For almost two decades after it opened in 1913, Michigan’s Central Station was a major stop on the nation’s interurban rail network. Then the private car took over the US, and Detroit declined. By the 1970’s, white residents were fleeing to the suburbs, auto jobs were leaving the state and the country, and local corruption soared. At the turn of the century, the train depot and the 18-story office towers behind it had been abandoned for 30 years, the faded exterior looming over Detroit’s Corktown and Mexicantown neighborhoods, a sign that things were going very poorly in Detroit.
By 2018, the city and Ford Motor Company were ready to tell another story. That year, Ford announced that it had acquired the station and the area surrounding it, a monument to the kind of transportation past that the automaker and its manufacturing brethren had all but killed.
Today, Ford executives and city government and community leaders will hold an opening ceremony for one building on the station’s new campus, part of a $950 million project it is calling Michigan Central. (The state of Michigan contributed some additional $126 million in new and existing financing to the project.) The new building, called the Book Depository, will serve as an innovation collaboration space for transportation entrepreneurs and researchers.
Bill Ford, executive chairman of Ford says the campus’ redevelopment is a sign. “Michigan Central will go from being a story about Detroit’s decay to the story about Detroit’s rebirth,” he says, a second act that will see the city become home to tech- and auto-centric jobs that will build the next generation of transport. “This will be the first tangible evidence that that vision is coming to life,” says Ford, who is also a great-grandson of both company founder Henry Ford and tire magnate Harvey Firestone.
Ford is part of a broader movement to revitalize downtown Detroit, though its effects are not yet clear. Detroit lost almost half of its population between 1950 and 2000. Though new downtown sports stadiums, restaurants, and housing developments have strengthened the case of local optimists who see a resurgence underway, recent US censuses suggest that the region continued to bleed residents in the past decade, perhaps due in part to the Covid-19 pandemic. (The city has sued the US Census Bureau over the results, alleging the feds undercounted minority residents, which affects government funding.)
Ford expects many other businesses to move onto the 30-acre Michigan Central campus, which also includes 14 acres of park space open to the public. Today’s opening focuses on the Book Depository, a nearly 100-year-old building across the street from the Central Station that once played host to the Detroit public schools’ store of books, records, and supplies. Now, it will serve as a 270,000-square foot maker and startup space focused on mobility, a potential spawning ground for future Ford partners. Even before the building’s official opening today, more than 25 companies representing 150 employees have taken up residence at the Book Depository, Michigan Central officials say, representing firms working on autonomous and electric vehicles, roadways built just for robot cars, and air pollution. They are all associated with an organization called Newlab, a manufacturing incubator that has already launched an innovation space in Brooklyn’s Navy Yard.