Detroit — It was five years ago today that the billionaire Dan Gilbert and the first wave of Quicken Loans Inc. workers moved downtown from Livonia. Since then nothing’s been the same.
"There's going to be a lot more that is coming here in the coming year," Gilbert told his employees of the online mortgage firm Aug. 17, 2010, in the elegant lobby of the Compuware building at Campus Martius.
Five years ago, Gilbert didn’t own an inch of downtown property. Now, the total square footage of all the property he owns, or entities linked to him, is larger than the main campus of Wayne State University. Now he’s talking about building new, including making an iconic statement in the former Hudson’s site — plans are expected to be revealed by the end of this year.
His buying binge may be unprecedented for a major American city, some contend.
“I don’t know of any other major downtown where one private individual controls so much property; let alone collect that property within five years,” said Robin Boyle, a Wayne State professor of urban planning. “He is rare. What he is doing is transformative.”
A total of 78 properties, amounting to 12.5 million square feet of real estate, are controlled by Gilbert or entities linked to the Detroit native. He possesses prized skyscrapers, a major chunk of Woodward Avenue, the Greektown Casino & Hotel, 17,000 parking spaces, and prominent empty spaces like the former Hudson’s site.
“Downtown now; I can’t believe it,” said George David, 48, of Southfield, as he sat in the Roasting Plant cafe Monday morning. The cafe is among the dozens of small retailers Gilbert has wooed downtown. It’s in a restored historic skyscraper, the First National Building, owned by Gilbert. Outside the cafe is the construction of M-1 Rail, the streetcar Gilbert helped finance.
“It’s amazing how many people are down here now,” David said as he looked at the crowded sidewalks and people gathering at Campus Martius park across the street. “All the new stuff, I actually thought I’d never see it come back like this.”
Gilbert now owns so much of the 1.4 square miles that comprise the central business district, some of his critics have dubbed it “Gilbertville.” Developers, employees and other observers say this about his impact:
■ He moved downtown at the right time and with deep pockets. Downtown was reeling from the global recession in 2010. The number of big, empty buildings was growing at an alarming rate. The Detroit News counted 48 vacant structures at the time.
Prior to the recession, downtown had begun to make tremendous strides in luring young, educated people to live in the city center. Companies such as General Motors, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Compuware and DTE Energy made major investments. Gilbert built on that momentum and took advantage of bargain basement prices and wasted no time overhauling his properties.
“I went on a skyscraper sale,” he said in 2013.
The founder of the nation’s biggest online mortgage company could afford it.
“Unlike many other developers, he has a very significant balance sheet,” said Eric Larson, a developer that once worked for Gilbert’s Bedrock Real Estate Services. “He can move faster.”
Larson and others credit Gilbert’s buying spree for helping downtown rebound from the recession and continue to grow during the city’s bankruptcy.
He also had a strategy, said Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber.
“Dan curated, like a museum director would curate a collection, he curated downtown, “ Baruah said. “He would buy (a building) for this kind of business. Then he would buy the building next to that one. He sequenced the attraction of those businesses that made sense.”
So far, $1.8 billion has been invested in Detroit, the majority of it downtown, Gilbert officials have said.
■ He’s banking on technology, millennials and walkability. He’s counting on his wealth and connections to create a cluster of entrepreneurial companies that will lure other start-ups away from Chicago, New York and Silicon Valley.
From early on, he began to call his vision "Detroit 2.0." He constantly touts the city in various forums and in the media. He urges his vendors to move downtown. “By being downtown, in one place, other businesses will emerge,” he said during a 2011 presentation at TEDxDetroit. “You can’t do the same things working from Ann Arbor to Mount Clemens to Southfield."
In 2013, Gilbert bankrolled a blueprint for downtown called “Place-making Vision for Downtown Detroit.” It outlined six districts that would be reinvented using “place-making,” a concept that involves boosting a community’s ability to attract and retain businesses and workers. The districts are Lower Woodward; Campus Martius/Cadillac Square/Monroe; Woodward Avenue; Capitol Park; the Library District; and Grand Circus Park.
“It is most extraordinary project that I have worked on in my entire career,” he said at the time.
Gilbert comes under fire
Some say he is already wielding too much power. He’s come under fire by several local small businesses and the American Civil Liberties Union for the privately owned surveillance center operated by Gilbert’s Rock Ventures, which uses dozens of security cameras on Gilbert-owned buildings to monitor downtown. The ACLU charges Gilbert is unlawfully snooping on the activities of people in public spaces such as Campus Martius.
Some small independent businesses contend he’s a bully. Two years ago, the owner of Angelina’s Italian Bistro in the Gilbert-owned M@dison Building filed a lawsuit against Bedrock. The restaurant charged it was facing eviction for, among other things, not cooperating with Bedrock demands.
"They don't like that we continue to act as an independent business,” said Tom Agosta, co-owner of the restaurant, in a previous interview. “We didn't want to give 10 percent discounts to his employees, we didn't want to open for lunch. We have been judged not to be team players in the Dan Gilbert empire." The lawsuit was dropped; the restaurant wasn’t evicted. While many small downtown retailers praise Gilbert and his impact, others fear they will be pushed out.
His legacy has yet to be determined. A real test of his vision will come when M-1 Rail, the street car along Woodward Avenue, comes online in 2017, many contend. Gilbert helped fund the new mass transit line and he’s counting on it to revive the many Woodward Avenue buildings he owns.
“It makes all the sense in the world not to open up a new retail outlet when there’s construction at your front door,” said Brian Holdwick, an executive vice president at the Detroit Economic Growth Corp.
Set to tackle blight
As it stands now, he says he’s looking beyond downtown now and wants to build new things. He is still buying downtown property, but, he’s also attempting to help tackle one issue that plagues neighborhoods: blight.
He is one of the co-chairs of the Detroit Blight Task Force, which used data to get an accurate count of how much blight pervades the city. It found Detroit has 84,641 properties that are blighted or vacant. It’s estimated it will cost $850 million to eliminate them.
Gilbert acknowledged the effort is a way to address the gap between a surging downtown and struggling neighborhoods.
"That is not sustainable," he said in the past.
“This is a major opportunity to do what has been down outside the bubble," of downtown and Midtown, said the Rev. Dr. Wendell Anthony, senior pastor of Fellowship Chapel.
He’s also buying property outside the central business district. In June, Quicken Loans opened its new 66,000-square-foot data facility and office complex in Corktown. Gilbert, just as he said the day moved to Detroit, said the future of post-bankruptcy Detroit is in technology
He also said he will begin to focus on new construction. "For a city to really get there, you have to have cranes in the air."