Stephen Ross's take on Detroit can be boiled down to two words: tough love.
Here was one of the nation's largest real estate developers, whose net worth Forbes magazine pegs at $6.5 billion, driving around a Detroit that looked nothing like the city of his childhood or years at the University of Michigan and Wayne State University.
"When I was in Detroit a year and a half ago and really toured everything, it brought tears to my eyes to see what had happened to that city," Ross, chairman of The Related Companies and a major benefactor to UM, said in a rare interview. "To me, it was a question of racism — why it happened. And making sure it doesn't happen again."
Ross, 74, has donated more than $300 million to UM, whose business school carries his name and so will a refurbished athletic complex. He is chairing the school's $4 billion "Victors for Michigan" campaign, and is scheduled to speak Thursday at Wayne State Law School, where he earned a law degree in 1965.
He doesn't mince words. He sees a Detroit that has "lost a lot of its relevance" now struggling to rebuild itself from the rubble of bankruptcy, de-industrialization and declining population. He sees a city largely misunderstood by outsiders steeped in an old story of urban decline, if they bother to think about Detroit at all.
He sees flashes of revival downtown and in Midtown. But he cautions that any serious effort to make Detroit a "live, work and play" place that can attract residents in meaningful numbers will require more private-sector jobs and much better services than the city is delivering.
"If you look at the country today, they don't think about automobiles," Ross said. "When I grew up there and lived there, the world was all about automobiles. Today it's all about technology. And not a lot is heard about Detroit, except that it went bankrupt.
"You go around the country and say, 'I'm from Detroit,' and they think the whole place is dead. It's not. Danny Gilbert — I give him all the credit in the world," he continued, referring to the chairman of Quicken Loans Inc. and his downtown redevelopment binge.
"He's done a great, great job. Thank God for him. Ya' know, it's got to be more than him. And it's got to be bigger than downtown."
Ross should know. His Related Companies arguably is the most prominent privately held real estate development company in the nation. Among other things, it developed Time Warner Center in New York and is developing a 10 million-square-foot project in Santa Clara, California, the heart of Silicon Valley.
And it has $13 billion in construction underway in its 20 million-square-foot Hudson Yards project on the west side of Manhattan, a massive development on a site that has for years vexed successive mayoral administrations and some of the best real estate minds in New York.
In a piece three years ago headlined "The Billionaire Who is Rebuilding New York," Forbes magazine said: "If he can pull this off, Hudson Yards will become the most significant private development project in Manhattan since John D. Rockefeller Jr. spent $250 million to create the 22-acre Rockefeller Center in the 1930s, expanding and re-centering America's largest and densest city."
In other words, Ross is a guy with a hunger for what he calls "transformative" projects. Which begs the question: what can be more potentially transformative than Detroit, the national capital of urban dissolution and population flight now on the other side of Chapter 9 bankruptcy?
His company is in the process of exploring that question, partly at the urging of Peter Cummings, a prominent developer who chaired the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and is married to a daughter of the late Max Fisher, Ross' uncle. A team from Related's Chicago office is coming to Detroit "to see if that's something we want to do."
"One project would be housing. I started doing affordable housing, learning the real estate business when I first started," he said. "Detroit is a bigger challenge. You have to look at it as a process. You have to create jobs, and you have to make sure you have all the deliverables there.
"The government's got to have a plan of how they can create jobs and bring those jobs to Detroit, to create this live, work and play environment. Then people will come into Detroit. It's not going to happen overnight. Everybody's talking about the miracle of Detroit. The miracle is it's starting to come back; it's not getting worse. But you've got a long way to go."
He's right, of course, as any realistic local familiar with Detroit's decades-long fall would concede. Detroit's long road back to respectability and economic sustainability is a long process that requires disciplined focus on the basics of government — providing services, financial accountability and public safety to residents and those who could be.
Whether Ross or his company become part of the road back remains to be seen. Yet there is no denying this New York real estate mogul is emotionally yoked to Detroit and Michigan's flagship university — the kind of giving back he says he learned from his Uncle Max, one of Metro Detroit's most prominent philanthropists.
"He was always a role model, initially from afar and then later in life when he slowed down and I was somewhat successful," Ross said of Fisher, the best man in Ross' 2001 wedding. "If there's any one thing you could say that I learned from him it was the desire to give back to make the world a better place."
Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and can be found at http://detroitnews.com/staff/27151