Corktown train station sale details, Ford's plans expected in next 2 weeks
The longtime owners of Michigan Central Depot and the adjacent book depository are expected next week to confirm sales of the buildings, and Ford Motor Co. plans its own announcement about its vision for Detroit's Corktown neighborhood a week later, sources say.
Next week, executives for the Moroun family — who recently transferred the deeds of the long-vacant Detroit properties to an entity linked to a New York law firm that has represented Ford — will provide more detail about the recent sale of the two buildings, which are widely believed to be part of Ford's plan to create a Detroit campus.
Multiple sources close to the situation say Ford plans to announce sometime the week of June 18 its plans to redevelop the moribund train station and other Corktown properties it has been amassing to form an urban hub for its self-driving and electric vehicle divisions.
Representatives for the Morouns declined to comment. Ford has repeatedly declined to comment directly about any sale, deferring to a company statement that it expects to grow its presence in Detroit and will share details later.
In May, Ford's business teams for autonomous technology and electrification moved into another Corktown facility known as The Factory at Michigan Avenue and Rosa Parks Boulevard. The facility is about four blocks east of the former train station.
Ford wants to reverse the company's exodus from Detroit. The automaker founded in the city 113 years ago by Henry Ford sold its stake in the Renaissance Center and retreated to its Dearborn enclave in 1996.
Detroit has changed dramatically since the end of the Great Recession, and Ford has concluded that becoming part of the city’s reinvention is vital to reinventing itself for the industry’s tech-driven next century, dubbed Auto 2.0.
Ford is not only in talks to buy the former train station. Buoyed by the prospects of a major economic boost from such a large-scale corporate development in its oldest neighborhood, the city appears to be helping Ford gather data on parcels of nearby land — from rail easements to empty buildings and vacant lots — where Ford potentially could create its own campus, according to a city official close to the situation.
A move to Corktown would complement the automaker’s planned 10-year renovation of its Dearborn facilities, including major redevelopment of tired storefronts along Michigan Avenue in West Dearborn into multi-story, mixed-use buildings. Ford officials say creation of a Detroit campus would not weaken the automaker’s presence in its hometown.
The arrival of a corporate player with the stature of Ford likely would infuse new energy into Detroit's oldest neighborhood. It would provide tax-paying jobs, increase property values and create new markets for local businesses even as it likely would drive prices higher.
It’s hard to overstate just how important Ford’s move could be, officials say, especially if it culminates in a re-imagined central train station. For 30 years, its dilapidated and, until recently, windowless facade loomed over Michigan Avenue, a symbol of Detroit’s industrial decline.
Corktown strikes a sentimental chord with Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr. His ancestors hailed from the county in Ireland for which Detroit's oldest neighborhood is named.
“I’ve seen Detroit at its best, and I’ve seen it at its worst,” the Ford scion said in December when the company announced its purchase of The Factory, a renovated building not far from the train station where Ford recently relocated its electric and autonomous unit known as Team Edison. “We want to be part of it.”
For the last decade, the rebirth of Corktown has been defined by a decidedly hip retail community, ranging from hand-crafted cocktails to farm-to-table restaurants and funky independent retailers. Now Ford wants to crash the party and use that hipster cred to attract young technology workers who might otherwise work in Silicon Valley or other attractive tech centers.
Ford calls the move "more than just a relocation" in its statement announcing the Team Edison move. It says it's a "purpose-driven, strategic decision."
That move, as well as Ford's presumed interest in the train station, has ignited real estate activity in what was already a hot Detroit neighborhood.
That activity includes the recent sale of a dozen empty lots there that is wrapped in the kind of mystery that often hints a much larger land deal may be in play. The buyer of the vacant lots, which make up 12 separate addresses on the 2200 and 2300 blocks of Harrison and Cochrane streets, took steps to conceal its identity in public documents. The properties are one block northeast of the corner of Rosa Parks Boulevard and Michigan Avenue, where “The Factory" sits.
In the past, Moroun officials said restoring the Michigan Central Depot could be anywhere from a $100 million to $300 million job.
The 18-story former train station is one of Detroit's most infamous blighted buildings, and since the late-1990s has been controlled by an entity linked to the billionaire family. The family, which also owns the Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, has been in frequent legal clashes with the federal, state and local government, as well as Canadian branches of government; those legal actions have been over Moroun properties, as well as the family's opposition to the planned Gordie Howe International Bridge that would compete with the Ambassador.
Over the years, proposals for the vacant train depot have included converting it to a casino, police headquarters or international trade center.
Manuel "Matty" Moroun, the patriarch of the family business, said in a 2008 Detroit News interview that he hated being connected to the building.
"What the hell am I supposed to do with it?" he asked. "I can't redevelop it. There's no reason. That's throwing money to the wind. Can't tear it down, it's an historic landmark."