Dan Gilbert's ‘Big Bang Theory’ for Detroit development

Posted on March 8, 2012

Does Detroit need new retail to draw residents? Or more residents to draw retail?

“Both,” said Quicken Loans Inc. founder and Chairman Dan Gilbert.

“What Detroit needs is a kind of a big bang, over the course of two years, to bring it all at once in a cohesive way.”

Gilbert was the closing speaker at the Idea: Detroit conference, an event hosted by Crain’s Detroit Businessand Advertising Age at the Fox Theatre.

After acquiring buildings up and down Woodward between Grand Circus Park and Jefferson over the past year, Gilbert said he and his real estate team have been holding off on the requests from retailers to rent space.

“The interest is really high,” he said. “But we want to put this off until we can put everything into one big design.”

The end goal, he said, is to have one large plan to have all of the retail developed under one master plan.

Gilbert’s name has been attached to much of the discussion of Detroit’s revitalization in recent history after his series of moves to buy downtown real estate and relocate his companies in the city.

In addition to moving the headquarters of Quicken Loans from Livonia to Detroit, he has moved many of the firms he has an ownership interest in, such as Title Source Inc.

He has been on a buying spree with buildings, acquiring close to 2 million square feet of commercial space, making him the second-largest private landlord behind General Motors Co.

By the end of 2012, Quicken and its related companies will have moved 5,400 employees to Detroit.

The move has brought energy to the employees in a way that can’t be replicated in the suburbs, said Dan Mullen, acquisition manager with Bedrock Real Estate Management, the real estate entity that manages Gilbert’s holdings, oversees the marketing of the vacant space and analyses new purchases.

“Downtown, you look out the window and see these beautiful skyscrapers,” Mullen said. “It’s a lot different than looking at the Costco near I-275.”

Gilbert, jokingly, chimed in: “Hey, don’t knock the view of Costco, it’s beautiful in April.”

In addition to office and commercial space, Gilbert has been eyeing residential development in the city. He has the development rights to the vacant land north of the Compuware Building where the former J.L. Hudson building once stood.

He said that given the high occupancy rates of the city’s apartment buildings, it’s a smart economic move to own residential properties.

Gilbert also addressed several hot topics in Detroit, such as the proposed light rail line on Woodward and the possibility of an emergency financial manager.

He said that the light rail plan, which has 29 days left in a 90-day approval period, has the backing it needs and that “the details are being tended to.”

“That line will be in the ground by the end of this calendar year,” he said.

On the topic of Detroit’s finances, Gilbert said, the city needs to deal with the problems and move on.

“It’s going to hurt, it’s going to be painful, but you have to deal with it,” he said. “I’m not saying it has to be a bankruptcy or what it has to be, but you look at the automakers and it’s a whole new game on the other side. Detroit needs to get there.”

In recruiting people to live or work in Detroit, Gilbert said it’s not been a hard sales pitch, especially for young people.

“The city sells itself,” he said. “If you’re a young person and you move to Boston, or Chicago, you’ll get a nice job and live in a downtown. But being here, and having the chance to impact your hometown for the better – that’s something they can’t offer.”