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Detroit — A “city within a city” is what architects promise for the $1 billion mixed-use development on the former site of the iconic J. L. Hudson Co. department store.

“We’ve heard the stories about what Hudson’s was to Detroit, but how is this site going to change as we move forward? What are those experiences going to be?” said Bill Sharples, principal of SHoP Architects, during a ceremonial groundbreaking for the project on Thursday. The New York-based firm and Detroit-based Hamilton Anderson Associates are designing the project.

“What really drove us for the last three and a half years is figuring out what those experiences were going to be.”

When the 1 million-square-foot project is complete — at some point beyond 2020 — those experiences will attract Detroiters and visitors from around the world, he said.

“We’re going to have kids that are going to come here and make and play with robots in the makers space,” Sharples said. “We’re going to have potentially chefs in the market hall creating new ideas, new foods. Artists having eureka moments in the galleries and the studio in the exhibition hall.

“We’re going to have music, dance, tech talks in the flex hall space. We’re going to have innovation conferences in the main hall. We’re going to have the state-of-the-art tech space to draw the youngest and the brightest to Detroit. And, most importantly, we’re going to have people living on the site. This is going to be a 24/7 community.”

Sharples’ comments Thursday were among a speaker list including Dan Gilbert, Bedrock’s founder and chairman, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley and Joe Hudson, the former CEO of the J.L. Hudson Co.

After nearly two decades as a vacant space in the heart of Detroit’s downtown, Bedrock and officials celebrated a project that includes the city’s tallest skyscraper at 800 feet.

It will exceed General Motors Co.’s Renaissance Center, which stands at 727 feet. The tower will be topped with a multi-level public observation deck that, based on renderings, angles out at the building’s highest point so visitors can take in the city’s highest skyline views.

“When we break ground today, we’re going to send a powerful message about the future of Detroit,” Gilbert said.

Its $1 billion price tag, which was noted by Bedrock, is up roughly $100 million from previous projections.

Even in this decade of booming downtown development, the new construction cost for the massive new development puts the project in an elite group.

Little Caesars Arena, the sports and entertainment complex that debuted this fall, cost $863 million to build. The planned Gordie Howe International Bridge, which will connect Detroit and Windsor, has a $2.1 billion construction cost. If the permanent MGM Grand Detroit were built today, it would cost $1.2 billion, based on an inflation-adjusted estimate of its $800 million cost in 2007.

Gilbert said the development, which renderings show will have a glassy appearance, is designed to draw people in and around the space — not just at the site but to retailers in the area.

“We want people to see in it and people to see out,” he said. “That’s the whole point. We want to push traffic, people into the streets to shop. You have to have an experience. When you come to an urban city, it’s an experience.”

The development will feature 425,000 square feet of residential space, 240,000 square feet of office space, 120,000 square feet of event space and 100,000 square feet of retail space. There will also be 700-plus underground parking spaces.

There will be two buildings with a pedestrian walkway in between. A residential tower will house 330 units.

The building remains unnamed.

“We really truly don’t have a name,” Gilbert said. “The Hudson’s is so tied to the site that we would like to somehow incorporate it. That will probably come within the next year or two.”

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Gilbert said there has been interest from several companies in occupying space in the development.

“There’s one or two within (the Quicken Loans family of companies), but it won’t be the majority,” he said. “But there’s some big, large, known brand names that I’m not at liberty to discuss that have shown interest in the place.”

The Hudson’s store closed in 1983 and the site has been vacant since the building was imploded in 1998. It sits above an underground parking structure.

Mayor Mike Duggan told those gathered at the event that “instead of this site being a sign of our decline, this site is a sign of our recovery.”

New renderings were revealed Thursday and visitors at the groundbreaking had a virtual reality experience on site.

The groundbreaking had been years in the making for Bedrock. Gilbert’s firms have had development rights to the property since 2007.

Joe Hudson, a great-nephew of the company’s founder, Joseph Lowthian Hudson, said the company went out on a high note.

“Hudson’s stood for quality, and we did things for the city,” he said. “We held the parade, had the fireworks. I think it’s a good memory.”

Hudson said he’s impressed with the development. Along with others, he waited nearly 20 years for there to be a plan for the vacant site.

“This was a hole that needed to be filled, so now you see what’s going to come,” he said. “We’re happy.”

But not all of Detroit was celebrating the milestone moment in the downtown.

About 15 protesters, some carrying signs, chanted “Bedrock you’ve gone too far, who the hell do you think you are?” One sign read “Corporate Welfare King” with pictures of Gilbert on it.

The group, called Detroit People’s Platform, said the city’s Community Benefits Agreement with Gilbert was too weak. Gilbert’s company should be required to have a specific number of Detroit-owned businesses and affordable housing in the development of the new skyscraper.

Amina Kirk, a senior legal/police advocate of the Detroit People’s Platform, said they want to see a specific plan on how the developers will hire 51 percent Detroit residents to work on the project.

Detroit last year passed a ballot measure requiring developers to provide community benefits for projects worth at least $75 million or for those that would expand or renovate structures where a developer seeks city-owned land or tax breaks of at least $1 million. Detroit also mandates that 51 percent of the workers on construction projects be Detroit residents.

The group said residents who were included in the process as a part of the Community Benefits Agreement were not given access to project financials.

“(Gilbert) would never make a deal without details,” Kirk said.

Gilbert on Thursday acknowledged difficulties in hiring Detroiters because of a lack of large skilled trades workforce in the city.

“We’re going to be short tradesmen,” Gilbert said. “What a shame anyone should be unemployed in Detroit when we have a shortage of skilled trades.”

The Hudson’s site project is among four developments packaged for consideration for $250 million in state financing through the new Michigan Thrive legislation. About 11 percent of the total project cost for the site will be covered by the initiative, according to Bedrock officials.

Bedrock and the city of Detroit are expected to make a request in March before the strategic fund for approval of the Transformational Brownfield Plan incentive package. If approved, that will be the last step in the approval process, said Kathy Achtenberg, spokeswoman for the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

On Thursday, Gilbert rebuffed critics who call the state financing corporate welfare. Supporters have said the redevelopment of vacant buildings, creates jobs and generates tax revenue for the city.

“I don’t think they understand the work,” he said. “I think they should do what I’m doing. Because if they did and really did, they would understand what it is. That’s not what it is.”

Christopher Ilitch, president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings, whose company celebrated this fall the opening of the Little Caesars Arena a few blocks north on Woodward, congratulated Gilbert on the groundbreaking.

“This landmark development will bring even more energy to Detroit and make a lasting, positive impact on our community by creating another exciting destination on Woodward Avenue,” Ilitch said in a statement. “Combined with the many other exciting things happening in our community, the Hudson’s site development adds to the growth and progress in our city, state and region.”

cwilliams@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @CWilliams_DN

Staff Writer Louis Aguilar contributed.

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