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Wayne State’s urban innovation district near New Center takes shape

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Site activations outside WSU’s new Industry Innovation Center signal next steps for the area

WSU’s Industry Innovation Center, formerly the NextEnergy Center
Wayne State University

Ever since a working group convened to discuss the matter in 2014, Wayne State University has been working to create an “Innovation District” near New Center. Those plans finally seem to be coming together.

Last year, the university purchased the NextEnergy Center, now called the Industry Innovation Center (I2C), on Burroughs Street across from TechTown Detroit. Those three partners have teamed up to create Detroit Urban Solutions, which is taking a multidisciplinary approach to address issues facing cities.

“Detroit Urban Solutions and its network of partners have embarked upon a path to leverage technology to further define the way we interact with cities and the systems that support them,” Paul Riser, director of Detroit Urban Solutions, told Curbed Detroit by email.

Riser added that the 45,000-square-foot center will bring together a variety of stakeholders in government, startups, academic institutions, and the private sector to “validate the promise of an emerging smart city.” The Michigan Mobility Institute will also be a partner in an advanced mobility center headquartered at I2C.

One block away, Wayne State opened the Integrative Biosciences Center (IBio) in 2015, which similarly takes a multidisciplinary approach to health research. TechTown was founded by Wayne State in 2000, and though it’s since become an independent nonprofit, still works in close partnership with the university’s Office of Economic Development.

A volunteer paints thick blue streaks on cement
Blue streaks being painted on the plaza outside WSU’s Industry Innovation Center
Hamilton Anderson Associates

To better integrate all these facilities—but especially TechTown and I2C—the university contracted Hamilton Anderson Associates (HAA) and the Detroit Collaborative Design Center (DCDC) to work on a “refresh” of the center. In particular the team will be activating the site between the two buildings.

The initial goal is to make the space more welcoming to visitors and signal that mission to potential partners.

“This building and site was inward looking,” says Kaitlynn Hill, an architect with HAA. “There was a big fence around it, which we removed, to break down the literal barriers and draw people in. TechTown itself is such an active place—how do we connect people across the street to start using and engaging the former NextEnergy site in a different way?”

The team worked on a number of short-term activations last weekend, adding seating and plants in the 15,000-square-foot plaza outside the center, and colorful blue streaks on both sidewalks.

A conceptual design to be unveiled in September will likely include a pergola, permanent furniture, and a more intentional landscape.

An overhead diagram shows all the activations to take place outside the Industry Innovation Center
A diagram for the short-term activation at the site
Hamilton Anderson Associates

“Folks said they wanted a gathering space that was informal, where people to run into each other or strike up conversations,” says Bucky Willis, a designer at DCDC. “It won’t just be a place for TechTown and IC2 users; anyone in the area can come and feel welcome.”

DCDC has helped implement a participatory design process to include people who work in the area. So far they’ve conducted a survey and held some design workshops, with a larger engagement plan still in the works.

Much of the “refresh” is funded by a grant from the William Davidson Foundation.

Wayne State has also begun to release details of its master plan, and Emily Thompson, place-based initiatives manager at WSU’s Office of Economic Development, says this redesign aligns with the aims of that plan.

“One goal of the master plan was to create better north-south connectivity across campus,” she says. “With more activity, it’s more likely to draw the university up that way. So whatever we do with I2C on will improve walkability as a whole.”