Firing up the Motor City
On Oct. 30, U-M announced plans to build a 14-acre center in downtown Detroit aimed at stimulating entrepreneurial activity, educating students, and further diversifying the regional economy.
The Detroit Center for Innovation marks the beginning of a bold new chapter in the University’s two-centuries-long history of partnership and engagement with the city of Detroit and the region through local schools, community organizations, and other partnerships.
In accepting the invitation to be a key partner in the project, U-M will operate a state-of-the-art research and academic center that is expected to focus on such areas as artificial intelligence, mobility, sustainability, data science, cybersecurity, entrepreneurship, and financial technology.
The center will be designed to provide a new talent pipeline to current companies and attract new businesses to the area. Partners in the center include the state of Michigan, city of Detroit and Wayne County; Related Companies, Stephen M. Ross’ development firm; and Bedrock, Dan Gilbert’s full-service real estate firm.
The development of the academic building will be made possible by a major gift from Ross, a native of Detroit, and a leadership gift from Gilbert, as well as other public and private funders.
“The Detroit Center for Innovation is just the latest part of a thriving ecosystem of U-M engagement with the city of Detroit and its people,” said President Mark Schlissel. “Our work involves collaborations that support many of our state’s and communities’ needs, and the foundations for many of these collaborations began years, or even decades, ago through connections with local leaders, public school teachers, businesses, and community advocates.
“We greatly appreciate Stephen Ross’ long and generous history of working to propel our university into the future,” he continued, “and we look forward to embarking with Dan Gilbert on this new venture for Detroit.”
The Detroit Center for Innovation will be located at 1400 Saint Antoine St., the site of the former Wayne County Jail project, and will connect Detroit’s Central Business District and Greektown District to adjacent neighborhoods, Lafayette Park, and Eastern Market.
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, and other project partners are assessing the feasibility of the overall project and conducting community engagement with surrounding neighborhoods through spring. Construction for the center is slated to start in 2021.
“This is an exciting opportunity for students around the world and is an exclamation point on Michigan’s efforts to build, attract, and retain the best workforce in America,” said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
The first phase of development will include a $300 million, 190,000-square-foot academic center designed to serve U-M students in the last year of their undergraduate programs, as well as those people seeking graduate degrees or what are called “stackable certificates” that indicate completion of specified programs to learn the technology and other skills needed to advance their careers.
Proposed plans also include a business collaboration and start-up incubator space, residential units, and a hotel and conference and event space.
Regent Denise Ilitch, a native Detroiter, said she considers the Detroit Center for Innovation to be the “latest example of U-M’s great partnership with the state, its businesses, and the people we serve.”
“Today we begin a new chapter in this great partnership, by helping this region be competitive and open for business, with the Detroit Center for Innovation,” Ilitch said.
Filling a strategic need
The center will not be a separate degree-granting institution but will offer degrees through U-M’s Ann Arbor campus. University faculty will maintain complete control over the curricula, Schlissel said.
A faculty group led initial planning around the academic offerings. A new interdisciplinary committee of faculty from the University’s three campuses and led by James Hilton, vice provost for academic innovation, will develop the center’s academic programs across a number of technology-based fields, as well as advise on the building’s design in relation to academic needs.
In developing the academic programs, the faculty committee will conduct strategic consultations with the Detroit business community and then re-evaluate each program every few years to make sure what the school is offering still meets the most pressing needs. In essence, every program developed for the center will have a built-in expiration date.
“U-M will provide advanced educational programs through the Detroit Center for Innovation that will be tailored to the current and future needs of the local economy,” Schlissel said. “The opportunities and challenges confronting Detroit are similar to those of other post-industrial cities that are being forced to adjust to a rapidly evolving and technologically driven global economy. Strategies developed here are likely to be of value elsewhere, increasing the impact of our work.”
The academic center will give faculty and students an opportunity to conduct research across a number of technology-based fields, and will be designed with faculty input. The center is expected to accommodate up to 1,000 students.
Business incubators, co-working space, and startup support services also will be available. The collaborative approach is designed to encourage business growth in Detroit as students graduate and start their own businesses in the area, with continued support from the center.
“The University of Michigan helped spark my entrepreneurial spirit and nurtured my curiosity for all aspects of innovation, leading me to not only become a founder, but an incubator and investor in a variety of technologies and businesses,” said Ross, chairman and founder of Related Companies.
“The center has the potential to not only attract new businesses to Detroit, but the school and its graduates will generate new ideas, new companies, and new opportunities for the community, the city, and the region,” he said.
Expansion of U-M’s impact in Detroit
The new downtown center is part of U-M’s growing footprint in and around Detroit, including its nearby UM-Dearborn campus, the Detroit Center on Woodward Avenue, a “cradle to career” P-20 collaboration with the Detroit Public Schools Community District at Marygrove College in Northwest Detroit, and the Rackham Memorial Building in Midtown.
University officials have announced that the Rackham building will be the eventual home for a number of Detroit-based programs and functions, including an undergraduate admissions office, the Michigan Engineering Zone, and the Poverty Solutions research initiative. Schlissel said the University’s current plans for the Rackham Building and Detroit Center on Woodward will not change.
The University’s long-standing commitment to Detroit includes collaborations in public K-12 education, college readiness, community-engaged research, service learning, public health, and economic development. Wolverine Pathways offers free year-round college readiness programs for seventh-grade students through high school seniors who live in Detroit, and offers a four-year tuition scholarship to those who complete the program and are admitted to U-M’s Ann Arbor campus or UM-Dearborn.
“I am pleased President Mark Schlissel accepted the invitation to have U-M power this center,” Duggan said. “Detroit is the ideal location for this extension for the prestigious University of Michigan and will help keep our city competitive in the emerging industries of tomorrow.”
Schlissel said this project is “further evidence of Detroit’s growth as a place of strength and influence; a place where public and private partners unite; a place where the upward trajectory is driven by an arc of innovation that includes Ford mobility at Corktown and entrepreneurship at (Wayne State’s) Techtown.”
Productive space for growth
Bedrock and Related will work with city officials to ensure the center complements the surrounding Greektown District and other neighborhoods, with a focus on enhancing accessibility, offering better overall walkability, and providing co-working, residential, and conference space.
“By partnering with Stephen Ross and the University of Michigan, we are able to strategically develop the space to accommodate, attract, and develop top talent from across the nation and from our own neighborhoods,” said Matt Cullen, CEO of Bedrock. “The center expands technology-focused skills training in Detroit, and will connect that talent with sustainable and competitive careers right outside their door.”
In 2018, Bedrock announced it acquired the site from Wayne County after agreeing to build a new $533-million criminal justice center near Detroit’s Midtown neighborhood. Since acquiring the site, Bedrock demolished the half-built jail structure and currently is using the site to support construction related to other in-progress developments in downtown Detroit.
The development of the Detroit Center for Innovation will be reviewed publicly by the Wayne County Commission, which will play a vital role in transferring the land for the project from Bedrock to U-M.
“My administration saw it as our responsibility to get the best possible result at the failed jail site. I take pride in the fact that we demolished one of the most infamous symbols of government failure and are now poised to build a world-class educational center,” said Evans, the Wayne County executive.
(This story is reprinted courtesy of the University Record, a weekly newspaper for U-M faculty and staff. Top image is an artist’s rendering of the planned Detroit Center for Innovation, courtesy of Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates)