The 111-year-old Factory building, once the home to the Chicago Hosiery and Detroit-Alaska Knitting Mills factories, sits in the middle of a section of Michigan Avenue in Corktown that seems poised for more development.
DETROIT — The business strategy of Ford Motor Co.’s big bet on a future of selling electric and autonomous vehicles will be devised inside a former hosiery factory in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood — a move that was driven both by the automaker’s ambitions to transform urban mobility and its employees’ desire to work in an urban setting.
Inside the multi-section building at 1907 and 1927 Michigan Ave. called The Factory, Ford plans to embed its “Team Edison” group of employees who are charged with developing the business and strategy for rolling out 16 fully electric vehicles by 2022, said Sherif Marakby, vice president of autonomous vehicles and electrification for Ford.
“From a mindset standpoint, it was a really nice fit with how we’re thinking … about the future of battery electrics and autonomy,” Marakby said in an interview last week with Crain’s Detroit Business at the Detroit auto show. Crain’s is an affiliate of Automotive News.
Ford’s purchase of The Factory building marks the biggest re-engagement with the city where Henry Ford invented the assembly line a century ago since the last Ford workers left the Renaissance Center nearly 20 years ago.
Marakby, who will be based at the new Corktown office, was a college trainee in the early 1990s when Ford still occupied office space in the RenCen — now the headquarters of General Motors.
The 111-year-old Factory building, once the home to the Chicago Hosiery and Detroit-Alaska Knitting Mills factories, sits in the middle of a section of Michigan Avenue in Corktown that seems poised for more development spreading west from downtown and the redevelopment of the former Tiger Stadium site a block away.
“The reason I fell in love with the place as soon as I saw it is it really gives you that vibe of the heritage and the new coming together — and it really brings it to life,” Marakby said of the building along Michigan Avenue, where early 20th-century streetcar rail still peeks out from between cobblestone and asphalt.
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Building Team Edison
In building Team Edison, which Marakby describes as “a tech company within the company,” Ford executives wanted to be in a location where employees developing the business case for electric and autonomous vehicles could contemplate and experience the real-world application.
“We see being in Corktown as a big advantage,” Marakby said. “And it has actually, in many ways, increased the interest in working on the team — internally and externally.”
Ford plans to start moving employees into the building in the second quarter.
In the Southeast Michigan-based auto industry’s race with Silicon Valley to put autonomous vehicles on the road, workspaces matter, said Glenn Stevens, executive director of MICHauto, the Detroit Regional Chamber’s automotive mobility accelerator programs.
“For Ford, Detroit and Michigan, it all boils down to culture and talent,” Stevens said. “And that enables you to build the F-150s of the day today. And it enables you to have the vision of what the city of tomorrow will be with operating systems and data analytics and software systems and the connected car.”
In addition to Team Edison, Ford also will have employees working on the business and strategy of autonomous vehicles based in Corktown, including software developers writing the programs that business clients will use to connect their applications to future autonomous vehicles, Marakby said.
“We’re going to fill the building,” he said. “It’s going to be exciting.”
The office in Corktown gives the EV and autonomous vehicle employees the ability to work in an urban setting, while not too far from home base, Marakby said.
The Factory, a 45,000-square-foot recently renovated space, is a 20-minute drive from Ford’s headquarters, engineering labs and manufacturing facilities in Dearborn.
The building is about a mile from the central business district of Detroit — and within walking distance of new housing that’s being built or redeveloped in and around Corktown.
“Our young people love … living and working in urban areas,” said Bill Ford Jr., executive chairman of the company and great-grandson of founder Henry Ford. “For me, it was a no-brainer. And also, it’s still a pretty good deal to be in downtown Detroit.”
Ford Land Development Co., the real estate arm of the automaker, purchased The Factory at Corktown building from former IndyCar driver Robbie Buhl and his brother, Tom, for an undisclosed price.
The company has secured parking for employees in a vacant lot across Michigan Avenue that will accommodate the 200-plus employees, Marakby said.
Staying close to home
Marakby said “a good portion” of the employees who will work in Corktown already live in the greater downtown area.
The owner of a wine bar next door to The Factory is hoping that’s the case.
“My only hope is that they’re not the type of people who get in their car and go right back home to the suburbs,” said David Armin-Parcells, owner of MotorCity Wine, which has operated a wine bar and shop at 1949 Michigan Ave. since 2013.
The Buhl brothers’ race team and motorsports marketing company, Buhl Sport Detroit, will remain headquartered in a smaller two-story annex building at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Rosa Parks Boulevard.
“Obviously, we’re excited that Ford’s coming back to Detroit and Corktown,” Robbie Buhl said in an interview. “It just made more sense, with what their interest was, to sell them the building.”
The Buhls, who bought the building in 2015 for $1.8 million through an entity called Riverfront Partnership I LLC, also will continue to share rented space with Brothers Tuning Detroit, which produces after-market gear shift knobs for the Ford Focus and Fiesta cars.
The Buhls rehabilitated the building over the past three years and were using the third floor for special events until Ford executives expressed interest in the building a few months ago.
“Everything just came together, and it happened very fast — it happened in weeks,” Marakby said.
“Three years ago, would I ever have thought this was something that would have transpired?” Robbie Buhl said. “No way.”