Ford to revamp Detroit book warehouse into innovation hub

Ford Motor Co. announced plans on Tuesday to turn a long-empty book store into an automotive innovation hub in Detroit’s oldest neighborhood.

Long known for its wooden houses, restaurants, and tavernas, Corktown is the site of the automaker’s proposed $ 740 million project to create a place where new transportation and mobility ideas are encouraged and developed.

The Dearborn-based company’s foray into Corktown began with the 2018 acquisition of the massive Michigan Central train station and other buildings in the neighborhood west of downtown.

When the work is complete, the 30 acre site will have more than 1 million square feet of commercial space.

“This is a truly authentically beautiful neighborhood. It’s really important that we maintain its integrity,” said Mary Culler, Ford’s director of development in Detroit and president of the Ford Foundation.

For decades, Corktown stood in the long shadow of the huge 17-story train station. After the building was vacated in 1988, it embodied Detroit’s plague and economic desperation amid the city’s ever-shrinking manufacturing base and exodus of people.

Detroit lost more than 1 million residents between the 1950s and 2010. Stable, middle and working class neighborhoods were emptied by families. Houses were empty, stripped of metal and everything else valuable before they collapsed or were destroyed in piles of wood and other debris.

Meanwhile, the station remained standing – too expensive to tear down, too big for other purposes and a contradiction of its once ornate size.

The depot opened in late 1913 and was designed by the same architects who designed New York’s Grand Central Terminal. Like other train stations in the US, Detroit seemed out of date as interest in rail travel waned.

Businessman Manuel “Matty” Moroun bought the building in the mid-1990s after a previous owner defaulted on a loan, but an anchor tenant could not be found.

Ford stepped in two years ago, bought the building and began repairing a 500,000 square foot structure. The work should be completed by the end of 2022.

Ford expects around 2,500 of its own employees and 2,500 partner employees to work on campus, who will focus on autonomous vehicles. Around 250 people in Ford’s autonomous vehicle division already work in The Factory, another building near the train station.

The book depository of the former Detroit School was designed by the famous architect Albert Kahn. It became empty after a fire in 1987. Global architecture firm Gensler’s Detroit office is working with Ford to renovate the building. Construction work will begin early next year. The move is expected in early 2022.

“The Book Depository will be the heart of the innovation district … a mixed-use maker space that partners can step in and solve problems,” said Culler. “We think this project is really central to Ford and the city.”

A greenway will connect 7 acres past the station to the city’s west bank, while the platform and tracks will be used as a technology test and shop window area. It is also expected that there will be pedestrian and bike paths.

According to Katy Trudeau, the city’s assistant director of planning and development, Ford’s plans fit in with what Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Detroit Economic Growth Corp. planned for Corktown.

“There were people who were nervous about the significant impact the project had on residents and property prices,” Trudeau said. “People were concerned that their neighbors, who were tenants, might be evicted due to rising prices.”

In some cases, rents have doubled – something residents were concerned about after Ford’s 2018 announcement, said Debra Walker, who moved to Corktown about 20 years ago.

“Everyone sees dollar signs, so rents are rising,” said Walker, 67, who is retired. “You can still make your living, this is America. But what can we do to keep the neighborhood diverse?”

The city is seeking a competitive federal grant that will help fund up to 800 new affordable housing units in Corktown.

“With Corktown’s economic development, it is critical that affordable housing is developed next door,” said Donald Rencher, director of Detroit Housing & Revitalization. “With the tremendous investments and trends we are seeing, it is an important time that we must ensure Corktown remains a place where Detroiters of all walks of life are welcome.”

Some Ford employees at The Factory already live in the neighborhood, Culler said.

“It’s more than just the train station. We want to be a good neighbor there,” she said.

Ford paid $ 90 million, or $ 150 per square foot, for the train station in May 2018.

The company received nearly $ 239 million local, state and federal incentives for its proposed $ 740 million campus in the Corktown neighborhood west of downtown. The station is at the heart of the 1.2 million square foot project that is expected to bring 5,000 autonomous and electric vehicle technicians to the area.

Ford is part of the city’s plan to apply to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for a $ 30 million grant to Choice Neighborhoods for a new mixed-income development in the Corktown neighborhood. The automaker expects to transfer land it owns to bring at least 750 mixed-income housing units to the area.

– Crains Detroit Business Reporter Kirk Pinho contributed to this report.

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