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Michigan Central Site Plan – Courtesy of Practice for Architecture and Urbanism (PAU)

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Ford’s Renovation Of Michigan Central Station Aims To Create Mobility Innovation District

A Detroit urban transportation revitalization continues on with a new site plan.

It’s been 30 years since Michigan Central Station was shuttered and abandoned. Broken windows, cracked pavement, empty parking lots, and neglected vegetation have dotted the site, located in Corktown, Detroit’s oldest neighborhood. But this week Ford Motor Company revealed the site plan for the hub in what is designed to become “an inclusive, vibrant and walkable mobility innovation district.”

At the core of the multiyear development plan is a first-of-its-kind mobility platform on the elevated train tracks behind the station, with new open spaces that connect site buildings and welcome the community.

The plan was guided by 3 core design themes:

  • Concentrate density around Michigan Central Station
  • Build a walkable area through a unique grouping of buildings and shared spaces
  • Co-create a neighborhood of the future, by everyone, for everyone

The design encourages the kind of “spontaneous connections that build community, create partnerships, and drive innovation,” according to a company press release. The innovation hub is set to redefine the way people and goods will move around in the future. The vision includes an open platform for innovators, startups, entrepreneurs, and other partners from around the world to develop, test, and launch new mobility solutions on real-world streets in authentic contexts.

Michigan Central Station

Michigan Central Station

Michigan Central Station

Images used with permission of Ford Media

Combining Corporate & Community Visions for a Walkable Mobility Hub

The Michigan Central Station mobility platform, multiple outdoor plazas, open spaces, and improved streets will link to downtown Detroit and the riverfront. The Vernor viaduct will provide a key access point to the station from the south, transforming a closed section of highway into a pedestrian path that welcomes residents.

Michigan Central Station is currently in the middle of phase 2 of the restoration, the most labor-intensive part of the project, focused on fixing the steel structure and repairing 8 acres of masonry. Developed by lead architect and strategic planner Practice for Architecture and Urbanism, 4 key buildings make up the development:

  • Michigan Central Station
  • The Book Depository, which sits adjacent to the station and is being revitalized into a maker space by architecture firm Gensler
  • Building West, a new construction to the west of the station
  • The Factory, already home to 250 members of Ford’s autonomous vehicle business unit

The 30-acre site plan is the result of a community-based, 18-month R&D process and will prioritize the needs of residents, businesses, and the 5,000 employees who work there. With more than 100 hours of discussions between Ford and key stakeholders from the city and community, the plan will connect with the surrounding neighborhoods and city, preserve the history of the area with a mix of old and new, and provide public art and open areas that can be activated and used in all-weather conditions.

Along with a mobility platform, the site plan prioritizes the needs of the community — all within a 20-minute walk:

  • green space
  • biking trails
  • cafés
  • shuttles
  • scooters
  • retailers
  • grocery stores
  • day care
  • housing
  • parking

Existing views will be protected, and southwest Detroit residents can easily access and enjoy the district, which was important to the community. To foster vibrancy and density, the plan envisions a range of housing options alongside new public amenities.

“We have tremendous momentum, despite the pandemic, as we work with others to bring our vision to life in Corktown,” said Mary Culler, Ford’s Detroit development director and Ford Fund president. “Through purposeful planning, design and partnerships, we will be inspiring innovation by promoting interaction between our employees, partners, tenants and the broader community. The goal is to work with innovators who want to join us in creating something truly unique that brings renewed opportunities, sustainability, and vitality to the area.”

Why Is Michigan Central Station So Important to Detroit?

Michigan Central Station stands as a symbol of the automotive industry’s rise and fall in Detroit. It is the region’s Ellis Island, where many generations of Detroiters first arrived in the city with dreams of good factory jobs and a stable future. Travelers would enter from Roosevelt Park into the building’s main waiting room. They’d see bronze doors with mahogany trim, cream-colored brick, marble finishes, impressive soaring arches, and 14 marble pillars set against the walls and at the entrance to the concourse. On April 16, 1975, the station was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

But bankruptcies, oil crises, business declines, and changes in travel patterns led to Michigan Central Station’s closure. Since then, the building came to represent despair, the disintegration of Detroit, and the tenuous hold of the auto industry in the area. In 2016, Ford Motor Company purchased the train station along Michigan Avenue, 7 miles down the street from its world headquarters in Dearborn. In the midst of the pandemic, workers cleaned and repaired brick and terra cotta masonry on the exterior of the building and replacing almost 300 limestone blocks on the waiting room exterior façade.

“This project is about preparing Ford for another century of innovation and success,” said Culler. “At Michigan Central, we are taking a collaborative approach to innovation, including providing flexible work spaces that attract and engage the best minds to solve complex transportation and related challenges as we shape the future of mobility together.” This the anchor of the 1.2-million-square-foot Detroit campus, which will focus on developing self-driving vehicles, is a nod both to the future and the past.

Final Thoughts

Work on the Book Depository and Bagley Parking Hub will begin in the first quarter of 2021, with both buildings expected to open in early 2022.  Ford is keeping with timelines to complete the station by the end of 2022.

Vishaan Chakrabarti, founder and creative director of Practice for Architecture and Urbanism, offered:

“Few works of architecture better embody the past, present and future of Detroit like Michigan Central Station. This plan – led by Ford and forged in collaboration with local stakeholders – provides a vision for how the reimagined station, with the public spaces and buildings that surround it, can together become a unique and authentic destination for community members, innovators and visitors alike. Over time, I am confident that this project will become a global model for how to grow and build our cities while celebrating the narratives and structures that define our past.”

Michigan Central Station is an addition to Michigan’s goals for more connected and autonomous vehicles. A key goal has been the focus on closing long-standing gaps in access to transit and across the region. Of course, Michigan is always a contrast in terms — wasn’t it just September when Michigan politicians were trying to block new electric vehicle manufacturers (read: Tesla) from doing business in the state? Then again, in September, 24 Detroit residents began working on the train station as part of a paid training program that teaches skilled trades with preference given to people from the immediate area.

“We have a role in lifting communities up,” said Pamela Alexander, director of community development for the Ford Fund, which directs community outreach in Detroit and for the development project. “To lift up, you have to listen and engage and be firm in your commitments.”


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Written By

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. She's won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. As part of her portfolio divestment, she purchased 5 shares of Tesla stock. Please follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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