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Inside Ford’s plan to remake Detroit–and itself

Detroit needs Ford–but Ford may need Detroit even more.

Ford has a problem: The 110-year-old company has a reputation for being slow to innovate, and that’s not only hurting its stock price, it’s also preventing Ford from attracting big talent.

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To help position itself as a 21st-century innovator, Ford has scooped up 1.2 million square feet of property in a Detroit neighborhood called Corktown, a historic district that borders the industrial west side of the city, and hired architecture firm Snøhetta to do the design work. Executive chairman Bill Ford says he wants to create a thrumming commercial center aimed at both reviving the neighborhood’s local economy and drawing better talent to Ford.

The timing couldn’t be more auspicious. Big tech companies like Uber and Google are telling Americans that, in the not too distant future, self-driving cars will whisk them away with the touch of the button. Oh, and no one will own their car; we’ll all just share a fleet of multipurpose vehicles. Car sales in the United States have grown significantly since 2009, but in the past three years, rates have stagnated, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Ford has been steadily investing in self-driving cars and electric vehicles since the mid-aughts, and the company has proven it can cut costs, grow revenue, and deliver earnings. Still, its stock price has been steadily trending downward since 2013. Investors have questions about where Ford fits into the future of transportation.

The Corktown project is both a symbolic and a literal manifestation of Ford’s quest to reinvent itself. As for Detroit: The project represents a major investment by a large corporation in a city that has seen its share of renewal efforts. The question is whether Ford can strike a balance between revitalizing the city enough to draw talented workers–without making it unaffordable for everyone else.

[Photo: courtesy Ford]

A sunny vision

Ford’s last big urban renewal project was Ford Field, the Lion’s football stadium that opened in 2002. Bill Ford and his father wanted to bring sports fans back from the suburbs and into the city. But as is the case with many sports complexes, it’s unclear how much the new stadium has actually contributed to economic growth in the city.

The Corktown development has different aims. As part of the new complex, Ford is fixing up Detroit’s marble columned Michigan Central Station, a Beaux Arts train station and office tower that’s fallen into disrepair over the more than 30 years it’s been abandoned. In addition to the train station, Ford has bought an old brass factory, an already refurbished factory, the former Detroit Public Schools Book Depository, and another two-acre parcel of land. Ford is moving quickly, too. Though the development isn’t expected to be complete until 2022, the company has already started moving workers into the renovated factory.

When I talked about the Michigan Central Station with Bill Ford, in May, he said the plan was to turn the old train station into a mixed-use space with shops, restaurants, public spaces, and offices for both Ford and a selection of startups. He cited San Francisco’s iconic Ferry building as an inspiration. Ford has previously worked with startup accelerator Techstars, investing in the organization’s mobility unit. The company hopes that creating an inspiring space for young entrepreneurs to commune with Ford employees working on some of company’s most cutting-edge projects will prove a colorful lure to engineers and business grads typically drawn to the more fashionable coastal cities.

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A city to inspire innovation

Ford has already put a lot of energy into becoming the kind of company that talented tech workers might like. In January it launched an incubator called Ford X, a sort of a test kitchen for transportation in the company’s Palo Alto facility. In addition to developing electrified vehicles and autonomous cars, Ford is also building a platform for connecting a spate of different transportation operations with the help of two companies it acquired, Autonomic and Transloc, both of which run software and logistics for transit services. Last winter the company invested $1 billion into Argo AI’s artificially intelligent self-driving technology.

To complement these initiatives, Bill Ford says the company needs an inspiring city for its workers to live in. “Detroit’s got a real buzz about it,” says Ford. “But, the city still has big issues.” The city’s school system is in distress, with over 200 positions unfilled. Detroit also ranks as the most dangerous city in America, according to data from the FBI’s 2016 crime report. But it does have one thing that most metros don’t: affordable housing.Ford is in the tricky position of wanting Detroit’s best assets–but also being poised to diminish them if it isn’t careful about how it approaches the new development.

The Snøhetta touch

Enter Snøhetta. The architecture firm is known for its thoughtful, site-specific approach to design, and it has already done some thinking around the future of urban spaces. Its Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a 2002 revival of the famed Library of Alexandria, in Egypt, was an international sensation. So was Snøhetta’s Oslo Opera House, the roof of which doubles as scenic walkway. Between 2010 and 2017, the firm transformed Times Square in New York from a series of high-traffic streets into a network of pedestrian plazas that made the hordes of tourists there bearable. With the project in Corktown, Craig Dykers, founding partner for Snøhetta, says he and his team are trying to ensure that the existing community is incorporated in their design plans. They are interviewing people in the region and thinking about what kind of training and other programming the new Ford complex will ultimately house.

[Photo: courtesy Ford]
Details of the project are still being worked out. But intriguingly, Dykers sees it as an opportunity to confront Ford’s history. “The vehicle or car or automobile has overtaken the city experience,” says Dykers. “They’ve created a great deal of congestion, displaced large numbers of people where freeways were built, they’ve taken away from vegetative landscapes in order to create more parking lots—all of these kinds of things. Although the idea of the automobile was very positive when it was invented, eventually it grew to become one of the more imposing characters of daily life.” These days the car, once used for private travel, is being recast as something that can be shared. There is an opportunity, he says, for the Michigan Central Train Station to find new life not just as a center for transit research, but as a transportation hub of some sort. Whether that means it will be a train station, pick-up and drop -off point for a bus system, or a destination for some other form of communal transit is unclear. (Snøhetta is also charged with modernizing Ford’s Dearborn headquarters for a post-personal vehicle future.) What better way to symbolize Ford’s transformation into a mobility company, not just a car company, than by revamping a historic hub of communal transportation?

The challenge, Dykers says, is to not build some abstract fictional utopian place that has no character; it’s to create a space that is reflective of both the company that Ford is and the one it wants to be. “We do not feel that creating a tabula rasa and putting a super sexy object in the middle of a field is going to help anyone,” he says.

The gentrification question

Will injecting money into Corktown displace old-time residents? That’s certainly happened in other cities when companies with lots of cash came in. Since 1998, median home prices have roughly tripled in parts of Silicon Valley. Meanwhile, the Bay Area has gentrified so dramatically that not only are long-time residents being pushed out, but even highly paid tech workers can’t afford to live there.

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Robert Silverman, professor of Urban and Regional planning at the University of Buffalo, says there’s always a concern that a flood of money will lead to swift gentrification, but because the train station has been abandoned for over 30 years, he believes there’s less of a likelihood that locals will been shunted out so quickly. “The area has been teetering between revitalizing and falling by the wayside for years,” he says. “There are definitely places that will develop slower around the old station, so there’s probably still space for things like affordable housing and business development that smaller mom-and-pop and local businesses can be involved in.”

Ford sees the Corktown project as a renewed effort to bring back wealth for all, and Silverman seems to think this will bear out. “When Ford’s doing well, people in the metropolitan area of Detroit are doing well, as well,” says Silverman. “It really does spread around more broadly than people might think.”

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About the author

Ruth Reader is a writer for Fast Company. She covers the intersection of real estate, technology, and the future of work.

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