Ford restores Detroit train station for $950 million campus

Ford Motor is transforming an abandoned train station used for decades as an infamous symbol of Detroit’s fall and blight into a new technology campus for the automaker and a mixed-use property for the city.

Michael Wayland/CNBC

DETROIT – Ford latest project outside the Motor City is the restoration and reopening of an abandoned train station, a symbol for decades of the fall of Detroit and now the automaker’s new technology campus.

The $950 million project includes the 18-story former train station called Michigan Central Station — once the state’s primary transit building — an adjacent 270,000-square-foot building and other support facilities.

The 30-acre “Michigan Central” campus and station was initially announced in 2018 and is expected to open by 2022. However, the coronavirus pandemic and extensive work required to renovate the station delayed its reopening. Ford is celebrating the restoration of the century-old station on Thursday.

Following Thursday’s event, the ground floor of the station building will be open to the public until June 16, before the first commercial occupants begin moving in this fall.

The new campus comes at a precarious time for Ford Investors as the company continues to restructure its operations. It also comes as many companies are trying to downsize their offices and fill their current buildings with employees who have become accustomed to working from home during the pandemic.

A photo of Michigan Central’s main concourse before its renovation is in the newly restored room at the rear of the building.

Michael Wayland/CNBC

Specifically in Detroit, a striking juxtaposition emerged: in April, Ford’s crosstown rival General engines announced it would downsize its massive riverfront Renaissance Center headquarters to two floors in a neighboring building under construction.

Still, Ford Chairman Bill Ford Jr. said he believes the investment in the historic station is a crucial part of the automaker’s future, particularly in terms of talent acquisition and retention .

“We are in a war for talent, for our industry and for our business,” Ford, who led the project, told CNBC. “And you have to give talent two things: First you have to give them really interesting problems to solve, and then you have to give them a great place to work. With Michigan Central, we checked both of those boxes.”

Bill Ford decided to purchase the dilapidated building after years of traveling to Silicon Valley for his venture capital firm Fontinalis and during his tenure as a member of the eBay Board of Directors. He has long spoken out about the need for the traditional auto industry to compete with new technology companies, both in acquiring products and talent.

Ford Motor released this image of Chairman Bill Ford, great-grandson of company founder Henry Ford, when the automaker announced it would purchase Michigan Central Station in June 2018.


Ford said attracting top talent to Detroit is “getting better,” but noted that “it’s a big challenge” to convince workers from California or the East Coast to move to Detroit and work for Ford.

“If you can show them a place like Michigan Central, not only in its beauty, which in itself is incredible, but also in talking about the kinds of things that will happen there, then it will become, I think, a really resource valuable for the company in the future,” he said.

Station Campus

The Michigan Central campus is located southwest of Detroit’s main business district, in a trendy neighborhood known as Corktown. It is approximately 10 miles from Ford’s global headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan.

Michigan Central’s campus spans a total of 1.2 million square feet of commercial space, including retail, restaurants and hotels. Officials say it received $300 million in tax incentives for state, local and historic rehabilitation.

The restored large waiting room inside Ford’s Michigan Central Station in Detroit.

Michael Wayland/CNBC

Ford officials have gone to great lengths to restore the station to its original glory after decades of vandalism and disrepair. The project involved 3D scanning the rooms, matching materials and referencing historical photos to recreate parts of the building.

This was especially true for the station’s first floor, where a great room features massive windows, an arcade and a grand lobby filled with marble and terrazzo floors, Mankato stone and other unique materials.

The architects and designers chose to leave some graffiti on the walls to represent the station’s dormant years after its closure in 1988.

To measure Ford’s resolve, officials traced the facility’s original limestone to a quarry in Indiana only to discover that it had since closed. Michigan Central worked with the owners to reopen the quarry.

Some graffiti from when Michigan Central lay dormant for more than 30 years was deliberately preserved to represent this part of the station’s history.

Michael Wayland/CNBC

“It has been carefully and lovingly restored, as much as possible, to its original condition,” Michigan Central CEO Josh Sirefman said during a tour of the project. “Before you start activating it with a lot of stuff, it’s probably in its most pristine condition.”

Amid the nation’s commercial real estate challenges, about two-thirds of the tower has scheduled tenants or planned use cases, officials said. That includes an unnamed restaurant and hotel, pending rezoning approval.

The adjacent building, known as the Detroit Public Schools Book Depository, already houses more than 600 employees from nearly 100 startups.

“This is really the beginning of the ecosystem that I want to create,” Bill Ford said. “There’s going to be a lot of experimentation there.”

Ford plans to house at least 2,500 employees in the building, primarily members of the company’s electric vehicle and connected services teams. About 1,000 of those employees are expected to move into the station tower by the end of this year, Ford said.

Other occupants of the building could include local universities, other businesses and a restaurant. However, authorities refused to release the full list of expected tenants. Googlefounding partner of the project, runs its “Code Next” program, which teaches students to code, from the Book Depository building.

Ford said it expects the automaker’s future employees to be able to collaborate with other occupants of the station tower as well as startups occupying the Book Depository building.

A photo of Michigan Central’s arcade before its renovation can be found in the newly restored hall on the east end of the building.

Michael Wayland/CNBC

“Legacy Project”

Resurrecting the station and surrounding campus is the latest project that Bill Ford, great-grandson of company founder Henry Ford, has undertaken in the Motor City.

He was instrumental in moving the Ford family-owned Detroit Lions from suburban Pontiac to a new stadium, aptly named Ford Field, in downtown Detroit in 2002. He was also part of the team that brought the Super Bowl to the city in 2006.

And he redeveloped the company’s River Rouge assembly plant into a “green” production facility amid calls for it to close. It is now a tourist destination for the production of the Ford F-150 full-size pickup.

Ford, who served as CEO of the automaker from 2001 to 2006, described Michigan Central as a continuation of such projects. He called the effort a “legacy project” for himself as well as those who may have worked on it.

“I’m very proud of those two (past projects), but I think this will kind of put an exclamation point on it because it’s going to be a wonderful place to work, but it’s also going to be a wonderful place for the public .to come,” Ford said.

The renovated “reading room” in the large waiting room at Ford’s Michigan Central Station in Detroit.

Michael Waylans/CNBC


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