Finley: Gilbert looks to create entrepreneurial 'garden' downtown

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News
Monroe Blocks (residential building) --Bedrock broke ground on its 1.4 million square-foot Monroe Blocks project situated on two city blocks at the corner of Monroe Street and Campus Martius in Downtown Detroit.

Speaking to a packed crowd at the groundbreaking for the Monroe Blocks development in downtown Detroit, Gov. Rick Snyder got it exactly right:

"Not so long ago, if a single restaurant opened in Detroit, it brought a celebration like this, because there was not that many openings to celebrate."

That hit home. I remember hearing L. Brooks Patterson grouse several years ago that Oakland County could christen a half-billion office complex and barely get a mention in the newspaper, but when a pancake house opened downtown, it stayed on the front page for three days.

Starting construction on a transformational project such as the Monroe Blocks isn't a routine event in Detroit yet, but it's less newsworthy than it once was, because it's a lot less rare.

"I was thinking that myself on the way over here," says Dan Gilbert, whose Bedrock arm is developing the site. "We've got over a million-square-foot project and over $1 billion investment and it's sort of routine. People's expectations are higher. And that's the way it should be."

When it's all done in 2022, Gilbert's new projects — the Monroe Blocks, the skyscraper on the old Hudson's site and the soon-to-open 132-room Shinola Hotel — will add 4.4 million in retail, commercial and residential space on 40 acres in the heart of downtown.

Much of that acreage is surface parking lots today, and has been for decades. Bringing in 1,290 new residents, more than 20 new retailers and 14,500 new workers will give downtown a fuller feeling than it's had in decades, if ever.

"It's all about density," Gilbert says. "Talk to any urban planner, density is the first word out of their mouths. People forget that even in its heyday there wasn't the residential density in downtown Detroit that you see in other cities because we had so many nice neighborhoods near downtown."

With the Hudson and Monroe Block projects, The District development, The Platform buildings in New Center, Detroit is moving into a new stage. Most of the structures suitable for rehabilitation have been finished. Growth will demand new construction. 

That means the massive inventory of surface parking lots that give downtown a gap-toothed look will give way to new buildings.

"We probably have more surface lots than any city except Cleveland," Gilbert says. "There's not a lot of economic wealth or jobs produced by asphalt."

The fill-in will change the vibe of downtown. 

"People want to feel the hustle and bustle of a downtown," Gilbert says. "It's what an urban core should be."

The big question is: Who's going to fill all of that new space? Gilbert says he isn't worried.

"There's been a pent-up demand," he says. "There's also a wealth of existing companies that are here and ones that want to open new locations here.

"We're full in most of the buildings we have downtown. If you were to just take the expected GDP growth for the next eight to nine years of the companies already here, if they just grew their space based on their GDP, we'd be 9 million square feet short, and that doesn't account for new businesses moving in."

The new businesses Gilbert anticipates will be largely digital startups able to launch with a compelling idea and a minimum of capital. Enterprises like the Gilbert-backed Stock X shoe exchange, which is just over two years old and has already grown to 550 employees. 

"We're on the short list for entrepreneurs," Gilbert says. "We've got to create the garden for that. Great space, great city, entertainment, excitement, job opportunities."

If the Monroe Blocks develops as promised, it will give Detroit a very fertile garden.

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