U-M alum Joshua Sirefman readies Michigan Central for 2024 opening

September 27, 2023

Joshua Sirefman leads what some see as the most important economic development project in Michigan. Sirefman is chief executive officer of Michigan Central, a sprawling, 30-acre mobility district centered at the historic, but long-abandoned Michigan Central Station in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood. There, Ford Motor Co. and dozens of young companies are working to make Michigan a global hub of mobility innovation.

Sirefman previously was the co-founder and president of Sidewalk Labs, a New York-based “urban innovation unit” within Google. The New York native and University of Michigan alum, who received a master’s of urban planning degree from Taubman College in 1996, became Michigan Central’s CEO in February 2022.

What attracted you to this job?

I don’t think there’s anything more important happening, not just in Detroit, but in the country than Michigan Central. I started my career here in Detroit (working on several community development projects) and have always wanted to be involved again. When the opportunity came up to be involved in Michigan Central, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Ford Motor Co., I couldn’t pass that up.

You have a pretty expansive job. How would you summarize it?

We’re simultaneously creating a literally world-changing ecosystem focused around the intersection of mobility and society, creating an extraordinary physical place that is an asset for all Detroiters and visitors, and those two objectives mutually reinforce each other. The scale is broad, but that’s because the potential for impact is so enormous.

What is your definition of mobility?

For us, mobility means a lot of things: alternative energy, advanced aerial mobility; things like drones. How does mobility inform access to health care, access to food? Mobility is a very broad subject. It’s something inherent in everything we do in our lives.

You’ve been here about a year-and-a-half. How would you characterize the progress Michigan Central has made?

We launched Newlab (a technology commercialization company in the nearby Book Depository building). We’ve been increasing the amount of companies, entrepreneurs and individuals engaged in the work here. We’ve got a ton of programs going on, so we’re full steam ahead here.

Are there lessons you learned in your previous experience at Sidewalk Labs that you’re applying here?

Sidewalk was an incredible experience in understanding how to think differently and how to really understand how you disrupt things in the way that you’re trained. It’s tough to do new things, but it takes every step, small and big, to think differently and push forward all the time.

What are some of the challenges you’re going to have to overcome to make Michigan Central a success?

We’re trying to grow the pie here, so we have to figure out how we catalyze even more economic activity. Also, the data is startling about how the growth economy is leaving behind black and brown Detroiters and residents in the region. We have to make sure our work addresses how to remedy that head on. And we have to make sure we’re collaborating with all kinds of entities all the time.

You have a master’s degree in urban planning from the University of Michigan. How has your degree prepared you for your career?

Well, if I didn’t have that degree, I wouldn’t be here because I got very involved in Detroit when I was getting my master’s degree at Michigan. So there’s a very sort of direct relationship for me. I think an urban planning degree helps you to see how all the pieces fit together. And that, for me, is probably the most important skill.

People have been talking about how they would like to see restaurants, shops, hotels and other amenities at Michigan Central. Is that going to happen?

We’re up and running and we’ve become an incredible center point for convening of all sorts. The station itself will open to the public, most likely in May 2024. The intent is to be very public. We will have restaurants and retail and a hotel and an array of different kinds of uses and activities that will come online over time.

Michigan Central was a train station for most of its life. Is there a possibility trains may run there in the future?

We sincerely hope there is passenger rail that’s stopping there in the future. I know there’s a ton of interest at the city, state and federal government levels and at Amtrak in figuring out how to make that happen.

– Written by Rick Haglund