Detroit – His name isn’t Gilbert or Ilitch, but the president of Wayne State University is driving a redevelopment engine all his own.

“A lot is happening here,” says M. Roy Wilson, the Harvard-educated eye doctor who arrived in summer 2013 to lead Wayne State. “We’ve been struggling with less state resources. We’ve been able to use our philanthropy to offset some of that.”

Credit a $17.8 million unrestricted gift from Sam and Helen Hartman, owners of Hartman Appliance. Their donation enabled Wayne State to remain a player in Midtown efforts that otherwise would have been difficult for a public university to join — a $3 million commitment to help fund the M-1 rail project, an investment in the Live Midtown initiative and support for Midtown Inc., among others.

It’s making a difference, positioning Wayne State as an active bridge between Mike Ilitch’s $1.2 billion Detroit District development on the northern edge of downtown and a Midtown redefining itself and the notion of what’s possible in a major American city prematurely given up for dead.

“They are having an impact,” Rodrick Miller, president of the quasi-governmental Detroit Economic Growth Corp., says of Wayne State. “They’re trying to figure out how not only to increase their footprint, but make sure it is integrated. We undervalue them. They do punch well above their weight.”

That’s saying something in a town whose turnaround narrative too often begins with Quicken Loans Inc. Chairman Dan Gilbert’s empire of 80-something buildings and ends with the Ilitch family’s massive development project. Others are driving the reinvention, too, signaling a more broad-based effort with staying power.

“We do own a fair amount of land,” adds Wilson, “and we’re trying to be judicious how we develop it.” That includes a 1.5-acre parcel at Cass and Canfield, near the strip anchored by Shinola and the Jolly Pumpkin; historic homes being converted into student housing and a new alumni house at Ferry and Woodward; and the lot at the southwest corner of Warren and Woodward, prime Midtown real estate.

The Cass and Canfield site is being developed by Broder & Sachse Real Estate Services under a memorandum of understanding approved in 2013 by the university’s board of governors. A mixed residential and retail development, the project would include market-rate housing and a boutique hotel.

The Warren and Woodward site, cleared of its last few buildings, is being hungrily eyed by would-be developers, Wilson says. But the university is waiting to see if and how dynamics in the area change once the M-1 rail starts running and whether that will influence ideas for the site.

A new $50 million business school at Woodward and Temple, made possible by a $40 million gift from Mike Ilitch, expands the university’s reach south, burnishes Wayne State’s brand in a transforming downtown, and helps anchor the Ilitchs’ 45-block Detroit District development.

It doesn’t end there. The $26.5 million renovation of the Student Center Building in the heart of campus, with a bustling Starbucks that easily could be the busiest such counter in Metro Detroit, is a harbinger of a concerted push to upgrade student housing.

The university is preparing to convert the Queen Anne-style Thompson House, the former home to the School of Social Work at Cass and Hancock, into student housing. It also is planning a $100 million student housing project that would demolish the Helen DeRoy apartments and build two new student apartment buildings on Anthony Wayne Drive for a net gain of 430 student beds.

Further north, the university is negotiating the sale of its 180,000-square-foot Criminal Justice Building to a developer. The plan is to convert the building, on the west side of Cass between Burroughs and York, into luxury apartments that would be less than a block from Wayne State’s new Integrative Biosciences Center.

The 200,000-square-foot iBio center, opened last summer, retains the historic facade of the defunct Dalgleish Cadillac dealership. Its three floors feature collaborative work spaces, labs and other areas that are intended to create an interdisciplinary group of experts working on common problems in behavioral health, environmental sciences and metabolic diseases.

No fewer than five Wayne State schools — from pharmacy and nursing to engineering and medicine — are represented inside iBio, a symbol of the adaptive reuse of iconic Detroit in the service of something that is decidedly 21st-century.

That’s being part of the solution. The town’s got great bones, buildings and architecture erected in a golden age now being revived by business titans and small business people, entrepreneurs and universities with the vision to see what’s possible — and to make it happen.

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.

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