UM to build 'innovation center' on old Wayne County jail site

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Detroit — Two hundred and two years after its founding in Detroit, the University of Michigan is poised to dramatically expand its presence in the city with a planned "center of innovation" on the site of the failed Wayne County Jail on Gratiot, The Detroit News has learned.

The $300 million center, set to be announced Wednesday morning, would be operated by the university and would provide master's level instruction and certificate education in technology-related fields for current and future businesses across the region, according to five sources familiar with the details.

Rendering of the $300 million innovation center on the site of Wayne County's failed jail that would be operated by the University of Michigan.

The plans would be supported by a substantial financial pledge from real estate mogul Stephen Ross, chairman of the New York-based Related Companies LP and the university's single largest donor. The total project, to be developed by Dan Gilbert's Bedrock Detroit real estate arm, likely would approach $750 million and would envision a campus-like setting including a conference-center hotel, academic building, a business incubator and, potentially, a residential component.

The university-operated center on the east side of downtown would represent a positive outcome for the costly "fail-jail" site that Wayne County Executive Warren Evans inherited from his predecessor, Bob Ficano, and worked with Gilbert to move elsewhere. Evans succeeded, and now Gilbert's Bedrock development arm is preparing to develop the site for UM and eventually donate the land to the university.

Demolition crews took down the failed Wayne County Jail site in 2018.

Meantime, following a property swap with the county, Gilbert's team is moving ahead with plans to build the county a new justice complex on a tract east of Interstate 75, freeing the Gratiot site for redevelopment like the one envisaged by Evans, Ross, Gilbert and the UM. 

The mayor's office pushed a statement late Tuesday afternoon saying Mayor Mike Duggan would "join leaders across many sectors — higher education, county, business and philanthropy — on Wednesday to make a major announcement on an investment that stands to make Detroit the country's next major tech center." Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is expected to attend, too.

The project, still in its formative stages, culminates a series of discussions between Ross and Gilbert about potentially transformative projects in the city, as well as UM President Mark Schlissel's aim to deepen the university's commitment to the state's largest city and its continuing reinvention.

“It’s incredibly validating that the University of Michigan has made the choice to return to Detroit," Christopher Thomas, co-founder and president of the Detroit Mobility Lab, wrote in an email. "They are joining an important and growing effort by Detroiters to create the talent that will power incumbent industry and the rising start-up ecosystem in our city and in cities around our country."

If realized, the center's presence would dramatically expand the Ann Arbor-based university's presence in the city, augmenting its Detroit Center, its Horace H. Rackham Education Memorial Building on Farnsworth and its School of Education's cradle-to-career partnership with Detroit Public Schools Community District on the Marygrove College campus.

More, a UM innovation center geared to technology-related education and training would add credibility to the city's effort — effectively led by Gilbert's family of tech companies and Quicken Loans Inc., the nation's largest mortgage lender — to reposition itself as a leading tech hub in the Midwest.

"They're really trying to build the ecosystem of training pathways to see business gets the talent they need," said Sandy Baruah, CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber.

A university-affiliated technology center aiming to produce, retain and attract talent for regional business is not a new concept. The UM center would reflect Cornell University's Cornell Tech campus on New York's Roosevelt Island, developed in part by Ross's company, as well as the University of Illinois System's Discovery Partners Institute.

Discovery Partners is a "collaborative research institute located in Chicago that is focused on building prosperity and growing the state of Illinois’ workforce by creating solutions to grand challenges," according to its website. Its mission "is to revitalize the Illinois economy by reinventing the role of the research university through interdisciplinary public-private partnerships that aggressively drive technology-based economic growth with global impact."

Detroit is not Chicago. Adding the heft of a premier public university known for its technology leadership would add much-needed muscle to the city's effort to claim leadership in both technology and the next-generation auto industry. And it would augment plans underway by Ford Motor Co. to build a Corktown campus dedicated to the Auto 2.0 technologies of mobility, autonomy and electrification.

The campus, anchored by a Blue Oval renovation of the Michigan Central Depot train station, would be a critical node in a circuit running from Detroit through Ford's Dearborn headquarters, to Detroit Metropolitan Airport and the American Center for Mobility at Willow Run — with University of Michigan research sites at either end.

That's not all. All three Detroit automakers are pressing ahead with plans to either develop Auto 2.0 technology within the city limits or to assemble electric and gas-electric hybrid vehicles at facilities here. General Motors Co. plans to build a new electric truck at its Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant, and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV intends to build electric and hybrid Jeep Grand Cherokees in Detroit.

Ross, the university's top donor, has long understood the potential of his hometown. Detroit's top political and business leaders have repeatedly lobbied the native son to do a major project here. But he resisted, insisting that whatever would lure him into a project would need to be big and potentially transformational.

In an interview more than four years ago with The News, Ross said: "When I grew up there and lived there, the world was all about automobiles. Today, it's all about technology. And not a lot is heard about Detroit, except that it went bankrupt.

"You go around the country and say, 'I'm from Detroit,' and they think the whole place is dead. It's not. Danny Gilbert — I give him all the credit in the world. He's done a great, great job. Thank God for him. Ya' know, it's got to be more than him. And it's got to be bigger than downtown."


(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.