Visionary Joshua Sirefman returns to Detroit to transform the historic Michigan Central Station into Ford’s futuristic innovation hub.
Bill Ford (William Clay Ford Jr.), executive chair of Ford Motor Company, gave his chief of staff, Mary Culler, a stealth mission about five years ago. Bill tasked Mary to look at the city of Detroit and explore places where Ford could have a presence. His vision not only related to mobility but also building and engaging community.
Mary worked with the city to look at countless buildings and walked around many districts within the city block-by-block-by-block. One day, Bill called Mary and pondered an idea that they first didn’t believe could be a reality but were ultimately able to pursue. This led to the acquisition of the former Michigan Central Station, a once-elegant 18-floor skyscraper about a mile west of Downtown Detroit.
Their ambitious efforts continued when they recruited Joshua Sirefman this past February to be the CEO of the endeavor.
It would be far loftier than the typical real estate purchase. They view “The Station,” their name for Michigan Central Station, as the centerpiece of a 30-acre community at the nexus of Detroit’s Corktown and Southwest neighborhoods. The plan would have academics, startups and community leaders gather to “address pressing societal challenges and help usher in a more accessible, sustainable future for all.”
For Sirefman, it would be a return to Detroit after beginning his career in the city creating and operating a program through Islandview Village Development Corporation, a nonprofit community redevelopment organization that focused on transforming a depressed industrial corridor into a model urban industrial area.
He co-designed citywide grassroots industrial retention programs as a member of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation team. Sirefman, now 54, shared fond memories of starting his career here, including early mentorship in the city and being invited to several meals with community members.
NEW YORK SUCCESS
From his early years in Detroit, he served as COO of the New York City Economic Development Corporation — and later as interim president. He has been chief of staff for the deputy mayor of Economic Development under the office of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a senior executive to a leading real estate firm, and a consultant to such institutions as the New York Public Library, Bloomberg Philanthropies and Cornell Tech, which includes a joint academic venture between Cornell and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.
He later became a co-founder of Sidewalk Labs, developed within Google, where he served in the roles of president, chief development officer and senior adviser. Sirefman launched Sidewalk Labs alongside Detroit native Daniel Doctoroff. Its mission was focused on improving “urban infrastructure through technological solutions and tackling issues such as cost of living, efficient transportation and energy usage.”
“Josh is a true visionary who combines a remarkable appreciation for the importance of place-making with an understanding of technology and an ability to get things done,” Doctoroff told the Jewish News. “For a project like Michigan Central, he is uniquely suited to create something truly great.”
Sirefman said, “I would characterize Dan as one of the most important people in my life, both professionally and personally. We first worked together in the Bloomberg administration where I had several roles, including serving as his chief of staff when he was deputy mayor. And then we had that second professional chapter in co-founding Sidewalk Labs. He’s an extraordinary individual. I don’t even know how to characterize how much I have learned from him — probably the greatest mentor in my career and also a great friend.”
A ‘UNICORN’ JOB
Mary Culler viewed the head of the Michigan Central Station as a “unicorn” job. “We needed somebody who could really transcend taking a place and making it something that matched the vision for the project,” Culler said.
As she began to identify candidates in other states who could make the project sustainable, Sirefman came to the forefront because of his track record across many relevant projects. His experience understanding adaptive reuse, building world-class destinations and developing innovation communities with a focus on mobility all fit the bill for the job.
Culler noted that Sirefman has done large-scale developments, worked in government and been deep in the weeds of public-private partnerships, which Sidewalk Labs pursued in a Toronto-based project.
“We’ve seen his deep commitment to community that he has, which is really important for us, and he saw the power of the project, which is a testament to his vision,” Culler noted. “He’s building a world-class team and has already hired some amazing folks. He’s bringing in fantastic expertise to really dig into some of these, frankly, difficult issues. He’s looked at what we’ve done, had strong alignment with the strategy; he’s improved upon the strategy and taken it to the next level.”
For Sirefman, the value proposition to recruit talent and new tenants is clear: It’s being part of a community of economic activity of brainpower and talent. It’s about being among others doing related work, which has a high value, as entrepreneurs don’t want to work in a silo.
There’s already been achievement in the physical infrastructure side spanning technologies around inductive charging in the pavement (the first wireless EV-charging road system in the nation is to be created at Michigan Central Station by Israeli startup Electreon, which was announced earlier this year) that will allow companies to both test and deploy their solutions. But it also includes digital infrastructure, which relates to the ability for companies to capture data in a very transparent way.
Sirefman also remarked upon the policy infrastructure side, which allows tenants to more easily work with the city of Detroit through the Transportation Innovation Zone to bring government to the table.
Finally, the social infrastructure element allows stakeholders in the mobility ecosystem to more easily engage with the community during the working process. “Interestingly, from a global perspective, we’re seeing evidence that companies really get that this will be a portal for their entry into the North American market, and that there are assets and advantages of Southeast Michigan and Detroit. Michigan Central is sort of the natural place for them to land,” Sirefman said.
A ’VIBRANT’ ENGINE
A decade from now, Sirefman sees the possibility of Michigan Central as an extraordinary, alive and vibrant place — an engine of both innovative work, but also of the energy of Detroit. He wants it to truly be viewed as an asset and a resource by all Detroiters.
“We’re trying to create an open platform, where a decade from now, Michigan Central has legitimately moved the needle on the ability to attract and retain or train a talent base that is on par with the West Coast, East Coast, Texas, wherever it may be,” Sirefman said.
That extraordinary impact has happened for Detroit in the last century. He sees remarkable innovation happening within the ecosystem that can accelerate the adoption of electrification, and whatever new solutions are needed that drive the industry toward a more sustainable and equitable approach to mobility.
“Personally, I do think that those are the kinds of outcomes that would truly define success,” he said.
A PROUD HISTORY
The last train to leave Michigan Central Station would occur at 11:30 a.m. on Jan. 5, 1988. It was train No. 353 bound for Chicago. The decades of earlier activity often included notable events in Jewish Detroit history. When the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, a world-famous scholar, traveled to Detroit in 1930, a special route was arranged for his admirers to gather at Michigan Central Depot for his arrival on a Tuesday afternoon and lead him to the Emanuel Shul on Taylor Street.
When Detroit leaders needed to travel to meet administration officials in Washington, D.C., to communicate urgent matters, they’d leave from Michigan Central, and not dissimilar from today’s train service from Detroit — they could be delayed by many hours. The delegation had to more creatively alert their esteemed hosts of the delay as it was two generations before mobile phones were created.
The space would be the headquarters for much industry — from a distillery to a produce company — that would receive shipments from the train station. This economic activity would empower generations of entrepreneurial investments in the city.
The space would enable countless families to congregate as their family members went off to service in World War II, for emotional greetings of refugees reaching Detroit for the first time, and for receptions to welcome dignitaries to the state. An early 1931 cover of the Detroit Jewish Chronicle exclaimed: “City and state officials this week signified their readiness to join the Jewish communities of Michigan in welcoming to Detroit the world president of the Jewish National Fund, Menachem Ussishkin, on Sunday and Monday, Jan. 18 and 19. Plans outlined by the committees in charge of arrangements include a reception at the Michigan Central Depot on Sunday morning, Jan. 18.”
In October 1946, an emotional gathering took place when nine survivors of the Nazi terror who traveled from Shanghai were received by a delegation at Michigan Central before they were provided housing. They were graduates of an esteemed yeshivah that previously taught 500 students, almost all of whom perished in the Holocaust.
In January 1948, Tel Aviv Mayor Israel Rokach was welcomed upon his arrival in Detroit by a large reception committee at Michigan Central. A few hours later, he would be a guest of Ford Motor Company for lunch and be taken for a tour of the Ford plant. In front of an audience of 5,000, donors raised a record amount to develop land in Israel, which equates to nearly $2 million in 2022 dollars.
In recent years, Bill Ford and Mary Culler have visited Israel, which is home to a growing presence of Ford Israel. Culler, who also now serves as the president of the company’s philanthropic arm, the Ford Fund, recalled an early assignment of assisting the Shoah Dinner in Dearborn, when Bill Ford was recognized by Steven Spielberg.
The development of Michigan Central’s campus has led to several other newsworthy investments in recent years. Matthew Kalt, a senior vice president at Chicago-based Oxford Capital Group, has moved home to oversee the firm’s developments of the Detroit/Corktown projects, including the co-development of the Godfrey Hotel and Perennial apartment developments. His firm will also manage the hotel. Hunter Pasteur, based in Farmington Hills, are also partners on the Perennial and Godfrey developments.
Kalt, 32, grew up in Franklin and attended Hillel Day School, Detroit Country Day School and the University of Michigan. He moved back to his hometown from Chicago last year with his wife and now resides in Birmingham. His firm also bought the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel in Detroit last year.
“We were drawn to Corktown and Detroit because of all the existing and new demand being created by the dozens of recent and forthcoming corporate relocations and expansions Downtown, including Ford’s investment in Michigan Central right by our developments,” he said. “The Godfrey Hotel Detroit is on track to open Spring 2023 and Perennial Corktown Apartments are on schedule to open a few months after that.”
Sirefman, whose future in-laws live in Bloomfield Hills, added, “I have a strong belief that here in Detroit, anyone’s success is everyone’s success. And I think it’s actually one of the great things about both the market and the community, in that we’re all working toward the same objectives.
“There’s no shortage of opportunities or of subjects to collaborate on,” he added. “And so [whether it’s academia or business or entrepreneurship or real estate], in some ways, we’re all in it together.”
A GRAND VISION
When Jennifer Maiseloff, now a set designer for the stage, was beginning her painting studies at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit at the age of 18, she found inspiration by visiting Michigan Central. She’d go through each floor up to the roof, taking photos and making sketches while she was there. She’d later turn them into an array of paintings. She’d describe the historical edifice as her muse.
For Mary Culler, it’s full-speed ahead with an extraordinary commitment.
“We’re excited about moving the work forward. You’re going to start to see some of the buildings open and, in some cases, getting completed. And it’s hard to believe that all the time has passed and that we’re at this exciting point where we’re actually seeing progress. It’s really real.”
On my last visit to Michigan Central, the elevator of years gone by was once again moving up.
It led up to a rooftop with 230 feet of possibility that caused Joshua Sirefman to move back. And not far off in Corktown were newer developments that led Matthew Kalt to move home.
Without announcement, while more moved up and back and home, that initial skepticism — not surprisingly — started movin’ out.
And whether it’s a 20th-century train station or a 21st-century mobility campus, not being on the right platform forward, to quote singer Billy Joel, just seemed such a waste of time.