Ford Motor plans to release details of its planned conversion of the long-vacant Michigan Central train station just west of downtown Detroit.
The Dearborn-based automaker recently bought the 105-year-old building and is expected to redevelop the 500,000-square-foot (46,000-square-meter) structure as part of its plans for a campus focusing on autonomous vehicles.
The station, which looms over Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood, has stood empty since the last train left in 1988. Stripped by vandals and time of its past beauty and value, the building came to symbolize Detroit’s long decline from manufacturing powerhouse to bankruptcy.
Michigan Central Railroad started purchasing land around 1908 for the new train station, according to HistoricDetroit.org. The depot opened in late 1913 and was designed by the same architects who created New York’s Grand Central Terminal. With towering pillars, marble floors, chandeliers and high-arching windows, the terminal’s passenger waiting room was a sight to behold. Detroit architectural historian W. Hawkins Ferry wrote that in its heyday, the train station “symbolized the gateway to the city of Detroit and reminded people of the Roman Baths of Caracalla.”
The emergence of interstates and increased travel by car and plane led to fewer people taking trains. In 1985, the station handled only 82,408 passengers. That number tumbled to 64,097 a year later.
Great Lakes World Trade Center bought the station and office tower in 1985 and developers planned to turn it and some adjacent real estate into offices, shopping plazas and parks that would attract development. The federal government withdrew a $3.25 million grant in 1987 because insufficient renovation progress was being made, and the station shut down the following year.
After it closed, anything valuable was stolen or destroyed and the building became a popular spot for squatters, vagrants and urban explorers.
Businessman Manuel “Matty” Moroun bought the building in the mid-1990s after a previous owner defaulted on a loan. Moroun’s interest in rail and trucking transport led to the purchase, a spokesman said at the time. But an anchor tenant could not be found and renovations would be delayed. Many looked at the former grand structure as part of the blight spreading across parts of Detroit. Plans by the city to buy the station and turn it into a police headquarters fell through.
In 2009, the City Council passed a resolution seeking emergency demolition of the structure, but it didn’t happen. Some renovation work was done shortly thereafter, including the replacement of broken windows and the roof, to make it less of an eyesore.
Ford announced last year that it was going to move its autonomous and electric vehicle business and strategy teams to Corktown. In addition to the train station, Ford owns several other neighborhood properties that will be renovated and rehabbed.
The company already has started moving about 200 workers into a refurbished former factory a few blocks from the station. The automaker estimates the size of its campus at about 1.2 million square feet. The station and office tower is expected to anchor the automaker’s research and development of self-driving vehicles. It also gives Ford a presence in Detroit, which continues to rebound after exiting bankruptcy in 2014.
Ford’s ownership of the Michigan Central station means more to the city than just the redevelopment of another eyesore. It is expected to bring thousands of tech-related workers into the downtown area and to spur the grown of Corktown, which is among the city’s neighborhoods that have become trendy in recent years.