Michigan Central Station rebirth: Here's what Ford plans to do first

Michigan Central Station in Detroit. (WDIV)

DETROIT - Ford Motor Company officials announced in December that the automaker is beginning the first phase of construction at Michigan Central Station in Detroit. 

For starters, Ford plans to winterize the 105-year-old building in Detroit's Corktown neighborhood. The building needs to be dried out from extensive water damage it sustained over the years and stabilizing the structure will be necessary before any further work can be done, the automaker said. 

Ford purchased the historic train station earlier this year. The last train left Michigan Central Station 30 years ago and it has stood vacant ever since, a hulking embodiment of Detroit's long decline from America's manufacturing engine to its biggest municipal bankruptcy.

Ford is expected to complete a massive revitalization project at the station by 2022. The site will become a 1.2-million-square-foot innovation campus where Ford and its partners will work on autonomous and electric vehicle businesses, and design urban mobility services and solutions.

The project will bring about 2,500 Ford employees to Corktown, most from the company’s mobility team, and an additional 2,500 jobs with Ford’s partners and suppliers, according to the automaker. 

Here are some project details Ford released on Tuesday:

An essential first step

Abandoned in 1988, Michigan Central Station has sustained decades of damage from rain and freeze-thaw effect, a process in which temperature changes from freezing to thawing expand cracks and holes in the masonry. The structure soaked up tons of water over the years and steps must be taken to dry out the building, assess the damage, and plan for repairs and restoration. Leaving the building exposed through another winter would accelerate damage to walls, floors, ceilings and the structure’s historic fabric. 

A combination of plywood and tarpaulin will be used to cover open windows and exterior holes on the roof of the massive 600,000-square-foot structure to prevent more rain and inclement weather damage. A series of pumps will be installed in the basement to prevent further flooding and fans will be placed to circulate air through the building. Using natural ventilation and evaporation is the best way to dry out the building rather than rapid heating systems, which could cause irreparable harm to historic features. 

“The building is very lucky Ford stepped in when it did,” said Ronald D. Staley, executive director of the Christman-Brinker joint venture selected as the construction manager for the project. “It would have been a lot more difficult, maybe impossible five to 10 years down the road to salvage. The first year is going to be primarily about doing core and shell work, getting the building stabilized, concrete and steel fixed, and the building enclosed.”

A three-phase process

Once the building is dried out – a process that will take around six months for the majority of the structure – the construction team will move on to the second phase, which includes replacing mechanical and electrical systems and restoring the exterior masonry. The train station is comprised of eight acres of masonry and certain aspects of repair and restoration can only be done in good weather.

The final phase will focus on finishing the interior, returning the waiting room to its original grandeur, and restoring plaster and other decorative pieces. Ford plans to use 3D printing to create the various molds and mockups that will be required in replicating the many historic elements that have deteriorated over the years or are missing. It also includes creating new office space, new areas for public interaction and new retail space.

More visible signs of the building’s transformation will begin next summer when an extensive scaffolding system goes up and an exterior construction lift is added to the east end of the station. The masonry work is expected to take three summers.

Ford taps urban planning and development experts

While Ford has its own real estate arm in Ford Land, the company is gathering additional insights and industry-leading knowledge from a variety of experts, including Urban Land Institute, to provide independent views that will inform its planning and design process and help create a thriving community in Corktown.

Urban Land Institute’s land use and urban planning experts will provide independent and unbiased recommendations through an advisory services panel process on how to connect various pieces of the development project – the train station and other buildings – to create a holistic ecosystem in Corktown.

“For them to come in and share their knowledge, with experts from all over the world who have worked on similar projects, is really beneficial for us,” said Culler. “We’re anxious to hear what they have to say. They’re a renowned organization that can help us think through strategic parts of this momentous four-year project.”

Ford’s partnership with Urban Land Institute underscores its commitment to work with the City of Detroit and Corktown residents and businesses to ensure its development efforts align with the historic nature of the community and complement other planned developments in the area.

Ford picks architectural, construction partners for Michigan Central Station 

In November, Ford announced Quinn Evans Architects will lead the design work, while Christman and Brinker are teamed up in a joint venture to serve as construction manager for the Corktown transformation project. At the time, Ford said construction would get underway before the end of this year, contingent on receiving all necessary government approvals.

“Quinn Evans Architects and Christman Brinker have a strong track record of working together on restoring historic buildings, so we felt they were the right partners to help us begin this transformation project,” said Todd Brooks, program manager at Ford Land, the company’s real estate arm overseeing Ford’s Corktown campus. “They share Ford’s passion for redeveloping Detroit’s landmark train station, ensuring the local community benefits from our presence and building the future of the transportation industry right here in Detroit.”

Here's some recent footage of the station: 

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