What the wildest train station renovations in Amer...

What the wildest train station renovations in America could mean for Detroit



Yes, the entire world knows that Ford bought the abandoned Michigan Central Station. But what on earth will they do with it?

We heard the basics at Ford’s unveiling at Michigan Central Station on Tuesday — public spaces on the ground floor, office space and housing in the 15-story tower. But we’re impatient — and speculation is so much fun. To get a sense of the possibilities, we scoured the renovations of classic train stations around America. Spoiler: lots of “Union” stations ahead.

Will Ford, a single corporate entity, redevelop Detroit’s train station with the same goals as a team of real estate developers and equity partners? That’s anybody’s guess. Hold on to your seats, because this train is destined for the land of fantastical possibilities!

DENVER: Union Station
Built: 1914. Renovated: 2010-2014
Trains: And bus, and rail

Denver made a big bet on regional mobility and located a new $500 million transit center right next to the historic station. The actual Union Station terminal hall, rescued by a team of committed local developers, is the grand dame of Denver’s historic district. There’s a classy hotel, bookstore, shops and several restaurants. Still, the developers kept the building’s legacy as a community focal point intact. The great hall, known as “Denver’s Living Room,” is maintained as public space — a lovely waiting room for Amtrak passengers, tourists and anyone else who wants to rest their feet. The automaker’s reported plans to open the landmark’s lobby to the public are encouraging. Whether they materialize, and whether Ford is as intentional about creating community space, are the billion-dollar questions.


ST. LOUIS: Union Station
Built: 1894. Renovated: 1985
Trains: Yup, and buses.

Ten years before the Morouns bought Michigan Central Station, St. Louis went gangbusters on a renovation for the city’s 19th century train station, adding restaurants, event space and retail. Since then, the St. Lunatics keep adding to what’s now called the Gateway Transportation Center. A whimsical hi-def light show on the station ceiling? A Ferris wheel with a VIP gondola? An aquarium full of fish?! But seriously, St. Louis is a great example of how, decades after renovation, a historic landmark can continue to attract new investment.

CINCINNATI: Union Terminal
Built: 1933. Renovated: 1990, present day
Trains: In â€œthe dead of night” only

Cincinnati’s Art Deco Union Station has the largest free-standing half-dome in the Western Hemisphere (literally inspiring the Justice League’s Hall of Justice). But saving Cinci’s Union Station has been a long and expensive ordeal. After the station was abandoned, real estate developers hatched a plot to bring a mall called “Land of Oz” to the Main Terminal, but it went bust in just four years. The next venture, led in part by former mayor Jerry Springer, housed an IMAX theatre and several museums under Union Station’s roof. But the renovations were critically underfunded, deteriorating the building to the point of danger. The Museum Center had to raise another campaign to do years of major improvements. Cinci’s example serves as a warning to Ford — spend now, or spend much, much more later.

CHICAGO: Union Station
Built: 1925. Renovated: Coming soon?
Trains: Urban, commuter and Amtrak rail stops here.

Chicago’s proposed Union Station renovation is the most herculean redesign of them all. Daniel Burnham’s Art Deco Palace would see a food hall and retail spaces, 100,000 square feet of new office space and hotel rooms and a pair of 12-story residential towers added to the top. And that’s just Phase One. All told, the modern redesign will add 3 million square feet to the Union Station complex. Michigan Central Station is already plenty big, but it’s worth wondering — will Ford want to adapt or add to the existing structure? Since Ford has already outlined four or five buildings that will make up its Corktown campus, that seems unlikely, but who knows? And hey, would you want to live at MCS?


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Ashley Woods Branch is the founder and CEO of Detour Media, a local journalism startup that builds community, spotlights neighborhood issues and curates Detroit news through an equitable perspective. Ashley leads Detour’s audience growth strategies, community partnerships, revenue operations and strategic planning. She’s also a sought-after consultant for digital newsrooms and has worked with more than 100 news outlets across America. Ashley previously led consumer experience and digital strategy at the Detroit Free Press and was the editor of HuffPost’s Detroit bureau, as well as a reporter and editor focused on Detroit culture and development for MLive, Real Detroit Weekly and Model D. She was a 2019 Marshall Memorial Fellow and a 2018 Visiting Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard University. Follow her on Twitter: @ash_detroit