U-M outlines new commitments to Detroit

March 6, 2023

The University of Michigan has unveiled a series of new commitments to the city of Detroit including details of the university’s role in leading the design and construction of the renamed University of Michigan Center for Innovation.

The UMCI will be built by the university to accommodate the academic and community programs that it will house. Those programs are now expanded to include three distinct types of activity—graduate education, talent-based community development and community engagement—all in the service of economic development and job growth for Detroit, said U-M President Santa J. Ono.

The UMCI is expected to break ground this year and take three years to build. It’s funded with a $100 million donation from Stephen Ross and $100 million from the state of Michigan. An additional $50 million will be raised from donors and Olympia Development is donating the four-acre property to U-M.

Santa J. Ono
Santa J. Ono

“Our founding as a university traces back to Detroit, so it’s fitting that we reinvigorate and build on our commitment to the city through this center,” Ono said. “UMCI is essential for our future. We are searching for a new director who will be a critical voice within the community, as well as an essential liaison with our many stakeholders in Detroit.”

“The potential for the UMCI to be a catalyst for the future of Detroit is exponential and we are excited that President Ono and his team at U-M are leading the charge on this project,” said Ross, founder and chairman of Related Companies. “We’re particularly excited for the impact the UMCI and its programs will have on the next generation of Detroit students who will have this world-class academic institution at their doorstep.”

The university will handle construction of the $250 million, 200,000-square-foot building planned for the site bounded by Cass and Grand River avenues and West Columbia and Elizabeth streets, pending approval by the U-M Board of Regents. By taking on the construction of the UMCI, the university will be able to build out the new facility to fit its specifications, needs, and academic and community programming, said Geoffrey Chatas, U-M executive vice president and chief financial officer.

The Downtown Detroit Partnership will continue to act as a fiduciary for the state funding and administer those funds through a nonprofit subsidiary.

UMCI will benefit from being near the proposed $1.5 billion,10-building mixed-use development Related Companies and Olympia Development have joined forces to develop in The District Detroit near the Fox Theatre and professional sports stadiums.

Ono has made the UMCI one of his top priorities. The center, along with the P-20 Partnership at the School at Marygrove, the $40 million Rackham building renovation, the U-M Detroit Center, which opened in 2005 in Midtown, and hundreds of other projects U-M works on with community partners around the city, are examples of how the university has stepped up its community engagement in the city in recent years.

Evolution to mixed-use model

James Hilton, U-M vice provost for academic innovation, who is leading the center’s academic programming, said that the project has evolved from one focusing exclusively on graduate education when it was first announced in 2019 to a more strategic mixed model that will usher in a new era of collaboration and partnership with the city. This will include significant programming and facilities aimed at engaging the business, entrepreneurial and residential communities.

“The combination of philanthropy and state funds is going to allow us to increase our programming and sustained commitment to Detroit,” he said.

Hilton said the graduate programs would focus on technology, robotics, sustainability and computer science with the goal of encouraging interdisciplinary studies.

But more than that, the UMCI plans to provide workforce training, professional development and certificate programs—pulling in the university’s broad array of digital content to augment in-person instruction.

“We want to help develop talent in the community,” Hilton said. “We are looking at how we can take some of the online and certificate-based learning that U-M has to build in-person experiences in the UMCI to make that training more real, more community-based, and more meaningful.

“Companies are excited that we’ll have master’s degrees in areas that they care about. But they are equally excited about the professional development opportunities they can offer to the full range of their employees, both certificate-based and skills-based.”

Rackham Detroit

As academic programming evolves for UMCI, it also presents opportunities for the Horace H. Rackham Educational Memorial building, located in Detroit’s Midtown, Chatas said. It could offer a chance to collaborate with community partners in new ways.

“We are excited to continue the design, planning and programming process for Rackham Detroit, which is another example of U-M’s commitment to having a positive impact on the people of Detroit,” Chatas said.

The U-M Board of Regents approved plans to renovate the Rackham building in December 2021 along with committing $40 million to see it through.

The building sits adjacent to many city landmarks, including the Detroit Institute of Arts, Wayne State University and the Detroit Public Library, making it an ideal launching pad for educational and cultural experiences for the city and U-M community.

It is part of the university’s long-term commitment to the city to grow the economy and improve the quality of life through teaching and research in collaboration with the community.

Built in 1942, the Rackham building was a gift from Mary Rackham and was jointly owned by U-M and the Engineering Society of Detroit. In 2018, the university acquired full ownership of the building, which has not received major infrastructure updates since its original opening. Investment proceeds will fund the project.