Michigan Central Station has loomed over downtown Detroit for the past 30 years as a relic of the city’s former self. Designed by the same architects as Grand Central Station in New York and constructed in 1913, the station saw its last train leave on January 5, 1988, following years of reduced traffic in the Midwest. 

Now, with the building vacant for more than 30 years, what will be returning is not a string of Amtrak carriages, but rather a promise to reinstate the city’s automotive prowess.  

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Ford is in the process of repurposing roughly 1.2 million sq ft to establish a new mobility innovation district in Corktown, where the Beaux-Arts station is located, so as to welcome innovators, startups, entrepreneurs and other partners from around the world.

Walkable district

Dubbed ‘Michigan Central’, this regeneration project aims to create an ecosystem comprising collaborative workplaces, studios and a mobility testing platform where new transportation means and technologies, such as automation and electrification, can be tested and launched. 

Shops, restaurants, leisure facilities, residential property, green spaces, shuttles and scooters are all expected to follow in due course. The district is to be walkable in 20 minutes. 

Detroit’s Public School Book Depository, next to the station, is also set to get a facelift by architectural firm Gensler, while Ford is building the new constructions, Building West and the Factory near the station — the latter of which will house Ford employees. 

It is the attractiveness of this hubbub that the automotive giant is prioritising in a world that has been starved of intermingling. 

“In today’s work environment, where workers increasingly demand choice and flexibility, employers need to find ways to make the workplace a destination, rather than a container for people,” says Christina Twelftree, communications manager at Ford.

“[Employers] need to give people reasons to come into the office,” she adds.

With 2500 Ford employees and 2500 additional employees to design new solutions for the way people and goods will move in the future, the hub is expected to be completed by the end of 2023 at a cost of roughly $740m. 

As well as the mobility platform, the construction of a 40-mile connected and autonomous vehicle (AV) corridor between Detroit to Ann Arbor is also underway, linking the innovation district to a broader regional network of AV research and testing.

Detroit’s renaissance 

In 2018 alone, the state of Michigan recorded a record-breaking $385m in venture capital funding in 61 startups, according to the 2019 Michigan Venture Capital Annual Research Report.

With $16bn in capital investments in greater downtown Detroit since 2016, the city has been leading the way in Michigan with a well-documented renaissance.  

Detroit has attracted 50 foreign greenfield projects since the start of 2017, according to fDi Markets, with 10 of these in the automotive sector. The years 2018 and 2019 recorded a Capex of $1.67bn and $1.12bn respectively, compared to a previous 10-year average of $204.6m. 

This year, the University of Michigan announced it will open a tech hub, the Detroit Center for Innovation, on a former jail site in the downtown area, in a bid to inspire technological discovery and entrepreneurship. 

While there have been other regeneration projects in cities that have fallen by the wayside due to a globalised economy, the scale of the Michigan Central district, along with its symbolic focus on the automotive industry, is particularly striking. 

“It’s like it’s 1908 all over again,” says Peter McGrath, associate director at Savills Detroit. 

“I think that retention is more important than attraction at this point in time. The talent is here, the good schools are here — we just have to do a better job of keeping it.”

This article first appeared in the December/January print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.