit.”
But now that version of a fading Detroit is starting to seem outdated. Over the past several years, a narrative of transformation has overtaken the city. Ford began to see the possibilities in a lucrative urban environment that aligned with the company’s vision to become more than a carmaker. When he first imagined the feel of a restored station, Bill Ford drew inspiration from San Francisco, a source for coveted talent. “The Ferry Station in San Francisco is the template in my head,” he says. If the gamble pays off, locals as well as top talent from Silicon Valley will see Detroit as a viable and inviting city to work and live in. “The tech companies don’t have anything like this building,” he says.
In order to keep pace with the industry, Ford needs to draw in outside talent, says Krebs. “The kind of talent Ford needs in the future is the same kind of talent that not only its auto-making competitors are going after, but also every other industry. Software engineers, data scientists, electrical engineers are in high demand not only in the auto industry but virtually every other industry. In addition to all of the other aspects of hiring, Ford must create a work environment in a location that is attractive to young workers who prefer to be in a hip urban area to cubicles in the suburbs.”
Detroit’s comeback story is part of its appeal to newcomers. It began to take hold after the city’s economic situation hit rock bottom preceding bankruptcy in 2013. As word got out about cheap real estate, people from all over the world have been moving to Detroit, buying up properties. (See Curbed Detroit for the eye candy.) That interest began to build the narrative of makers and doers coming to Detroit to launch businesses.
But to date, much of its makeover has been in pockets. Corktown has been one of these pockets, where restaurants and boutiques have opened in the past several years, anchored by cobblestone streets on Michigan Avenue. It’s easy to see the appeal of Corktown, the oldest Detroit neighborhood. It was originally settled by Irish immigrants, from County Cork, a point that Bill Ford emphasized to me. (He regularly visits County Cork in Ireland, where the Ford family has its roots.) A few miles from Corktown, his great grandfather Henry Ford ushered in the first moving automobile assembly line in 1913. Michigan Central Station opened that same year. The rise of Detroit, the metropolis, throughout the 20th century mirrored the economic success of the thriving local car industry.
But as the auto industry began to slowly decline in the 1960s and ‘70s, car company companies shifted away from being a driving force for the city. Painful politics of racial divide, white flight, inequity, and lack of investment became Detroit’s public dominant narrative, no longer its vehicles. In 1988, the year the train station closed, both Ford and General Motors posted record profits. The long term effects of Detroit’s struggle has not helped the image of the local car industry.
Detroit is still a long way away from a thriving city. Its school system is underfunded and abandoned properties are rife. It’s never regained the population it lost when it was a city of over a million people in the early 1990s. Its comeback is predicated on further growth and it has yet to attract another major employer to relocate downtown. The state unemployment rate has declined, but in December the rate was 8.7 percent in Detroit according to an NPR report. That’s why Ford’s move to double down on Detroit is stirring. It’s not a sure bet, but it’s a hopeful vote of confidence. Much of the particulars still need to be determined and the company plans on tapping into the community for ideas.
Ford also has to contend with its crosstown neighbor General Motors that maintains its world headquarters in downtown Detroit. And Ford is not going at Detroit nor autonomous driving alone. Ford is a long way from catching Waymo’s self driving test efforts. But competition in this sports-minded town has always been a motivator, and Ford has now upped the stakes. “There were 1,800 car companies when my great grandfather launched Ford in Detroit,” Ford says.
If there’s a lesson to be learned from the past, it’s about reconciling and finding the thing that makes you unique. “It’s the most compelling blend of old and new,” Ford says. “It’s taking one of the most beautiful spaces in the city. It’s imbuing people with the history. But it’s taking the history and saying, ‘now let’s reinvent the future.’”
What’s most thrilling about Ford’s move, whether or not it succeeds in changing Detroit’s future and securing its position as the tech company it aspires to be, the company has made a definitive statement. The truth is no one knows exactly who will be the last players standing in the race toward the future and winning the race to autonomy. As Bill Ford says, “One thing about renovation, you don’t know what you’re going to find.”