Dan Gilbert hopes Madison project changes downtown Detroit

Posted on August 20, 2012

To get a good idea how Quicken Loans founder and chairman Dan Gilbert hopes to change downtown Detroit, take a look at the progress on his Madison Theatre Building.

Gilbert bought the small, five-story structure near Broadway and Grand Circus Park and has workers transforming it into a hub for high-tech entrepreneurial activity.

The building is to open in late fall.

There’ll be a co-working floor that Gilbert plans to offer for free to entrepreneurs — sort of a desk-for-a-day environment for techies. And there’ll be a 150-seat theater where Gilbert hopes to host all sorts of technology events, from critiques of new software and hardware to brainstorming sessions for digital types.

It’s all part of transforming downtown into what Gilbert calls Detroit 2.0 — a city rich with high-tech entrepreneurial activity and a bustling new economy.

“We’re just really trying to highlight the city and bring folks from the suburbs downtown,” Dan Mullen, Gilbert’s point man for the Madison project, said last week during a tour of the work in progress.

He added, “We want you to live here, work here and play here.”

Quicken Loans chief Dan Gilbert works to create a tech hub in downtown Detroit

When Quicken Loans founder and Chairman Dan Gilbert moved his company’s headquarters to downtown Detroit last year with 1,700 employees, the move added to a cluster of computer-related firms developing along what Gilbert likes to call “Webward Avenue.”

The cluster of high-tech firms took shape when Compuware moved its headquarters downtown from the suburbs in 2003. Quicken Loans’ arrival added to it, and a New Jersey-based technology firm called GalaxE Solutions has been adding employees to its location in the 1001 Woodward Building.

Gilbert would like to attract a lot more high-tech firms and employees downtown, gradually changing downtown’s traditional focus on law, banking and government to emerging technologies, or what he calls Detroit 2.0.

At the Gilbert-owned Madison Theatre Building, now being remade into a high-tech entrepreneurial hub, Gilbert’s venture capital firm, Detroit Venture Partners, will have a floor. So will Skidmore Studio, a graphic design firm moving in from the suburbs.

When Gilbert announced Skidmore’s pending move a few weeks ago, he called it “just one more piece of evidence that the Detroit 2.0 movement is continuing to gain momentum as brain-economy businesses rush to Detroit.”

The Madison, to be finished this fall, is just one of several Gilbert projects under way downtown. Gilbert and his partners have purchased the Chase Building and the First National Building, and real estate insiders say he continues to look for more buildings.

George Jackson, president of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., who helped negotiate Gilbert’s move from the suburbs, applauded the emphasis on creating a digital-technology hub downtown.

“I think it makes us more attractive to professionals thinking of moving to Detroit when they have something like this,” Jackson said Monday.

In recent days, construction crews were busy turning the five-story Madison building into Gilbert’s vision. The planned décor might be called “industrial chic,” Dan Mullen, Gilbert’s point man for the project, said last week during a hard-hat tour.

“A lot of the look and feel will stay industrial,” Mullen said. “So you’re going to see these exposed steel beams, clay tile ceilings, polished concrete floors.” A key space will be a 150-seat theater on the fifth floor, where Gilbert wants to host high-tech conferences and events.

“We want to do as many cool, creative events as we possibly can on that fifth floor to bring folks down to the city,” Mullen said.

Several firms are involved in the re-creation of the Madison building. They include Southfield-based Neumann/Smith Architecture, the Birmingham contractor firm Sachse and local developer Bedrock that will handle management and leasing. Doodle Home, an interior design firm run by Gilbert’s wife, Jennifer Gilbert, is working on interiors.