Ford plans $60M makeover in downtown Dearborn

Ian Thibodeau, and Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News

Ford Motor Co. knows it will take more than its established reputation to attract the next generation of employees to the company, so the automaker is injecting $60 million into its hometown of Dearborn.

Future employees will want to live where they work, says Donna Inch, chairman and CEO of Ford Land, and they won’t live in a city without a little charm.

Ford Motor Co. plans to redevelop three blocks in downtown Dearborn to include new office space, retail and a park.

“We wanted to make sure there was a viable and vibrant downtown,” Inch said. “We’re not going anywhere ... (there is) the same commitment to this city as our home.”

The automaker plans to redevelop unused buildings and land across about three blocks on the city’s West Downtown District into new office and retail space. The redevelopment site sits two miles west of the Ford World Headquarters on Michigan Avenue.

“It’s huge,” Dearborn Mayor John B. O’Reilly said of the plan. “When the recession hit, we got hit very hard ... this is really a game-changer.”

The mixed-use development known as Wagner Place calls for saving the facade of the historic 120-year-old Wagner Hotel, which has been vacant for 10 years. Other buildings will be renovated. It is scheduled for mid-2018 completion.

The project area presented Tuesday sits south of Michigan Avenue between Mason and Oakwood Boulevard. The site zig-zags from the corner of Mason and West Village Drive, which is currently a parking lot, and skips around a cluster of bars on Michigan Avenue. The site crosses Monroe and takes in the former location of Kiernan’s Steakhouse, which is being torn down.

Ford Motor Co. plans to redevelop three blocks in downtown Dearborn to include new office space, retail and a park, according to documents presented to the Michigan Strategic Fund. The project, one part of a massive 10-year plan for Ford, will cost roughly $60 million to complete.

Ford plans to demolish most existing structures at the site, but the Wagner Hotel facade on the corner of Monroe and Michigan will front a new three-story mixed-use building with first-floor commercial space and office space for the automaker on the second and third floors.

A second mixed-use building is expected to have a similar configuration. A four-story parking garage would be constructed on what is now a surface parking lot.

To boost the city’s walkability, new buildings along Michigan Avenue will be set back from the Wagner Hotel building so the sidewalks can be widened.

The final price tag will be about $60 million by Ford’s estimation. Plans also call for a city-built $20 million parking garage and improved infrastructure at the site, but state officials on Tuesday approved $31.4 million in local and school tax captures that will help pay for those components, according to Dearborn Mayor John B. O’Reilly. The tax increment capture will begin in 2019 and is estimated to continue for 30 years.

The parking structure constructed on the southwest end of the development site will be owned and operated by the city. Plans also call for public green space between the parking garage and the new buildings fronting Michigan Avenue.

On Tuesday, state officials also approved a $3 million performance grant for the project.

Ford’s Inch said, “We’re very excited about this, because when you’ve been in Dearborn as long as we have — this is the birthplace of our founder — you become very committed to its livelihood,” said Inch.

The project is part of Ford’s 10-year plan to redevelop its outdated properties into a walkable, aesthetically pleasing work environment. The master plan calls for the relocation of 30,000 employees to two renovated Ford campuses in Dearborn.

The Wagner Place project will be the new workplace for 600 of those Ford employees and create 200 jobs for the automaker. The project will also add around 50 non-Ford jobs in retail space.

Both Inch and O’Reilly see the plan as an incentive for current Dearborn residents to stick around, and for future Ford employees to consider living in the city the company calls home.

“It’s also clear younger generations of workers really want to work closer to where they live,” Inch said. “And to be able to live where they want to work, they really need vibrant downtown areas. That’s really what they’re looking for.”

Inch said Ford has a firm analyzing what’s needed to fill the retail space planned for the project. “There will be great things coming in there,” she said.

The Ford redevelopment complements the city’s “place-making” efforts and will be a “talent magnet for sure,” said Barry Murray, Dearborn’s director of economic and community development.

“We’re already getting increased calls just because of the news about this idea,” Murray said, indicating that Dearborn is committed to the mixed-use project as Ford works to develop the “workplace of the future.”

Ford’s 10-year plan includes demolishing certain facilities and updating existing ones. Ford will build a new design center and zero-waste sustainability showcase building, and will completely renovate the interior of the Glass House headquarters. Early renderings call for basketball courts and softball fields; walkable paths with lakes, flowers and trees; and the ability for employees to move around the campuses using e-bikes, autonomous cars and shuttles.

For O’Reilly, the Wagner Place project is the latest in a long symbiotic relationship with Ford, and could restart the narrative that Dearborn is an affordable alternative to the bustling — now growing — greater downtown Detroit, where property values and rental rates continue to rise.

“This is going to be their catalyst for driving up property value,” O’Reilly said. “We’re working on selling ourselves as a great alternative to downtown Detroit.”

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau