Ford has ambitious plans for Detroit’s most beautiful ruin

DETROITERS still know how to throw a party. On June 19th more than 4,000 of the Motor City’s residents, government officials, artists, employees of Ford and members of the Ford family gathered at Michigan Central Station, a huge, dilapidated 18-floor Beaux-Arts hulk covered with graffiti, to celebrate its planned rebirth with speeches, music and poetry. Once the world’s tallest railway station, the vacant building became emblematic of the city’s descent into bankruptcy and despair. ‘“The train station is dead’ meant ‘Detroit is dead’,” said Mike Duggan, the mayor of Detroit, who was among the revellers. From the moment the last train left the station in 1988, its demolition was often discussed. Then Ford struck a deal to buy what Detroiters now hope will become a symbol of the city’s rebirth.

Detroit’s comeback is still tentative. Nearly all the recovery has happened in downtown and midtown, an area covering just seven of the city’s 139 square miles. City officials hope that such a symbolic investment will direct more development westward, even beyond Corktown, Detroit’s oldest neighbourhood, where the railway station stands. Once the fief of Irish Detroiters, Corktown has a few trendy places to eat, but many of its Victorian houses are abandoned. “This marks the first time where the whole renaissance of Detroit that we have seen happening downtown starts to flourish into the neighbourhoods,” says Big Sean, a rapper who performed at the Ford party alongside Tracy Smith, America’s poet laureate; Joshua McClendon, a Detroit-born cellist; and the Detroit Children’s Choir.

Get our daily newsletter

Upgrade your inbox and get our Daily Dispatch and Editor's Picks.

Latest stories

  • 6 hours ago
  • 6 hours ago
  • 9 hours ago
  • 10 hours ago
  • 10 hours ago
  • 12 hours ago

Ford is making a big bet on the gargantuan ruin. The first thing the company had to work out was whether the building was even structurally sound. Bill Ford, chairman of Ford and great-grandson of Henry Ford, will not say how much the company paid or what the renovation might cost, but he insists that a budget has been set aside for such big construction projects. “We underinvested for too long in our facilities,” says Mr Ford.

After surviving the recession as the healthiest of Detroit’s big three carmakers, Ford is going through a rough patch. Last year Mr Ford fired Mark Fields, his chief executive, and replaced him with Jim Hackett, a former boss of Steelcase, a maker of office furniture whose previous experience in carmaking consisted of 15 months as boss of Ford’s tech incubator.

Mr Hackett has announced a turnaround plan that involves cost cuts of $14bn over five years and a $1bn investment in Argo, a self-driving start up. But he has yet to persuade investors that he can transform Ford into a successful maker of electric and driverless cars while not losing sight of petrol-drinking vehicles, the company’s core business. Uber, Tesla and Waymo (Alphabet’s driverless-car unit) are all worth more than Ford or General Motors (GM), the other big domestic carmaker, even though they lose money, and bring in no more sales in a year than Ford or GM do in less than a month. Perhaps an alliance with Volkswagen that was announced on June 19th, at first to develop new commercial vehicles, will eventually deepen. A closer association might strengthen and energise Ford.

As well as the railway station, Ford is also spending $1bn on the redesign of the 80 buildings forming its headquarters in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb. It hopes that these two big renovation projects will help persuade shareholders that it is ready for the revolution in carmaking technologies, as well as ride-hailing and ride-sharing. Mr Ford wants Corktown to become the centre for the development of Ford’s driverless and electric cars. He hopes to lure young talent away from Silicon Valley to become part of Detroit’s comeback story.

Plans for the renovation are still vague, but Ford expects to use the ground floor for cafés, restaurants, shops and performance venues and to turn the higher floors into office space. The firm has been promised subsidies by the city and the state of Michigan, and has already received a few calls from potential tenants. It is planning to use half of the station’s 500,000 square feet for 2,500 new and existing employees and to lease out the other half, preferably to transport start ups.

For those with long memories, this initiative has a familiar ring. Henry Ford II, grandson of the firm’s founder, tried to revive the city’s fortunes in 1970 with the construction of the Renaissance Centre, a group of seven interconnected skyscrapers on the riverfront. It cost around $350m to build. The skyscrapers changed ownership several times and were finally bought by GM, Ford’s arch-rival, for only $72m. The experience has not deterred the Fords from trying again. “We have an emotional attachment to Detroit,” explains Mr Ford, and also a sense of responsibility to the city that made Ford a household name.

He can pride himself on already accomplishing one successful reinvention in Motor City. He remade Ford’s River Rouge plant, once a huge factory of belching smokestacks with its own electricity plant and integrated steel mill, into a test lab for green manufacturing methods. “What the Rouge was in the industrial age, Corktown will be to Ford in the information age,” reckons Mr Hackett.

This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline "The Ford Phoenix"