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Rick Haglund: General Motors is moving out of Renaissance Center. Now what?


Rick Haglund: General Motors is moving out of Renaissance Center. Now what?

Apr 20, 2024 | 4:55 am ET
By Rick Haglund
Rick Haglund: General Motors is moving out of Renaissance Center. Now what?
General Motors headquarters and the Spirit of Detroit | Susan J. Demas

Detroit’s Renaissance Center has long defined the city’s skyline, its image gracing the covers of countless promotional brochures and regularly shown on nationally televised sporting events in the Motor City.

But despite sweeping views from its glass towers, the Ren Cen is arguably Detroit’s most unloved building. Navigating its collection of towers is like trying to find your way through a corn maze. Jokes (I think) are told about people entering the Ren Cen, never to be seen again.

More critically, Michigan’s tallest building failed to spark the economic renaissance its name promised. And 47 years after it opened, the Ren Cen’s future is very much in doubt.

That’s because General Motors, which has owned five of its seven towers since 1996, is moving its global headquarters from the Ren Cen to Dan Gilbert’s soaring Hudson’s Detroit development downtown. The Ren Cen, already lacking tenants, will largely be vacant when GM leaves sometime next year.

“We are proud to remain in the city of Detroit in a modern office building that fits the evolving needs of our workforce, right in the heart of downtown,” GM CEO Mary Barra said in announcing the move.

Her statement crystalizes the Ren Cen’s dilemma. It’s an outdated behemoth, unfriendly to workers and largely disconnected from the city.

Rick Haglund: General Motors is moving out of Renaissance Center. Now what?
Gm headquarters, Detroit | Susan J. Demas

Construction of the Ren Cen was undertaken by auto magnate Henry Ford II, who was part of a coterie of mostly white business leaders working with Black Mayor Coleman Young to revitalize a city devastated by the 1967 Detroit Rebellion.

Ford enlisted as the project’s architect John Portman Jr., known for designing major downtown redevelopment projects, including Atlanta’s Peachtree Center.

But the Ren Cen was cut off from the downtown it was supposed to resuscitate.  Charles Blessing, Detroit’s chief city planner at the time, opposed the project for that very reason.

Architectural studies of the Ren Cen “found several faults with the project, including its isolation from the rest of the city and the massive exterior concrete berms facing Jefferson Avenue that made the building appear to be a fortress,” according to the Detroit Historical Society.

The berms, which contained the building’s heating and cooling systems, may have been a feature, not a bug. Some believed the berms would have allowed the Ren Cen to be quickly walled off should the city again erupt into violence.

And Detroit’s reputation at the time for being crime-ridden and unsafe may have influenced Portman’s design. When staying in Detroit to work on the project, Portman said he was told not to walk downtown streets, according to the Guardian newspaper.

Early on, the Ren Cen did lead to some new business investment in Detroit and boosted revenues of local restaurants from visitors staying in the center’s 73-story hotel, now operated by Marriott.

But it failed to spark the promised renaissance, which was likely a naïve assumption.

Detroit’s population in 1980 — three years after the Ren Cen opened — was 1.2 million. Today it’s little more than half that figure. And despite some economic progress, Detroit remains the nation’s poorest large city.

Downtown continued to decline until recent years. It suffered a crushing blow in 1983 when the enormous J.L. Hudson Co. department store closed. It was later imploded and is now the site of Gilbert Hudson’s Detroit mixed-use development.

Ford, who once saw the Ren Cen as a catalyst that would return Detroit to the prosperity it enjoyed in the 1940s, sold it to an investor group at an apparent loss in 1982. The building was purchased in 1996 by GM as its global headquarters.

The automaker spent a $1 billion to make the building easier to navigate (it wasn’t entirely successful) and open it up to the city. It removed the bunkers from the Ren Cen’s entrance and created the GM Wintergarden, a stunning, five-story atrium with a ground-level view of the Detroit River.

GM nearly abandoned the Ren Cen to cut costs as part of its 2009 bankruptcy reorganization plan. Then-GM CEO Fritz Henderson proposed moving the automaker’s headquarters out of the Ren Cen and into its sprawling technical center in suburban Warren. 

Rick Haglund: General Motors is moving out of Renaissance Center. Now what?
Rock Ventures and Quicken Loans Chairman Dan Gilbert, April 30, 2012 in Detroit, Michigan.| Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

But the Obama administration, which was financing GM’s bankruptcy, nixed the idea as being potentially devastating to Detroit’s finances. The city filed the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy in 2013.

What happens to the Ren Cen is as murky as a foggy day on the Detroit River. GM said it will work with Gilbert and city officials over the next year to develop a plan for the giant structure.

Gilbert is a master at repurposing old buildings, so there’s hope for redeveloping the Ren Cen, which has more than five million square feet of space. That’s about twice as much as the Empire State Building.

But tearing it down and replacing it with something that’s more in harmony with the surrounding city and its riverfront will likely be considered.

Reducing a city landmark, however controversial, to rubble might seem unthinkable. But that’s probably what people thought about the downtown J.L. Hudson’s at its apex in the 1950s when the store employed 12,000 workers and hosted 100,000 shoppers a day.

If the building is imploded, demolition workers should first make sure no one is still wandering around lost in its corridors.