What can we learn from Detroit’s transformed Michigan Central?

Detroit is celebrating the start of an extraordinary third act for its iconic train station, Michigan Central.

The 500,000 square-foot Beaux-Arts building originally opened in 1913. Through the mid-century decades it reflected Detroit’s prosperity and explosive growth. About 4,000 passengers passed through it each day in the 1940s. But as Detroit lost population and industry through the century’s later decades, the station symbolized Detroit’s hollowing out. It sat vacant for 36 years after closing in 1988. By 2009, it was on the verge of being demolished.

Now Michigan Central is the crown jewel of efforts by local leaders to revitalize and reinvest in the city center. On Thursday, about 20,000 people attended the first day of the re-opening celebration, which featured a concert that began with Diana Ross and concluded with Eminem. The Detroit News  dubbed it “a love letter to Detroit.” NBC will air selections from the concert at 7 p.m. (ET) on Sunday. Opening events will continue through June 16.

The celebration culminates an initiative that began in 2018, when Ford Motor Company purchased the building for $90 million. The station sits on a 30-acre campus and will be the hub of Ford’s “future mobility” initiatives. An adjacent building—also renovated by Ford and now called Newlab—is already home to about 100 companies and roughly 600 workers.

A picture of the restored entrance hall at Michigan Central Station.

The entrance hall at Michigan Central Station.  Photo: Ford Motor Company

Michigan Central could be the center piece of a high-speed and regional rail network connecting most of Michigan’s population.

A Perfect Place for Trains

The Alliance has previously argued that Michigan Central is a perfect fit for trains, especially for high-speed rail. There are no specific plans to restore train service to the Central complex, although there have been discussions of an Amtrak line.

Even so, train advocates have good reasons to celebrate and learn from this story. It shows the importance of strong leadership; models how train stations can reinvigorate downtowns; and offers a path for other cities to follow.

Leadership is vital

Ford has spent an estimated $1 billion on Michigan Centrally and related projects. FastCompany described it as a “possibility crazy effort” that is “a mix of established entities like Ford Motor Company, startups focusing on new forms of mobility . .  and public-realm improvements intended to create a new civic center for Detroit.” Roughly 1,000 Ford employees will work at Michigan Central by the end of this year. More than 2,500 will be based there by 2028.

The massive renovation was completed in a short timespan—six years—because it was a passion for William Ford Jr., Ford’s executive chair and the great-grandson of the company’s founder.

Ford said in an interview with Crain’s Detroit that the station’s decline always bothered him, especially as it became “ruin porn” after it closed. “I hated that,” Ford said. “I hated our national reputation. I hated the fact that this was used as that visual. I always said to myself if I could find a reason one day to change it, to restore it and change the narrative . . . Then I found the business reason.”

Ford worked closely with Detroit’s mayor, Mike Dugan, in pushing the project forward, and he had the resources of a multinational company at his disposal. Other champions might have a political base, or they might have a dense social/business network and the ability to bring people together.

Whatever their superpower, and whatever sector they come from, determined champions—working in partnership with grassroots advocates—are vital to getting transformative projects done.

Ford Executive Chair Bill Ford welcomes a crowd of about 20,000 people at the re-opening of Michigan Central Station and says it’s “a dream come true,” detailing the company’s vision for a new culture and tech hub in Detroit on June 6, 2024.

Ford Executive Chair Bill Ford welcomes a crowd of about 20,000 people at the re-opening of Michigan Central Station and says it’s “a dream come true,” detailing the company’s vision for a new culture and tech hub in Detroit on June 6, 2024. . Image: Ford Motor Co.

Interior of the Newlab office space which sits next door to Michigan Central Station. Image: Brian Ferry

​Trains—and train stations—help rebuild cities

Trains and train infrastructure catalyze growth and investment in city centers. At a moment when cities across America are searching for ways to revitalize their downtowns, that’s a key competitive advantage.

Michigan Central is located in Detroit’s oldest extant neighborhood, Corktown—“the front porch of downtown,” as one local described it in an account of the neighborhood’s history. Large sections of Corktown were obliterated by highway construction in the 1960s. The neighborhood’s twenty-first century story has been one of revitalization and renewal, with the train station playing a lead role.

Michigan Central and Newlab are business/office spaces, but they will also offer dining and shopping options and host a wide range concerts, performances, educational programs, and various nonprofit ventures. One example: The Boys and Girls Club of Southeastern Michigan moved its headquarters from a Detroit suburb to Newlab, and it will also occupy space in Michigan Central. In doing so it “aims to synergize Michigan Central’s cutting-edge innovation resources with BGCSM’s vibrant youth community,” the organization said. “This partnership will not only introduce our youth to the future of technology, it will help them be part of it.”

So Michigan Central will model the kind of mixed-use development that America’s downtowns need. That is, it will have a mix of startups and for-profit companies (heavy on tech); a wide variety of nonprofits that have programming throughout the day; and cultural/dining/entertainment options to attract tourists and locals during evenings and weekends.

Steal this idea

Michigan Central is an extraordinarily ambitious project, but the core idea is relevant for dozens of cities across America: To revitalize your downtown, invest in the train station located in or near your city center—and likely either vacant or badly underused. In most cases, that will also mean investing in quality train service.

The same investment that Ford made in Michigan Central, for example, could transform Chicago’s Union Station into a world-class facility—and the hub of a regional network of high-speed trains.

Or consider the cases of Cincinnati and Indianapolis. Both currently have bare-bones Amtrak service. But Union Terminal in Cincinnati sits on 287 acres and was designed to accommodate 17,000 passengers daily. Completed in 1933, it’s an icon of Art Deco architecture, with an interior dome that spans 180 feet and rises more than 100 feet. It’s now primarily a museum—which is closed when Amtrak trains arrive and depart in the middle of the night (just three each week, in each direction).

Wouldn’t quality train service that allows a magnificent building to serve the purpose it was built to serve be a boon to both the city and the museum?

Similarly, Indianapolis has three-times-per-week Amtrak service, which drops riders off at its Union Station. Indianapolis was the first city in the world to consolidate train service in a single facility, in 1847. The current building opened in 1853 and has been renovated multiple times—most recently when it became a “festival marketplace” in the 1980s. That experiment ended in the 1990s. Part of the building is now leased out as office space; part of it is a hotel, which rents out the Grand Hall for special events.

But what if the station were a hub of quality train service?

It’s an easy walk (or short drive) from Union Station to some of the city’s most popular destinations, including the stadiums of its professional sports teams; the offices of some of its most vital employers, like Eli Lilly and Cummins Engine; and the local campuses of Indiana University and Purdue University.

The front of the Cincinnati Union Terminal

Making Cincinnati Union Station a train station again wold be a boon to the metro region.

Indianapolis Union Station

Indianapolis Union Station could be the hub of a high-speed network linking Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and St. Louis.

What would a thriving train station in the midst of all that—attracting tens of thousands of people or more every year to the heart of the city—do for the local economy? What if we brought the same commitment and imagination to building railroad infrastructure that we devote to building airports and highways?

Most cities in the US have no idea because, in recent memory, they’ve never tried. Hopefully Michigan Central will be a nudge in the right direction.

A dude is using an IPad on a station platform wth a high-speed train in the background.

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