Ford Rescues Michigan Central Station in Detroit as It Plots Its Own Future

When he was growing up in Southwest Detroit, Cristian Rubio was never all that curious about the shuttered train station that loomed over his neighborhood. The building, a couple of miles west of downtown, was among the city’s most visible symbols of urban decay and a go-to for photographers who wanted to capture its decline.

Mr. Rubio’s interest intensified in high school, after he watched the 2009 music video “Beautiful,” which showed the hometown rapper Eminem walking through the ravaged Beaux-Arts building with its vaulted ceilings and tall columns, broken windows, rainbow graffiti and smashed fixtures.

Ever since, “I wanted to go in whether it was abandoned or not,” said Mr. Rubio, 29, the manager of a Mexican restaurant, who moved to Southwest Detroit from Jalisco, in west central Mexico, 20 years ago. “Now we have a chance to do it.”

The Ford Motor Company bought Michigan Central Station in 2018 from the wealthy Moroun family for $90 million and has since spent hundreds of millions of dollars to restore it to its original beauty. Ford’s plan is to create a hub of collaboration and innovation with its workers and independent startups and businesses involved in mobility and transportation issues. Additionally, it hopes to make the station a community gathering place with retail shops, a destination restaurant, an event space, a hotel and possibly Amtrak service nearby in the future.

On June 6, Mr. Rubio intends to be among the 15,000 people attending an outdoor concert, with Eminem and others appearing, to celebrate the official reopening.

The station, which was completed in 1913, saw more than 4,000 passengers daily at its peak in the 1940s. It closed in 1988, eventually becoming a magnet for scrappers, vandals, graffiti artists, urban explorers and the homeless.

William Ford, the executive chairman of Ford Motor Company, now runs the company his great-grandfather started in 1903. “Our industry is about to change radically, and that change ought to be invented here,” Mr. Ford said. “It clicked for me that was the perfect purpose for Michigan Central Station.”

He added: “We want Detroit to once again be a destination where the future is invented, and preserve its title as the Motor City for generations to come.”

In all, Ford will spend nearly $1 billion to create a 30-acre campus, ultimately with thousands of workers, with the station as the centerpiece — along with other buildings the company owns, including Newlab, a former book depository next door that opened last year and currently houses 97 startups and about 600 workers.

The company hopes the station, in its vibrant urban setting, will lure top-notch talent at a perplexing time for the fiercely competitive auto industry, as it sorts out its future with autonomous, electric and hybrid vehicles. The company expects most of the campus to come online in three to five years, with the first tenants moving into the station in June and some Ford workers moving in this fall.

But amid the excitement about the renovation and opening, and the opportunities for businesses and investors, longtime residents like Mr. Rubio are concerned about how this will affect the surrounding neighborhoods.

“A lot of people are worried about gentrification,” he said, particularly with property values, taxes and rents rising since Ford bought the station, and outsiders trying to buy properties. Some residents complain that they have been approached repeatedly by real estate agents and investors looking for houses to buy, prompting at least one, on nearby St. Anne Street, to post a “Not for Sale” sign on his property.

The station is in Corktown, an old but now trendy area, at the border of Mexicantown, a more working-class neighborhood that some refer to as Southwest.

Corktown was once home to Tiger Stadium and a number of Irish pubs. In recent years, it has become a spot for new restaurants and bars, while it holds onto traditions like the St. Patrick’s Day parade and remains home to the Gaelic League of Detroit, an Irish-American social club. New, modern apartments have added to the housing stock of mostly older single-family homes and duplexes.

Mexicantown, just behind the station, maintains a strong Latino presence with ethnic restaurants, tortilla factories, taco and burrito food trucks, bakeries and murals, and the annual Cinco de Mayo parade. Over time, people of various ethnic and racial backgrounds have moved into the community, resulting in a more eclectic population.

Susana Villarreal-Garza, 63, a second-generation owner of Tamaleria Nuevo León, a tamale shop in the shadow of the station, echoes sentiments similar to those of Mr. Rubio, the restaurant manager.

“What I worry about is that people who live here, who have been here 30, 40, 50 years, they’re not going to be able to afford that hike in taxes, and they’re going to get pushed out,” Ms. Villarreal-Garza said. After Ford bought the station, “that first two weeks,” she said, “I was getting calls left and right from Realtors.” They were all interested in listing her home.

She has also received calls from people in Florida and New Jersey interested in buying her restaurant. “They came at least seven times in one week, knocking,” she said. One offered $800,000.

“I said, ‘No.’ They said, ‘What’s your price?’ I said, ‘I don’t have a price, I’m not for sale.’”

Real estate agents have told her they could get $300,000 for her home, which was worth about $35,000 a decade ago.

Robert Warfield, 75, who has lived in a townhouse near the station since 2005, sees it differently. He welcomes Ford’s renovation and the resulting increase in property values. He said the deteriorating station depressed home values.

“It looked so decrepit, it was depressing,” said Mr. Warfield, the chief operating officer of the Bing Youth Institute. “It was like an elephant in the room: Sitting in the middle of the community was this monstrosity of nothing.”

Mr. Warfield doesn’t expect a mass exodus of residents selling at escalated prices. “These people are grounded in this community,” he said. “And I think they appreciate the fact that the value of the community is now being recognized.”

Richard Gonzalez, 53, a truck mechanic who grew up in Mexicantown and posted the “Not for Sale” sign, also welcomes the change, including the new residents who have moved in since Ford’s announcement. “I love it,” he said. “They’re trying to take care of their property. That’s what I like.”

Joshua Sirefman, the chief executive officer of Michigan Central, a wholly owned subsidiary of Ford, said the company is sensitive to the community’s needs and is regularly engaged in dialogue and collaboration with residents and organizations: “We’re extremely aware of the needs, that our growth needs to fuel everybody’s growth.”

As for Detroit’s mayor, Mike Duggan, he acknowledged that change “makes people anxious in general,” but added: “I would say most people would think the fact that their property values are rising is a good problem.”

He continued: “Over the last decade, no area of the city has grown faster in property values than Southwest Detroit. The price of houses has tripled, and it’s built a huge amount of wealth for the residents. That, to me, is your best protection of the neighborhood changing.”

Renters haven’t been so fortunate, Mr. Duggan said, with some rents in the area rising sharply.

He said the city received a $30 million grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to build 550 affordable rental units in the area, and there are other projects with affordable units in the works.

Bob Roberts, the owner of McShane’s Irish Pub and the president of the Corktown Business Association, said he has spoken to more than half a dozen customers who have moved out of Corktown in the past two years because of rising rents. And while he hails the train station renovation, he said his own rent jumped 30 percent this year. He worries it may keep going up.

Other developments have followed since Ford’s announcement. A boutique hotel and higher-end apartment buildings have been built nearby. And in May, the city’s semipro soccer team, Detroit City FC, announced it was building a stadium in Corktown, where it would be moving from its current home in Hamtramck.

For Mr. Ford, the station is a proud accomplishment, and one likely to become part of his family legacy in Detroit.

“I remember coming to this station as a young man and thinking this was the grandest building I had ever seen. Over time, it became a symbol of Detroit’s decline,” he said. “Every day, I would drive by the station and have a ‘what if’ discussion with myself and say, ‘What if I could find a way to bring it back to life in a relevant way?’”

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