Ruin Porn No More? Ford Reportedly in Talks to Buy Michigan Central Depot

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber

Detroit’s skyline-defining riverfront Renaissance Center is better known to car enthusiasts as the RenCen, home to General Motors, which has owned the seven tower complex for more than 20 years. Less well known is the fact that the RenCen was the brainchild of Henry Ford II. Shocked by the aftermath of the 1967 riot that devastated many Detroit businesses, the Deuce, as Henry Ford’s grandson was known, saw the RenCen as means of revitalizing the city’s economy. Construction began in 1971 and the facility opened in the summer of 1976. By then, however, the domestic auto industry was hit with the 1973 OPEC oil embargo just as it was struggling to meet new federal emissions and safety standards. Car guys call it the “Malaise Era,” and it was the start of four decades of decline of the Motor City.

That decline, however, genuinely appears to have finally bottomed out. Class A commercial real estate is in high demand downtown and commercial development is spreading to other areas of the city. Unemployment in Wayne County, Detroit’s home, is down to just 4.5 percent, compared to 17.4 percent in 2009.

Now, almost 50 years after Henry Ford II envisioned the RenCen as reviving Detroit, comes word that the car company with his name over the door may well revive and restore one of the most iconic images of Detroit’s decline.

For years now, whenever lazy editors, photographers and videographers wanted to illustrate Detroit’s decline, they used images of either the old Packard plant on the east side or Michigan Central Depot in what is known as Corktown, originally inhabited by Irish immigrants from County Cork.

Michigan Central Depot is something that veritably defines “ruin porn.” It opened in 1913, the same year Henry Ford started building the Model T on an assembly line, and it closed in 1988. A Google image search for that phrase puts the old train station on the first page of results. In 2009, Detroit’s city council ordered it to be torn down as a nuisance, but of late the depot’s owner, real estate investor Matty Maroun, has actually started renovating the imposing structure, replacing all of its windows and starting to restore some of the stone work.

The Detroit News reports Ford is negotiating to expand its presence in Corktown, where it recently opened a 225-employee facility in a former warehouse for “Team Edison” — the automaker’s more futurist-oriented business segments. Sources say the negotiations could include Michigan Central Depot as well as land surrounding the building and a nearby book depository. It is expected some kind of deal will be announced later this spring.

While the word depot evokes a small town railroad station, in fact Michigan Central is quite an imposing building, ruined or not. The tallest train station in the world, its 18 stories include over a half million square feet of floor space, mostly offices on the upper floors.

It’s not exactly clear how Ford would develop and use the building. Over the past decade Corktown has flourished, but its revival has been the result of bars, restaurants and small retail shops opening in the area, plus young people living there. That last point may be the key factor in Ford’s decision. Detroit automakers have had a challenge in attracting new young talent as technology becomes more and more important in the auto industry. A large corporate workforce would diversify Corktown’s economy, something said to be a healthy thing for any community.

The Ford family also has ties to the area. Henry Ford’s father was born in County Cork.

[Image Source: Wikimedia]

Ronnie Schreiber
Ronnie Schreiber

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, the original 3D car site.

More by Ronnie Schreiber

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  • Big Al from Oz Big Al from Oz on Mar 20, 2018

    Why is it many have known for a few decades at least the issues confronting the decaying City of Detroit and little was done to avert or at a minimum alleviate the decay? There are many "rust belts" around the world and I think more effort was placed in some regions to minimise the impact of "post industrial" life. I think part of the problem is being overly reliant on the auto manufacturers. Its good to see Ford doing something here and also using other facilities. But, why is Detroit as it is? You just can't blame the decline in auto jobs as an effort should of been made to offset and hedge against this, as I stated this decline has occurred for decades.

    • RedRocket RedRocket on Mar 21, 2018

      A city with infrastructure for nearly 2 million people has big bills to pay just to maintain that, much less operate it. Reduce that population to less than half and most of those bills do not go away. But the revenue stream to pay them does. As the economy failed the costs of social programs also spiked. Add to that a series of corrupt/incompetent mayors and you have a very big problem. That is why nothing was done. The city government of Detroit has been broke for over a generation.

  • Warrant242 Warrant242 on Mar 21, 2018

    What IS a book depository?

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