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Is Downtown Detroit an Office Park? Just Ask Southfield

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For those keeping an eye on redevelopment in downtown Detroit, a common fear is that the heart of Detroit is being repurposed as playground for daytime office workers. "Office park" is the term that usually gets thrown around. Is it a valid complaint? Yes--to an extent. Sure, downtown closes up and empties out around 6pm, but let's get some perspective. Let's go to Southfield.

With 5 interconnected skyscrapers totaling 2.2M square feet of high-end office space, Southfield Town Center is about 40% as big as the RenCen complex. Designed in the 1970s, it was built with convenient freeway access and bountiful parking on a campus-like setting. It's everything an office park is expected to be.
Except it's in freefall. According to Crain's, Southfield Town Center has lost nearly half its value since 2004, and vacancy rates have crept up to 32%—far higher than the metro area's overall 24.9% rate.The ownership is on the verge of selling the property, possibly at a loss over over $100M.

The distress of its flagship development has jolted Southfield—one of most auto-centric suburbs of them all—into admitting that skyscrapers and parking alone won't cut it anymore. According to the Free Press, Southfield intends to make the Town Center and adjacent City Centre district more pedestrian friendly, installing roundabouts to slow traffic. They're considering residential conversions and wondering what sort of retail space needs to be built down the road.

They're exactly where downtown Detroit was years ago: several occupied office towers with nothing in-between. But that's not the direction downtown is headed today. Campus Martius has been converted from a busy intersection to a park/roundabout. Woodward's once-dilapidated storefronts now have retail, or are ready for it. Buildings rose, residential space is being planned, and the M1 Rail is funded. If that's not a trajectory away from office park status, it's hard to say what is.