Once a symbol of Detroit's downturn, the iconic Michigan Central Station reopens its doors

Michigan Central Station before and after the renovation. (Michigan Central - image credit)
Michigan Central Station before and after the renovation. (Michigan Central - image credit)

A landmark historical building in Detroit, recognizable to many from the west Windsor riverfront, is coming back to life this week with a new purpose.

And it's yet another sign that the city, which has a growing population for the first time in decades, is seeing a resurgence.

Michigan Central Station is reopening this week with the new mission of acting as a global hub of innovation for "mobility solutions," according to the project's website.

It's billing itself as a  "destination for advancing technologies and programs that address barriers to social, economic and physical mobility."

The building in Detroit's Corktown neighbourhood will open to the public on Thursday with already sold-out tours, concerts and other fanfare to mark the occasion.

"As a metaphor, you have sort of all the chapters that the train station has gone through," said Melissa Dittmer, head of place for Michigan Central, showcasing how a column, water damaged at the bottom, is topped by new and restored stone.

"As we think about how we are going to repurpose the train station for the next 100 years of mobility and innovation, there are a lot of partnerships that we can build with Windsor and with Canada."

Michigan Central
Michigan Central

The station opened in 1913 and was used as a hub for the Michigan Railroad and intercity travel. Train cars that passed through the station would also connect to and from Canada at first via ferry and later by tunnel.

Today, those links to Canada aren't as defined, but officials say the newly renovated facility does hold potential in building the relationship between Detroit, Windsor, Ont., and Canada.

"As we think about the next 100 years of mobilization there are a lot of partnerships that we can build with Windsor and with Canada on the work that we're doing in the mobility and innovation space and how it shows up here," Dittmer said.

The station, an iconic view for those crossing the Ambassador Bridge into the U.S., closed in 1988 and fell into disrepair. This happened amidst Detroit seeing decades of population decline. The city had 1.8 million residents in the 1950s before it plummeted over a variety of factors, including a 1967 riot and flight to the suburbs. In 2013, the city filed for bankruptcy.

In May, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated Michigan's largest city grew by 1,852 people, from 631,366 in 2022 to 633,218 last year.

For the station, the road to renovation and repair began in 2018 after the Ford Motor Company purchased the property. The full accounting of the renovation project has not been made public but the automaker initially said the project would cost $740 million.

The 12-hectare (30-acre) campus will act as a "centrepiece of the Michigan Central technology" and "cultural hub" according to Michigan Central, with space for restaurants, retail, and other community partners.

One example of that innovation can be found right next door to Michigan Central on its sprawling campus: The Albert Khan-designed "book depository" that opened in 1936 and operated both as U.S. post office and, later, as a warehouse for the Detroit Public School system, was brought back to life last year.

Jacob Barker/CBC
Jacob Barker/CBC

It is now the Detroit headquarters of Newlab, a platform for tech start-ups. Michigan Central says there are already upwards of 100 startups and 550 people working inside that facility.

With its mission toward mobility in the renovated Michigan Central, right outside its doors sits a stretch of electric road that can charge electric vehicles as they drive along it.

"When we think about Michigan Central moving forward, the fact that we are right at an international border crossing, the fact that the Windsor, Ont., and Toronto market is right next to us, we talk about all the time, as significant and meaningful," said Josh Sirefman, the CEO of Michigan Central.

"Our hope is that the work here reflects opportunities created by that."

Along with cross border collaboration, Sirefman says he believes a passenger link by rail between Windsor and Detroit could someday return, a $44-million idea floated by Amtrak and Via Rail as recently as last November. Right now, only freight runs along tracks through a rail tunnel that connects the two sides.

"We are hopeful that over time, with participation from all levels of government that passenger rail could happen again."

Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library.
Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library.