The plans make sense: Ford Motor Company has long been a pioneer in helping people move across cities and towns, highways and one-lane rural roads. Why wouldn’t Ford’s vision for the long-abandoned Michigan Central train station in Detroit focus on the future of transportation?
Ford’s plans for Michigan Central, its mobility innovation district in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood, call for an innovation hub that will attract start-ups, entrepreneurs and transportation experts all dedicated to making it easier for people to move around cities, suburbs and rural areas efficiently and for companies to move goods across the globe as quickly as possible.
And now, those plans are one step closer to becoming reality.
Ford Motor Company in November unveiled its site plan for Michigan Central, its walkable mobility innovation district in Corktown, Detroit’s oldest neighborhood. Ford also revealed its designs for some of the district’s first buildings. Plans include the restoration of the iconic Michigan Central Station, the long-abandoned but once thriving train station in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood.
Bill Ford, executive chairman of Ford, in 2018 announced the company’s plans to restore Detroit’s abandoned Michigan Central train station. The station has been empty since 1988, but will now serve as the centerpiece of an innovation hub focused on boosting the efficiency of how people and goods can move and travel around the world in the future.
Ford’s plans include an open platform for innovators, start-ups, entrepreneurs and other partners from across the globe. The hope is that these companies and individuals will work together to develop, test and launch new mobility solutions on real-world streets and in real-world situations.
“This project is about preparing Ford for another century of innovation and success,” said Mary Culler, Ford’s Detroit development director and Ford Fund president, in a statement. “At Michigan Central, we are taking a collaborative approach to innovation, including providing flexible workspaces that attract and engage the best minds to solve complex transportation and related challenges as we shape the future of mobility together.”
The 30-acre site plan was developed by lead architect and strategic planner Practice for Architecture and Urbanism, or PAU, and calls for a walkable community anchored by the train station. Four key buildings make up the development: Michigan Central Station; the Book Depository, which sits adjacent to the station and is being transformed into a maker space by architecture firm Gensler; a new construction building to the west of the train station; and The Factory, already home to 250 members of Ford’s autonomous vehicle business unit.
A key part of the plan is a mobility platform on the elevated train tracks behind the station that will feature new open spaces that connect site buildings.
A chance to make history
Lily Diego, design director and senior associate in the Detroit office of Gensler, said that working on the Book Depository portion of the Michigan Central project is an opportunity to be relished. Diego grew up in Detroit and understands just how important the Michigan Central train station and its surrounding area is to the city.
“This is part of our history,” Diego said. “This property is something that I have watched for decades, in terms of its iconic presence and its ruin. Now our office gets to have some impact and influence in this shared collective vision of what this area can develop into. This is a part of our community that has always been part of our history. I’m happy to see it come alive again.”
Diego said that the rebirth of the Michigan Central train station is a key moment in the rejuvenation of Detroit’s urban core neighborhoods.
“We are a city of makers and innovators,” Diego said. “This feels like a great time, when we are talking about innovation and trying to create a mobility and innovation hub. This feels very similar to what happened in the age of industry in Detroit. There’s a cycle of innovation here.”
Mark Faulkner, associate principal at Practice for Architecture and Urbanism, agreed that this project is a special one thanks to once important role that the train station played in its surrounding neighborhoods.
“It’s that connection to history that is so amazing,” Faulkner said. “Then there is the challenge of working with the public spaces and the station itself. We are designing public space that connects with different elements of the station. Being able to grasp that and fold it into the project, being able to connect the buildings to the public space, really makes this a unique project. We have the chance to make a truly positive impact with this project.”
The site plan is the result of a community-based 18-month research and planning process and reflects more than 100 hours of discussions between Ford and key stakeholders from the city and community. Driven by feedback from residents, the plan calls for public amenities, green spaces, walking and biking trails, public art and open areas that can be activated and used in any type of weather.
A key part of the project? It’s set up so that Southwest Detroit residents can easily access and enjoy the district, something that was an important request from community members. The site plan meets Detroit’s goal to develop walkable neighborhoods with retail offerings, open space, amenities and multimodal transit options. The plan also calls for a range of housing options and new public amenities like a grocery store and day care facility.
The Michigan Central development will also be a node on the state of Michigan’s proposed connected and autonomous vehicle corridor running from Detroit to Dearborn to Ann Arbor, linking the district to a broader regional network of testing, research and innovation. Ford is one of the founding partners of this project, working with Cavnue and other collaborators to make it a reality.
The Albert Kahn-designed Book Depository will become the industrial center of the district, reimagined by Gensler as a mixed-use maker space. The building will offer co-working areas, hands-on labs and innovation studios.
An exterior plaza and café outside the Book Depository will connect the building and the street. A new main entrance in the northwest corner of the building will lead to a pedestrian walkway that links the north, south and east entrances and connects with adjacent buildings and open spaces.
On upper floors, a central four-story atrium will spread light through the large floor plans. The crown jewel of the restoration is the rooftop, which offers views of Michigan Central Station, Detroit, the riverfront and Canada.
Ford will transform abandoned elevated railroad tracks into a mobility platform, an open landscape where Ford and its innovation partners can test and showcase emerging technology, including autonomous vehicles and micro-mobility initiatives. It will also provide shared paths for pedestrians and cyclists and gathering spaces for the community, spaces that can be reconfigured for a variety of uses.
Boston landscape architect Mikyoung Kim Design, working with Detroit-based livingLAB, is designing the mobility platform and other open spaces around Michigan Central.
“Great landscapes should tell stories and build bridges between communities,” said Mikyoung Kim, founder of Mikyoung Kim Design, in a statement. “We are going to create a 21st century civic center with smart streets and multimodal connectivity that pushes the boundaries of innovation, while being a restorative and welcoming place for all Detroiters.”
East of the station, Ford will build a parking garage and mobility hub at 14th and Bagley, known as the Bagley Parking Hub, that provides 1,250 parking spots for Michigan Central workers and includes a pedestrian-oriented streetscape and new public amenities.
The Bagley Parking Hub will feature exterior artwork, two new public plazas, green spaces and a tree canopy. Public amenities being explored include free Wi-Fi, outdoor seating, drinking fountains, restrooms, bike storage and public parking on evenings and weekends.
The parking structure will also serve as a mobility hub, offering micro-mobility solutions like e-bikes and scooters. A shuttle service to move workers and goods within the mobility innovation district may also support residents living in the impact area.
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. Michigan Central Station is currently in the middle of phase two of the restoration, the most labor-intensive part of the project focused on fixing the steel structure and repairing eight acres of masonry. Ford is still on track to complete the station by the end of 2022.
Creating connections is an important part of this project, Diego said.
“This project is connecting to the community of Corktown. It’s part of a mobility corridor that connects cities and communities across Michigan,” Diego said. “This will be a hub to attract thinkers not only within the local community but across the region and across the globe. We are already excited about what is happening in Detroit, the projections we see of how Detroit is developing today. Now we are starting to connect here with industries globally. It is an exciting time.”
Faulkner said that the Michigan Central project is a way to showcase the creativity present in Detroit and the entire Midwest.
“It’s not the rust belt now, it’s the innovation belt,” Faulkner said. “Part of this project is building on the identity and character that is already here in Detroit. We are reinforcing the positive aspects of Detroit, its history. Then there’s the rejuvenation element. This project is another indication that Detroit is in the middle of this rejuvenation period.”