Minutes from the train station, Ford Motor is radi...

Minutes from the train station, Ford Motor is radically redesigning its Dearborn campus. Almost no one has noticed.

There's a minor revolution underway at Ford, transforming the dowdy, car-choked campus of today into a collaborative and green workplace of tomorrow.

A campus view looking north shows the partially expanded berm running along Elmdale Street, left, and two parking lots that workers repaved in 2020. A Ford Land spokesperson said the lots are temporary. Ford world headquarters is in the distance at the upper right. Photo/Millard Berry

I’m standing at the corner of Military and Rotunda in Dearborn, and I feel like I’m about to do something bad.

A new sidewalk, wide and curving, beckons me onto Ford Motor Co.’s research and engineering campus, a 700-acre complex of laboratories, workshops, studios and offices, where in normal times 11,000 employees design the vehicles of the future and test their inner workings. 

The pathway looks inviting. I’m wary, though. For years the campus perimeter has displayed the look of a minimum-security prison, with guard shacks, fences and barbed wire. Signs still say, “NO TRESPASSING. No unauthorized activity. Vehicles and persons on company property are subject to inspection. No cameras.”

But the winding sidewalks are an indication of a minor revolution that’s underway at Ford: Officials have decided to relax security and open the grounds to the public as they transform the dowdy, car-choked campus of today into a modern, collaborative and green workplace of tomorrow. It will be a place where, remarkably, the private automobile is an afterthought, a byproduct of efforts by the company that put the world on wheels to become a full mobility provider. In artists’ renderings of the future site, cars are virtually non-existent. 

Blurring the boundaries between company and neighborhood

Movement within the core campus will be “pedestrian-focused and transit-rich, limiting personal vehicle access to the site’s perimeter,” says Snøhetta, Ford’s architectural firm, based in Oslo, Norway.

The work on its Dearborn campus has received almost no publicity, vastly overshadowed by Ford’s development of a 30-acre global mobility center in Detroit’s Corktown, anchored by the long-abandoned Michigan Central Station. Yet work on the campus, located across from the Henry Ford Museum along Oakwood Boulevard, is equally game-changing, combining an expansive corporate presence with nature and public access. Costs have been estimated at several hundred million dollars.

By blurring the boundaries between company and neighborhood, 118-year-Ford Motor has put itself on the cutting edge of modern architecture, into the realm of such contemporary trendsetters as Google, which has employed a similar approach at its new Charleston East campus in Mountain View, California. 

“We envision a quilt of interconnected buildings, with Ford teams woven together in such a way that enables collaboration and innovation,” Craig Dykers, co-founder of Snøhetta, was quoted as saying in a company statement. “Natural and built environments, employees and communities, moving in one Ford ecosystem, and connected with the world around it.”

An artist’s conception of the future Ford Motor research and engineering campus in Dearborn, by its Oslo-based architectural firm, Snøhetta. Michigan Avenue runs across the top third of the image.

That’s a mouthful of corporate feel-good talk, but like daylighting long-buried city streams and dismantling sections of freeways, opening up tightly monitored industrial sites is a concept with growing international appeal. Ford’s liberation of the site comes in an era when such closer-to-nature features as recreation paths, rental bicycles, scooters, storm-water swales and bike lanes have become part of the landscape in both Detroit and its suburbs. 

Jen Maigret, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, called the breaking down of barricades on Ford’s campus “a really productive thing that this region needs a lot more of.”

She added: “Perhaps the success of a campus like this will build a model that others can see has real advantages. When you open back up to the city, you’ll see  there’s really nothing to fear about taking more chances and resisting the temptation to build more walls.”

Wetlands, native species and sycamores 

The relaxing of security on the Ford campus has come without fanfare. Workers recently completed the construction of unguarded vehicle entrances and sidewalks that are twice the normal width, to accommodate pedestrians and bicycles, though most perimeter fencing remains in place. In a reflection of past thinking, one length of the barrier is composed of black steel bars with arrowhead-like tips. A Ford Land spokeswoman said it is uncertain when the fences will be removed.

With the arrival of the new sidewalks, a few local residents have ventured in, on foot and bicycle. I’ve walked and biked through the campus several times and recently wandered the grounds for more than an hour, taking notes, snapping photos and looking in the windows of the new power plant. No one said a word. 

There’s not a lot to see — yet. The Ford complex is no General Motors Tech Center, the architectural landmark in Warren designed in mid-century modern splendor by the famous Eero Saarinen. Few outsiders have seen the center up close because it also has always been closed to the public.

Ford’s campus, filled with large buildings and testing labs where the temperature can dip to 55 degrees below zero, is basically a bland 1950’s corporate mall, but it’s a landmark, the point of origin for customer-pleasing Thunderbirds, Mustangs, and F-150s, as well as such historic blunders as Edsels, Pintos and Focuses with faulty transmissions. It’s the place where Lee Iacocca saw a model of the Mustang and instantly knew he had a winner because the brown clay prototype “looked like it was moving,” he later recalled. 

The future, though, looks intriguing: If Ford follows through with its plans, nature will play a major role in the coming campus, where more than 20,000 employees are expected to work. Snøhetta, a company with a global reach and a reputation for innovation, designed a sleek, sprawling office hub at the northern end of the site, a short walk to the stores and restaurants on Michigan Avenue. Visionaries want to develop Michigan as a 40-mile autonomous roadway, with sensors and WiFi, from Ford’s train station complex to Ann Arbor. 

The planned campus buildings are clad in an ethereal whiteness that calls to mind the Minoru Yamasaki-designed McGregor Memorial conference center on the Wayne State University campus. The Ford structures have large windows, and the interiors will be naturally lit and configured for cooperation. The buildings will be nestled amid gardens, woods and wetlands. The sophisticated new gas-fired heat-and-power plant, run by DTE and operated by only six people, reduces energy consumption, though critics have questioned its emissions.

In greening the campus, Ford is employing as many native species as possible, grounds manager Steve Battersby told me.  

Workers are planting and transplanting trees — red pine, Eastern white pine, burr oak, gingkoes and pin oak, and replacing every tree destroyed in construction with two others. To push sustainability, rather than cut grass once a week, planners are designating many areas as “no-mow zones” so a natural prairie look takes hold. They’re also building bioswales and retention ponds to keep rainwater out of Dearborn’s sewer system. 

With the new campus, nearby residents eventually will gain something that could enhance the value of their homes that they never anticipated – public parkland, even though it’s privately owned. Ford has even discussed allowing non-employees to use the stores, restaurants and coffee shops planned for the complex. Jumping on the farm-to-table bandwagon, the eateries will prioritize sustainable, local products. 

Despite the security, which was tightened after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Ford over the years has camouflaged a lot of the perimeter barbed wire with trees and bushes, especially on the western border, where the site bumps up against an old but well-preserved middle-class neighborhood filled with mature trees and numerous examples of distinctive residential architecture. 

The landscaping already stands out along that section of the boundary. Elmdale Street, which runs just yards outside the campus fence, is narrow, lightly traveled and nearly a mile long, and serves as a buffer between Ford and the neighborhood. Separating the street and the campus are a 30-foot grassy berm, a wall of evergreens, a row of more than two dozen stately sycamores, a park full of towering red oaks and a retention pond nestled amid a sloping greenspace that children use for sledding. As the campus renovation progresses, Ford is widening the berm.

Workers repaved Elmdale this past summer, and with the smooth pavement and verdant setting — even in winter — Ford and the city of Dearborn inadvertently have created an informal recreation path, used by walkers, runners, cyclists, skateboarders, roller hockey players, dog owners and parents pushing babies. When Ford finally does take down its barbed-wire along Elmdale, the extensive landscaping will make it difficult to tell exactly where the campus begins and the neighborhood ends.

Bill Ford’s legacy

As one of the residents looking forward to the sudden gift of parkland and new restaurants, I also wonder about the effect the opening will have on our neighborhood. 

When the fences come down, thousands of well-educated and well-paid employees will have easy access to our sidewalks and Monroe Street, one block away, that offers services, food and doctors’ offices.

More pedestrians are fine with me, but it’s likely to alter the neighborhood vibe, and that might not be to everyone’s liking. In December, someone hanged a homemade sign on a tree along Elmdale, telling the walkers and runners to recreate in their own neighborhoods. The gesture was denounced on social media and the sign was promptly torn down. 

A neighborhood youngster rides her bike across ice on the shallow retention pond next to the Ford campus. Photo/Bill McGraw 

Will Ford follow through and complete the campus in the way it is depicted in artists’ renderings? While demolition and construction have picked up in recent weeks, two things have changed since the company updated plans for the public in September 2019: A new CEO, Jim Farley, took over this past October, and the pandemic has kept most campus employees working from home and changed the future of workplaces in ways that are still coming into focus. A spokeswoman said in late 2020 that plans have not changed.   

If the campus turns out to be the verdant showplace that images suggest, it will burnish the legacy of Bill Ford, Henry Ford’s great-grandson, who is the company’s executive chairman. Ford has long considered himself an environmentalist, and many observers and journalists have accepted that premise.

Whether or not a person who sits at the head of a company that sells millions of high-margin, gas-guzzling trucks can be considered a true steward of the earth, Bill Ford has displayed a green thumb in ways that don’t affect the family firm’s bottom line. The future Ford Motor campus in Dearborn, coupled with the transformed Michigan Central Station 11 miles away in Detroit, will shape the landscape in significant ways for coming generations. And that’s just Ford Motor. In one other example, officials in Detroit’s Cultural Center are also involved in planning for a more people-oriented, greened landscape.

María Arquero de Alarcón, a professor of architecture and urban and regional planning at UM’s Taubman College, believes the public will benefit from the eco-friendly mindset slowly taking hold in the boardroom.

“I think Ford is truly trying to re-imagine itself, and by doing that, re-imagining the city in quite interesting ways,” she said. “I think it is a very exciting moment for the city. The big corporations and big cultural institutions are starting to invest in the future.”

FCA’s construction of a 15-foot cement wall stands in stark contrast to Ford’s approach

The FCA wall forms the boundary between homes and buildings on Beniteau Avenue and the sprawling complex. Photo/Millard Berry

As Ford demolishes barriers in Dearborn, the expanding Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ property on the east side of Detroit has gone in the opposite direction, erecting a cement wall in late 2019 to separate the property from an adjacent neighborhood. 

Fifteen feet high in places, the wall has sparked controversy from some neighbors as well as more than 150 local artists, who oppose a plan to paint murals on the fortification to make it pretty. The artists call that “artwashing” and say the city of Detroit and FCA are attempting to cover up “the destruction of a neighborhood.”

The comparison between the Ford and FCA sites is not perfect: The FCA location is a massive production complex that contains two assembly plants and a railroad spur. It dwarfs the Ford campus, stretching for more than 1 ½ miles from East Jefferson to East Warren along Conner Avenue. The wall runs along part of the western edge and is interrupted by busy Mack Avenue.

The FCA site’s borders feature both barbed wire and abundant landscaping, with trees and rolling earth berms. A new stormwater retention pond is the focus of a park at Kercheval and Beniteau, a venue that includes a walking path, pollinator gardens and an educational pavilion.

But it’s the wall that has captured attention since it arose a year ago. It runs from Kercheval to Warren on the west side of the complex, through an impoverished neighborhood that has struggled for years. 

Until the enlargement of the complex began, an 18-foot grassy berm planted with trees ran the length of St. Jean Avenue, separating the FCA property from homes on Beniteau and absorbing noise from the plant. The city demolished the berm and shut down St. Jean as part of construction. FCA said it needed the land. 

“The way we found the acreage to allow FCA to do the expansion was through the closure of St. Jean and the removal of the berm,” said Katy Trudeau, deputy director of Detroit’s planning department.  

An FCA spokesperson noted the company and city, after consulting residents, agreed to a $35 million package of neighborhood improvements, housing, workforce development, education, training programs and environmental initiatives. Known as a community benefits agreement, the deal also included the wall. 

The wall, with newly growing ivy, wraps around the FCA property at Beniteau and Charlevoix. Some neighbors and 150 artists have protested the barrier. Photo/Millard Berry 

A neighborhood advisory committee, established to represent residents in dealing with the city and FCA, approved the agreement. FCA says the wall’s design had residents’ input, as did the planting of ivy on the wall to soften the effect. 

Some residents, though, have raised questions about the neighborhood-consultation process, and the artists who are protesting the murals are supporting them.

“We refuse to participate in the mural project unless the city and FCA meet the neighbors’ demands addressing damage to their health and homes,” the artists’ statement read in part. Among the signees are well-known artists Tyree GuytonOlayami Dablsdream hampton and Satori Shakoor. 

Published reports make it clear that not all neighbors oppose the wall, which city and FCA officials often refer to as a “sound barrier.”

In February, FCA and Detroit’s Office of Arts, Culture and Entrepreneurship issued a “global open call” to artists to create murals on the wall. At 1,500 feet, the project easily would be one of the biggest frescos in the city, which has blossomed with wall art in recent years under Mayor Mike Duggan, who has promoted sanctioned murals while overseeing his longtime war against graffiti. The pandemic has delayed the project’s launch, but the city plans to announce the artists soon and start work when the weather improves, Trudeau said.

Bill McGraw

Bill McGraw is a veteran journalist who worked at the Detroit Free Press for 32 years, co-edited The Detroit Almanac and co-founded Deadline Detroit. Photo: Noah Stephens/Kresge Arts in Detroit.