Ford seeks urban cred in Corktown

Louis Aguilar, and Nora Naughton
The Detroit News

For the last decade in Detroit’s oldest neighborhood, the economic engines driving Corktown’s rebirth have been hand-crafted cocktails, restaurants using locally grown ingredients, funky independent retailers, and restored workers’ cottages and brick buildings dating to the 1800s.

Amid buzz over Ford’s plans, artist Joel Grothaus is worrying he’ll get priced out of Corktown.

All that hipness could lead to only one thing: Corporate America wants in.

News leaked this week that Ford Motor Co. is in talks to buy the most anti-suburban office park imaginable: Michigan Central Depot. The towering former train station is most infamous symbol of Detroit’s urban decay, vacant for 30 years and stripped and defaced by scrappers and vandals.

The Dearborn-based automaker may overhaul the train station and convert at least part of it for forward-looking segments of the company, such as data and analytics teams or those working on electrification and self-driving cars. Reviving the building could cost hundreds of millions.

Ford is considering such a heavy investment for the same reason Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert is restoring once-blighted historic downtown buildings: The automaker hopes Corktown and the former train station can give it urban credibility with young technology workers who might otherwise go to work in Silicon Valley or other attractive tech centers.

“Millennial professional talent, including technical talent, is simply much more interested in urban authenticity — dense places and retro legacy buildings,” said Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy program, a Washington think tank.“This generation is recoiling from the suburban office park.”

Ford’s potential move impressed millennial tech worker Kristina Fracassa, a part-time financial analyst at General Motors Co. She lives in nearby Midtown.

“When I heard the news, one of my first reactions was, ‘I wish GM would do that,’ ” Fracassa said as she sat Tuesday in Mudgie’s Deli and Wine Shop. The Brooklyn Street establishment is one of the two dozen or so independent eateries and bars in restored historic Corktown buildings.

“It would be amazing,” Fracassa said, to work in the former train station. She added with a slight grimace, “I work in Warren.”

The 18-story Michigan Central Depot opened in 1913 and closed permanently in 1988. Its main waiting room, meant to resemble an ancient Roman bathhouse, has marble floors and 541/2-foot ceilings. But weather and scavengers have so thoroughly degraded the structure that it’s been the setting for such apocalyptic Hollywood movies as “Transformers” and “The Island.”

The building stands tall over Corktown. The neighborhood got its name from Ireland’s County Cork, the ancestral home of many who settled there in the mid-1800s before moving to other neighborhoods in the city.

By the 1960s, highway construction and industrialization had flattened entire blocks of the former Irish neighborhood and cut it to pieces. Corktown’s decline accelerated when the Tigers moved from Tiger Stadium to downtown’s Comerica Park after the 1999 season. Longtime watering holes and businesses near the corner of Michigan and Trumbull closed their doors.

But bit by bit, signs of life returned to the neighborhood as one destination restaurant after another opened in rehabbed brick buildings. Ryan Cooley, owner of O’Conner Real Estate and Development in Corktown, was an investor with his family in ventures along Michigan Avenue, including Slows Bar BQ. That restaurant was a catalyst for what has become one of the hippest business districts in the city.

Cooley, who never believed the train station would open again as a working building, has watched investment trends in the neighborhood for the past decade-plus.

“It was small entrepreneurs and others who love historic preservation,” he said. “It’s still that, but now there’s more people who hint they represent large companies and investors. We have been on the verge of big corporate investment for a while, it seems.”

Ford already has invested in Corktown. In May it will move a 225-person “Team Edison” into a redeveloped industrial space at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Rosa Parks Boulevard. Workers at “The Factory” will work on business models for electric and self-driving vehicles. The new office is standard millennial space: plenty of exposed beams, big factory windows and wood floors.

Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr. has publicly pushed the company’s interest in establishing a bigger presence in Corktown. The Ford family has roots in County Cork, where founder Henry Ford’s father was born.

“I’ve seen Detroit at its best, and I’ve seen it at its worst,” Bill Ford said in December when the company announced it purchased its first Corktown property. “We want to be part of it.”

The company’s strategy there complements a 10-year ongoing renovation of its world headquarters in Dearborn, and a $60 million mixed-use development in west Dearborn that is transforming that city.

The train station is far from a done deal, sources say. Beyond the train station, Ford may either purchase or occupy an abandoned book depository near the train station. An announcement is expected by May.

Big corporate investment means rising rents.

Joel Grothaus is an artist who for the past two years has shared studio space in a former Catholic school that’s a block from Michigan Central Depot. He seems to represent the kind of creative spirit that Ford seeks.

“One of my first thoughts was whether I will get priced out of the neighborhood,” he said. “Finding reasonable rent for artist studios is getting more challenging.”

Twitter: @LouisAguilar_DN