Train Station 2.0: Ford’s Corktown Redevelopment Plan Unveiled, Won’t Replace Dearborn

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Image: Ford

All eyes were on the now Ford-owned Michigan Central Station in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood on Tuesday morning, as the automaker formally announced its plan for the derelict building and surrounding neighborhood.

Ford Motor Company recently took the century-old structure, abandoned since 1988, off the hands of its longtime owners, the Moroun family. There’s still no dollar figure attached to that deal, but that’s not what Tuesday was about. Ford’s plan, ambitious and big on vision, breaks down as this: there’ll be 2,500 Ford workers employed in the Corktown neighborhood, tasked with developing autonomous vehicles and related tech. The towering train depot, once restored, will serve as the nerve center.

Joining those employees in Ford-owned buildings scattered around the site will be an equal number of employees working for partners and suppliers, or so Ford hopes. The automaker’s aiming for a miniaturized version of Silicon Valley clustered around Michigan Avenue.

As local (or maybe not so local) talent gravitates towards the site, the train depot’s main concourse will remain open to the public. More accurately, it will reopen to the public, with retail filling the depot’s cavernous ground floor.

If your life lacked speeches about mobility and the future and disruption and rebirth, Tuesday’s media event was just the soothing balm you had in mind. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder joined Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Ford brass to speak eloquently on just such themes, making sure to steep every word with history and cultural context. In their defence, there’s few places where such themes are more warranted.

It’s big news for both the hard-hit local community and for the city’s tax base.

But back to the plan. As Ford’s executive chairman, Bill Ford Jr., said in a pre-announcement interview with Crain’s Detroit Business, the automaker isn’t sure exactly how expansive its new footprint will be. While there’s surely discussions ongoing with some landowners, the automaker pegs the campus as containing “at least” 1.2 million square feet of space. Currently, the automaker owns “the former Detroit Public Schools Book Depository, two acres of vacant land, the site of an old brass factory” and a nearby former factory. Some 300,000 square feet will be set aside for retail, restaurants, and housing.

Bill Ford (seen above looking like he owns the place) hopes to have the train depot renovated and opened for public and office use by 2022, which is in itself ambitious, given the size of the structure and its state of disrepair.

Image: Ford

The first Ford employees — 220 members of “Team Edison,” who handle the business side of the company’s electric and autonomous vehicle efforts — moved into the neighborhood in May, setting up their base of operations in a converted former factory called, what else, The Factory.

“I would love for this to be like the Sand Hill Road of Michigan,” Ford’s chairman told Crain’s, referencing the birthplace of Silicon Valley, “where entrepreneurs, startups, (and) partners all want to come and be part of this creative process.”

The chairman admitted his company is “in a war for talent,” and that much of the plan hinges on attracting these partners. Still, he feels the Corktown scene, with Ford at its center, will appeal to those not enamored by the crowded (and expensive) Silicon Valley life. And if it draws local startups into the fold, or encourages them to exist, all the better.

During this morning’s event, Ford CEO Jim Hackett made it clear that Dearborn wasn’t being left behind. The automaker’s headquarters will remain in the Glass House, and the bulk of its workers will remain housed in the soon-to-be-rejuvenated Dearborn campus. Corktown represents just another “node” in its regional and global operations.

“What [the historic Rouge plant] was to Ford in the industrial age, Corktown can be for Ford in the information age,” said Hackett. “It will be the proving ground where Ford and our partners design and test the services and solutions for the way people are going to live and get around tomorrow, creating a Southeast Michigan mobility corridor that spans west from Dearborn to Ann Arbor, and east to Detroit.”

The work performed in Corktown will apparently go beyond the creation of Blue Oval-branded vehicles. The automaker claims it wants to create technology designed to make all road transportation smarter. In other words, it wants vehicles to communicate with each other and with the city they’re driving in, lessening congestion.

With this in mind, Ford’s developing a Transportation Mobility Cloud – “an open platform that manages information flow and transactions between different services to help cities optimize their various modes of transit.”

If that description doesn’t get readers’ hearts racing like the sight of Steve McQueen’s tire-shredding Mustang, we don’t know what will.

[Images: Ford Motor Company]