Rock Ventures

For the firm's first-ever project in Detroit, SHoP Architects is aiming for nothing less than a Rockefeller Center for the Motor City. Detroit billionaire Dan Gilbert is giving the New York team the opportunity to build just that for an historic two-acre downtown site on Woodward Avenue.

“We’re interested in making a building that’s both a catalyst for Detroit’s revival and an iconic addition to the cityscape,” said SHoP principal Gregg Pasquarelli, AIA. “We want it to be a big civic presence.”

Besting top-level firms in a global competition, SHoP was hired by Rock Ventures, part of Gilbert’s family of companies and a major engine for reshaping Detroit. Rock Ventures owns or controls more than 8 million square feet in forty downtown Detroit properties and has invested more than $1.3 billion in developing them. For the mixed-use project, SHoP Architects is partnering with Detroit’s Hamilton Anderson Associates (HAA), whose past projects in the city including the North Terminal at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport, the Wayne State University Welcome Center, and the Detroit School of Arts. Jeff Cohen, CEO of the real estate arm of Rock Ventures, celebrated the two firms for being “known urban catalysts.”

In this site, Pasquarelli says, he sees an echo of the Rockefeller Center—how it was built during the Depression but intended as a “grand civic gesture,” a signature gift to a city during hard times that promises a vibrant urban life in the future.

Rock Ventures
Rock Ventures

For 75 years, the site was home to Hudson’s, Detroit's legendary department store—once the tallest in the world and still rich in living memory. The 25-story Hudson’s building was demolished in 1998, and today, the site is virtually empty. “Some longtime Detroiters have described this as the missing tooth in the smile of Woodward Avenue,” Cohen says. “Developing this site is critical to connecting Grand Circus Park and Jefferson Avenue and the Detroit riverfront,” he adds. “The more vacant or empty parcels we can help fill with people and jobs, the better it is for everyone who lives, works, and plays in Detroit.”

One thing that stands out about the development is that it is not yet clear how the future building will be used. SHoP and HAA have been given a great deal of freedom—though not quite free reign—in dreaming up its purpose. The only specifics offered by SHoP and Rock Ventures are that it will be mixed use, probably including residential and retail components. Pasquarelli said it will likely also have cultural and educational uses. “Dan Gilbert challenged us to be creative,” he says.

“As Detroiters ourselves, most of the team at Rock Ventures has rich memories of the site,” Cohen says.

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As part of the research process, SHoP and HAA met with members of the Hudson family, whose legacy is nowadays seen in the philanthropic Hudson-Webber Foundation, to get their insights on the future structure. The flagship store opened in 1911, but wasn't completely built out until 1946. Designed by Smith, Hinchman & Grylls—now SmithGroup—it was a Chicago-style structure that spanned a city block. Hudson's boasted 705 fitting rooms. Its 100 streetside display windows became famous for their designs, changed weekly. It was built with a red brick façade, pink granite paneling, and terra-cotta cornices. “I suspect [the architects] will give a nod to the Hudson’s Department Store legacy in some form,” Cohen says.

See the SHoP Architects firm profile in Project Gallery.

The architects are bound to focus on how the building contributes to walkability along Woodward Avenue, Detroit’s main commercial corridor. After visiting the city a few times, Pasquarelli says, he noticed that there’s “very little attention to the pedestrian streetscape" in downtown Detroit. “It’s hard to cross the road, signs are not there, the pavement’s broken," he says. "That’s why you see people get in their car and drive four blocks downtown.” The new project will “get the streetscape right,” Pasquarelli adds.

The first images of the site’s possible future are expected in the second quarter of 2014. Ground may be broken as soon as 2015.

View J.L. Hudson's Department Store in a larger map In the meantime, the architects are planning a series of lectures to engage the community. The first will be held in January and is meant to introduce Detroiters to SHoP and its work. The second will be a mid-point check-in on the design process, which will take place alongside town hall meetings with stakeholders. The third lecture, in late spring or early summer, will reveal the design of the building and solicit feedback on it.

SHoP and HAA are further meeting with local stakeholders over the next month to discuss programming and design concepts. Cohen also points to the juried “ideas competition” that it hosted in the spring, generating more than 200 proposals for possible uses of the site. All entries can be found online. (Disclosure: ARCHITECT editor Ned Cramer was a juror for the ideas competition.)

While Detroit’s future is on uncertain ground, given its emergency manager and recent bankruptcy filing, Pasquarelli says that he see more opportunity than obstacles ahead.

“We’re in New York, San Francisco, London, and there … every inch is spoken for,” he says. “There’s a different economic model in Detroit. There isn’t a spirit of despair. It reminds me of Brooklyn twenty years ago.”