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University of Michigan unveils new name, plans for Detroit innovation center

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News
Renderings of the Detroit Center for Innovation.

The University of Michigan on Monday announced new commitments to a $250 million research and education center in Detroit that it is creating in collaboration with real estate billionaire Stephen Ross.

Previously known as the Detroit Center for Innovation, the renamed University of Michigan Center for Innovation will expand programming to boost economic development and job growth for Detroit through graduate education, talent-based community development and community engagement, university officials said.

The project, announced in 2019, is funded with a $100 million donation from Ross and $100 million in tax dollars through the state of Michigan. An additional $50 million will be raised from donors, according to UM. Olympia Development, a company owned by the Ilitch family, is donating the four-acre property to UM. 

Groundbreaking is planned for later this year and building is expected to take three years. The university will handle construction of the 200,000-square-foot building planned for the site bounded by Cass and Grand River avenues and West Columbia and Elizabeth streets, pending approval by the U-M Board of Regents.

Site of the proposed Detroit Center for Innovation at the corner of Cass and Grand River, in Detroit, Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022.

The UMCI is part of an ambitious $1.5 billion project to transform the District Detroit, a joint venture between Ross and the Ilitch family organization. It is a mixed-income and mixed-use development that is to include the construction of six buildings and the renovation of four buildings. In January, Detroit's Downtown Development Authority board approved nearly $50 million in funding for District Detroit, the first of several public incentive requests that will total nearly $800 million.

The UMCI has become a top priority for new UM President Santa Ono. Officials say the center is part UM's increased community engagement in Detroit in recent years, along with the P-20 Partnership at the School at Marygrove; the upcoming $40 million Rackham building renovation; the UM Detroit Center, in Detroit's Midtown for 18 years, and hundreds of other UM projects has collaborated on with Detroit partners.

"Our founding as a university traces back to Detroit, so it's fitting that we reinvigorate and build on our commitment to the city through this center," Ono said in a statement. "UMCI is essential for our future."

Ono added that the university is seeking an inaugural director of UMCI to be a critical voice within the community, as well as a liaison for the many stakeholders in Detroit.

"The potential for the UMCI to be a catalyst for the future of Detroit is exponential and we are excited that President Ono and his team at UM are leading the charge on this project," said Ross, founder and chairman of Related Companies. "We're particularly excited for the impact the UMCI and its programs will have on the next generation of Detroit students who will have this world-class academic institution at their doorstep."

James Hilton, UM vice provost for academic innovation, who is leading the center's academic programming, said that the project has evolved from one focusing exclusively on graduate education when it was first announced to a more strategic mixed model to usher in a new era of collaboration and partnership with the city. This will include programming and facilities aimed at engaging the business, entrepreneurial and residential communities.

"The combination of philanthropy and state funds is going to allow us to increase our programming and sustained commitment to Detroit," Hilton said. 

The UMCI graduate programs will focus on technology, robotics, sustainability and computer sciences.

Plans for the UMCI will also include workforce training, professional development and certificate programs.

"We want to help develop talent in the community," Hilton said. "We are looking at how we can take some of the online and certificate-based learning that U-M has to build in-person experiences in the UMCI to make that training more real, more community-based, and more meaningful."

As academic programming evolves at UMCI, it also presents opportunities for collaboration with community partners at the Horace H. Rackham Educational Memorial building, located in Detroit's Midtown, said Geoffrey Chatas, U-M executive vice president and chief financial officer.

The building, on Farnsworth, northeast of Woodward and Warren avenues, sits adjacent to many Detroit landmarks, including the Detroit Institute of Arts, Wayne State University and the Detroit Public Library, making it an ideal location for educational and cultural experiences for the city and U-M community, Chatas said. 

Built in1942, the Rackham building was a gift from Mary Rackham, wife of the late Horace Rackham, a lawyer who made his fortune by investing in the company of his neighbor, Henry Ford, and spent his life giving it away. The building was jointly owned by U-M and the Engineering Society of Detroit until 2018 when UM acquired full ownership of the building. It has not received major infrastructure updates since its original opening but in December 2021 the UM Board of Regents approved plans and $40 million to renovate the Rackham building.

"We are excited to continue the design, planning and programming process for Rackham Detroit, which is another example of U-M's commitment to having a positive impact on the people of Detroit," Chatas said.