Ford Aims to Revive a Detroit Train Station, and Itself


By renovating a symbol of the city’s decline, the company hopes to create a magnet for the talent needed to prevail in the next automotive era.

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The historic Michigan Central Station in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood, mostly unused since the last train departed in 1988, is being bought and renovated by Ford Motor.CreditNick Hagen for The New York Times

DETROIT — For the past year, Ford Motor has been working on a plan to reinvigorate its operations and jump-start profit growth. Now, as that strategy is just being put into place, the automaker is taking on another big renovation project: the city of Detroit and the hulking remains of its dilapidated train station.

Ford has purchased the Michigan Central Station, the abandoned and graffiti-covered 18-story office tower and train station that looms over the Corktown neighborhood. With its smashed and darkened windows, the station had long stood as the most recognizable symbol of Detroit’s decades of decline.

Ford sees the move as part of the race for supremacy in the next automotive era.

“To me this is about inventing the future,” William C. Ford Jr., the company’s chairman and a great-grandson of the automaker’s founder, said in an interview.

Ford wants the station, after reopening in about four years, to be a lure for young professionals who now gravitate toward high-tech hubs like Silicon Valley. “To me this is about inventing the future,” William C. Ford Jr., the company’s chairman, said.CreditSean Proctor for The New York Times

The company expects the renovated station, where the last train departed in 1988, to reopen in about four years. It is intended to be the centerpiece of a new urban campus that will focus on the developing businesses that use self-driving cars, like ride-hailing services and delivery companies.

“It’s so much more than just the restoration of an iconic building,” Mr. Ford said while pointing out features of the station’s crumbling interior, including its ticket windows and a vast, open-air space that he envisions as a glassed-in atrium.

The once-grand depot was built in 1913 and features a soaring grand hall conceived by the architects who created Grand Central Terminal in New York. In the days before air travel, it provided a dramatic welcome to visitors arriving from New York, Chicago, Washington and elsewhere.

Corktown, west of downtown, was once a lively neighborhood settled by Irish immigrants. The area has popular dining spots, including the Mercury Burger Bar, but many empty lots and vacant buildings.CreditNick Hagen for The New York Times

As residents and employers fled Detroit over the years, however, train traffic dwindled and then ceased, and the station became a target of vandals, graffiti artists and photographers looking to capture images of urban decay. It has served as the backdrop for dystopian scenes in music videos and Hollywood movies, including “Transformers” and “Batman vs. Superman,” and has been used occasionally as an event space.

Ford has already bought other properties in the area and has moved about 200 employees into a building that was once a pantyhose factory. Mr. Ford said he hoped the Corktown campus would be part of a technology hotbed attracting start-ups, investors and other companies working on autonomous vehicles. To the west, it would include Ford’s main engineering center in Dearborn, and beyond it Ann Arbor, less than an hour away, where the University of Michigan is leading the development of two testing grounds for self-driving vehicles.

Ford thinks the Detroit presence in particular will attract young professionals who now gravitate toward Silicon Valley and other high-tech hubs, and typically steer clear of established companies whose corporate ways they see as sterile and rigid. It’s the same thinking that prompted McDonald’s to move to Chicago from the city’s suburbs, and General Electric to relocate to Boston from Fairfield, Conn.

“Our goal is to have the autonomous vehicle invented and proved out here, and to attract the entrepreneurs and young businesses that will enable that, so we really will be able to create the mobility corridor of the next 50 years,” Mr. Ford said.

A rendering of Michigan Central Station after its renovation.CreditFord

Ford is taking on the train station project when it still has plenty of work to do on itself. Just a few years ago, Ford was the healthiest of the three Detroit automakers, but it struggled to map out a clear strategy on electric vehicles, self-driving cars and other new technologies. It was also slow to add trucks and sport-utility vehicles to its model line as Americans were flocking to bigger, roomier vehicles.

Last year, with profits slumping and its stock price lagging, the company replaced its chief executive, Mark Fields, with Jim Hackett, a former head of the office-furniture maker Steelcase.

“I brought Jim in a year ago because I felt we needed to accelerate our pace of decision-making and start placing big bets in certain areas and needed to invent the future,” Mr. Ford said.

Parts of the interior being prepared for events Ford is putting on after acquiring the building.CreditNick Hagen for The New York Times
“Whenever you get into a renovation, you don’t know what you don’t know,” Mr. Ford said.CreditNick Hagen for The New York Times
In Detroit’s midcentury heyday, the station bustled with activity. Leaving for basic training after their military induction in 1943, men said farewell to their families.CreditBettmann/Getty Images

Ford bought the building for an undisclosed price from the family of Manuel J. Moroun, whose holdings include the Ambassador Bridge linking Detroit to Windsor, Ontario.

Mr. Ford said perhaps as many as 2,500 Ford employees would work at the Corktown campus anchored by the train station.

He declined to say how much Ford expected the renovation to cost and acknowledged that the final sum could rise above current estimates. “Whenever you get into a renovation, you don’t know what you don’t know,” he said.

But with economic incentives from the State of Michigan — expected to be detailed at an event with state and city officials at the station on Tuesday — the cost of the renovation “actually looks very favorable,” Mr. Ford said.

As Ford was building a Team Edison to focus on new businesses related to autonomous vehicles, Mr. Ford and company executives concluded that they would need a new location apart from Dearborn to house the group. It had to be an urban location where Generation Y professionals would want to work, and where self-driving cars would need to operate. During the search for such a location, Mr. Ford said, the potential of the train station and the possible impact on Detroit stood out.

Even before buying the train station, Ford had purchased other properties in the area. It has 200 employees in a building that was once a pantyhose factory.CreditNick Hagen for The New York Times
With its debris and graffiti, the train station long stood as the most recognizable symbol of Detroit’s decades of decline.CreditNick Hagen for The New York Times

“This is a really big, transformational event in the city’s revitalization,” said Sandy K. Baruah, chief executive of the Detroit Regional Chamber. “It’s going to pull development of the city westward, and to have a global investor in Detroit is really a green light to outside investors.”

While Ford’s commitment to Corktown is a potential milestone, the city still faces many challenges. Its school system is troubled, public transportation into and inside Detroit is scant, and many neighborhoods remain blighted, with some 20,000 abandoned homes.

“I don’t want to pretend that there aren’t some heavy lifts ahead of us,” Mr. Baruah said.

For now, though, Ford’s plan to renovate the station suggests that Detroit is on the rise.