ULI delivers the vast land use expertise of its members to communities facing critical land use challenges. The Institute’s global Advisory Services program and local Technical Assistance Program (TAP) panels, offered by the District Council Network, bring together multidisciplinary teams of ULI members who volunteer their time to help cities solve fundamental challenges—economic development, affordable housing, infrastructure, and climate change resilience—using the tools of urban planning, design, and development.
In FY 2016, a team from ULI Michigan worked closely with the city of Dearborn to craft a new vision for the West Downtown district, an area that experienced severe decline resulting from the Great Recession of 2008.
Home to the Ford Motor Company’s global headquarters and a branch campus of the University of Michigan, Dearborn has always been a regional employment center with a strong daytime population. Once an evening destination, West Downtown lost its appeal over time. Municipal leaders wanted to reposition West Downtown as more of a live/work/play district, capitalizing on its proximity to Ford, the Rouge River Gateway Trail, and the new John Dingell Transit Center.
The city asked ULI Michigan’s Larson Center for Leadership to analyze the market potential of a strategic piece of land in the heart of West Downtown that—with the right project—could catalyze further investment. Known as the Wagner Hotel block, the land was once home to a historic hotel in the early 20th century, but has since stood vacant and vulnerable.
A ULI technical assistance panel recommended turning the block into a vibrant, mixed-use development—combining apartments, restaurants, retail, and office space—to give the district a 24/7 anchor. The panel emphasized that enhancing the pedestrian experience through plazas, facade improvements, and traffic-calming infrastructure must be central to any effort to refresh the site.
While the ULI Michigan panel finalized its recommendations, Ford Land, the company’s real estate division, had been evaluating the site for a new Ford research and office facility. Ford Land officials were among the local stakeholders the panel interviewed as part of the process and eagerly awaited ULI’s recommendations. While Ford intends to pursue an office development rather than a residential development on the Wagner Hotel block, the panel’s emphasis on the pedestrian experience, connectivity to trails and transit, and the need for retail and restaurants to activate the site reinforced the company’s vision for an urban campus, says Doug Van Noord, director of sales, leasing, and development.
“This had been a distressed block for several years and it was ripe for redevelopment,” he says. “We were anxious to see the results of the ULI panel. It turned out Ford’s vision for a more walkable, pedestrian-oriented campus was very much aligned with what ULI proposed for the site.”
New workforce housing adjacent to the Wagner Hotel block could be the logical next step after Ford’s new research facility opens. A new generation of Ford employees will likely want the option of biking or walking to work and greater amenities than West Downtown currently offers. The ULI report will help guide the next phase of the district’s evolution, says Barry Murray, Dearborn’s economic and community development director.
“The ideas presented in the ULI report form a strong basis for the city to present the Wagner Hotel block and surrounding areas as development opportunities to the private sector,” he says. “The block was targeted by Ford Land as a prime opportunity to enhance their talent attraction strategy with an urban mixed-use project. ULI made a significant contribution to this innovative placemaking effort.”