Howes: Ford’s Corktown bid builds neighborhood capital

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

A deal for Ford Motor Co. to redevelop the Michigan Central Depot into a vehicles-of-the-future hub isn’t even done yet — and it may never be. But that won’t stop lamentations about corporate encroachment into Corktown, Detroit’s oldest neighborhood.

New businesses are seen along Michigan Avenue next to the established Slows BBQ in Corktown.

Am I missing something?

Not long after Quicken Loans Inc. Chairman Dan Gilbert began what became his roll-up of something approaching 100 buildings downtown, a meme started to build: What about the neighborhoods? The more his redevelopment march quickened, the louder the refrain grew.

It’s a legitimate point, now with proven political potency. So much so that it shaped last year’s mayoral campaign, powered philanthropic initiatives like the Kresge Foundation’s financial rescue of Marygrove College, and infused business community talking points: The reinvention of Detroit, the thinking goes, shouldn’t stop at West Grand Boulevard, the Lodge and Interstate 375.

Enter the 114-year-old Blue Oval, Bill Ford Jr. and his family legacy to both Detroit and Ireland’s County Cork. Should Ford reach agreement with the train station’s owner, Matty Moroun’s Central Transport International Inc., to acquire the station and surrounding property, it would bring a global business imprimatur and massive financial infusion to the historic neighborhood.

In taxpaying jobs. In increased business activity, much of it focused on next-generation technology. In rising property values and, yes, probably rising rents. Isn’t that what investing in “the neighborhoods” is supposed to be all about — using private capital to eliminate blight by renovating dilapidated real estate, increasing the tax base?

Just like downtown. To generate jobs and tax revenue. To convert unproductive, unattractive property, scarred by decades of weather and scavenging, into productive economic activity. To attract Detroiters and non-Detroiters back to a space frequented mostly by foreign tourists eager to export pictures of our “ruin porn” back to their European pals.

And to show cynics, especially those right here in our collective backyard, that Detroit’s arc of reinvention keeps bending higher and wider. That 30 years of disuse can be overcome with vision backed by cash. That even the most dominant symbol of the city’s industrial decline and financial near-collapse can be repurposed, preferably with historical integrity.

Yup, which means you can’t have it both ways: can’t call for more capital in the neighborhoods and then complain when it looks like it just might come and raise prices for some. It’s not only contradictory; it’s unseemly and vaguely whiny all at the same time.

That’s how market demand works, folks. If the Blue Oval manages to wrest control of the station from Moroun’s aging fingers and convert it into a productive parcel again — to make that corner of Corktown the center of the Dearborn automaker’s mobility-and-autonomy development — it could be the biggest economic infusion in Detroit since Gilbert moved his first wave of employees here from Livonia eight years ago.

Not so much for the number of jobs Ford’s move would bring (most likely a fraction of the 17,000 working in Detroit for Gilbert’s Rock Family of Companies). But for the symbolism, and reality, of next-century, tech-driven transportation being developed for markets around the world in a building opened 105 years ago, on the eve of World War I.

Look, this could be the beginning of the next wave for Detroit. Downtown office space is scarce and getting more expensive. New incentives passed by the state Legislature are making big, expensive projects more affordable, if not profitable. And smart money (along with savvy politicians) is starting to focus development chops outside downtown, Midtown and the Ilitch family zone around Little Caesar’s Arena.

On Wednesday, Mayor Mike Duggan said the city would spend $7 million to acquire roughly 142 acres of the State Fairgrounds site — about as far north as it’s possible to get in Detroit and still be within city limits — and begin the process of redevelopment.

And last month, the Troy-based Kresge Foundation confirmed it already has invested $16 million in refinancing and maintenance fees to keep Marygrove College afloat, chiefly because of its educational pedigree and its importance to the Fitzgerald and Bagley.

That all spells progress, outside of downtown. And if Ford can realize its evolving Auto 2.0 vision for Corktown, that’ll be a big win for at least one Detroit neighborhood — and an example worth emulating for a few more.

(313) 222-2106

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