From failed jail to innovation hub, a story of redemption in Detroit

The Detroit Center for Innovation will occupy the site of the failed Wayne County jail.

By U2B Staff 

Read all stories

University of Michigan is making its biggest commitment yet to the city of Detroit: the 14-acre Detroit Center for Innovation.

Anchoring the center will be a US$300 million, 190,000 square foot research and education facility operated by the university, the country’s leading public research institution.

Renderings of the facility depict a sleek structure of glass and steel designed by world-renowned architectural firm Kohn Pederson Fox. A centerpiece of the first phase of the multi-building development at the east edge of downtown Detroit, the facility will offer programmes focussed on high-tech research, education and innovation. 

It will occupy the former site of “fail jail”, the unfinished Wayne County jail that has sat for years as a physical remnant and stark reminder of the corruption and mismanagement that led to Detroit becoming the largest US city to declare bankruptcy in 2013. 

The Detroit jail project faltered following claims that Wayne County officials lied about construction costs. Massive cost overruns forced construction to stop mid-project in 2013, although over US$160 million had already been spent on the structure.

But Detroit is now on the rebound, and community leaders want to turn the former jail site into the beating heart of innovation–a great story of redemption for the city and its people.

“It was an everyday reminder of the county’s worst days,” said Wayne County Executive Warren Evans in a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article. “From a psychological perspective, tearing that old jail site down was a major relief.”


University of Michigan expects its new research and education facility to eventually serve up to 1,000 graduate and senior-level undergraduate students pursuing advanced degrees disciplines like mobility, artificial intelligence, data science, entrepreneurship, sustainability, cybersecurity, financial technology and more.

“Instead of 1,000 prisoners, we get 1,000 graduate students,” Mayor Mike Duggan explained in WSJ.

The objective of the center is to develop a new talent pipeline to companies across Detroit city, and attract new ones in.

A new interdisciplinary committee comprising faculty from the university’s three campuses led by Provost James Hilton will develop the educational programmes the center will offer and provide advice on building design so it caters to academic needs.

To ensure the programmes are developing in-demand skills, the university will design them in consultation with local employers and go back to the drawing board every few years to keep the curriculum constantly refreshed. 

former Detroit jail site
A rendering of the new university facility. Source: KPF

According to the institution, the development of the building is thanks to a major gift from billionaire Stephen Ross, a university alum and long-term benefactor, and Detroit native, as well as leadership gifts from Detroit entrepreneur Dan Gilbert, among other public and private sources. 

It was Ross, in fact, who envisioned the Detroit Center for Innovation. Gilbert, meanwhile, owns Bedrock, the commercial real estate firm that acquired the land from Wayne County last year and demolished the half-built jail. 

The development of the innovation center will see Bedrock transfer land ownership to the University of Michigan, pending public review by the Wayne County Commission.

“This announcement represents an incredible commitment to Detroit by Stephen Ross, (University of Michigan President) Mark Schlissel and Dan Gilbert that will allow us to develop, attract and retain world-class talent,” Duggan said in a statement.

“Detroit has always been a leader in innovation and this new center will help ensure that continues to be the case into the future.

“It also sends a powerful message to our young people about the city we are trying to build together. Instead of turning this property into a place where Detroiters are taken to be incarcerated, we are going to build for them one of the finest learning centers anywhere, filled with hope and real opportunity.”


Detroit has long held the reputation for being one of the most crime-ridden places in the US, safer than just 2 percent of cities across the country.

Multiple efforts by local enforcement have done little change this; despite the violent crime rate dropping to its lowest number in 50 years in 2018, the city was still third in the country and 42nd in the world for most number of murders.

An innovation center to spur economic activity and drive job growth in high-tech industries could contribute towards reversing this trend.

For Ross, the project is also his way of giving back to his home city.

“I spent my childhood and many of my young adult years living and working in Detroit and have long wanted to find a way to have a real impact on my hometown,” he said.

“The University of Michigan helped spark my entrepreneurial spirit and nurtured my curiousity for all aspects of innovation, leading me to not only become a founder, but an incubator and investor in a variety of technologies and businesses. 

“The idea of the new center reflects the shared commitment of Dan, myself, the city, the county, the state and the University of Michigan to create a transformative center for innovation that will help fuel the city’s next chapter of growth,” he added.

According to University of Michigan, the initial phase of the innovation center will also include incubator and startup services for entrepreneurs, collaboration space for established companies, residential units, a hotel and conference center, and an event space.

Former Detroit jail site
The facility is expected to spark high-tech business activity in Wayne County. Source: KPF

Ross said the center’s activities will turn Detroit into a magnet for new business activity and plant the seeds for a future of opportunities for tomorrow’s youth.

“The center has the potential to not only attract new businesses to Detroit, but the school and its graduates will generate new ideas, new companies and new opportunities for the community, the city and the region.”


For the university, the new downtown center will add to the institution’s growing footprint in and around Detroit, including its nearby Dearborn campus, the Detroit Center on Woodward, a “cradle to career” P-20 collaboration with the Detroit Public Schools Community District at Marygrove College in Northwest Detroit, and the Rackham Memorial Building in Midtown.

It also reaffirms the school’s growing commitment to serving the city and its people.

“The Detroit Center for Innovation is just the latest part of a thriving ecosystem of U-M engagement with the city of Detroit and its people,” Schlissel said.

“Our work involves collaborations that support a broad array of our state’s and communities’ needs, and the foundations for these partnerships began years, or even decades, ago through connections with local leaders, public school teachers, businesses and community advocates.”

Construction of the innovation center will commence in 2021.