Joshua Sirefman, an urban planner who trained at the University of Michigan and began his career in Detroit, is returning to lead the evolution of Michigan Central Station as the new CEO of what is now a subsidiary of Ford Motor Co.
Sirefman, 54, lives in New York City and plans to look for a home within walking distance of the iconic building in Corktown, which is scheduled to open in 2023 in what city leaders have deemed a 30-acre innovation district that will advance the future of mobility.
He is transitioning into his role now for an official March 1 start date, Sirefman told the Free Press in an interview. While he will helm the huge project, he will continue working with Ford CEO Jim Farley, Ford Executive Chair Bill Ford and Ford Fund President Mary Culler.
Entrusted with a high-profile project in Detroit’s oldest neighborhood that includes restoring the train station and investing in surrounding property, Sirefman “will lead the district in both its physical development and expansion of its programming, as the district enters a new phase of development in advancing its vision to help create a more accessible future for all through innovation,” Ford said in a news release Monday.
“Innovation already underway includes pilots in development such as an app that helps visually impaired people navigate complicated urban landscapes in response to community needs, programs to support electrification of commercial fleets, plus rethinking how goods move on the first and last 50 feet of their journey,” the news release said. “Michigan Central is partnering in a study to explore the feasibility of creating commercial drone testing corridors, and in a pilot project to make Michigan the first U.S. state to implement a public wireless electric vehicle charging system on a public road.”
“It’s not that you step into the Jetsons and like everything is flying around you,” Sirefman said. “But, in fact, you can understand there are new and different ways to approach how we move around our cities, how we function in our cities, how mobility helps us. …”
Within circles that specialize in these urban projects, Sirefman polished his reputation as cofounder and former president of New York City-based Sidewalk Labs. The company was founded in 2015 as Google’s arm for urban innovation, becoming an Alphabet company in 2016, according to its website.
“I have led transformative development projects for a range of corporate, nonprofit and government entities, including Cornell University’s successful effort to build a new applied sciences campus in New York City, the University of Chicago’s transformation of Hyde Park through the redevelopment of a vibrant new mixed-use district, and the repositioning of the New York Public Library’s renovation of its flagship building,” Sirefman says in his LinkedIn online professional profile.
Under former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Sirefman served as chief of staff to the deputy mayor for economic development and rebuilding, and interim president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, according to his LinkedIn.
Farley, Ford played key roles
Michigan Central will operate as a limited liability corporation, a subsidiary of Ford Motor, as well the automaker’s own not-for-profit philanthropic arm and business association. The company told the Free Press that the budget for the various entities and the governance models are still being formed.
“There’s much more to come,” Sirefman said. “Ford’s role is to catalyze the entire endeavor to happen but it’s really creating an open platform for lots of parties to participate. It’s quite extraordinary for a company like Ford to take on such a role.”
Collaboration is essential, he said.
“I think the long-term objective for Michigan Central is to be self-sustaining. We have work to do to map out how we’re going to get there,” Sirefman said.
He has been impressed by the track record Ford has established in working with longtime residents and stakeholders, which is crucial, he said.
“Part of Michigan Central’s success should be defined by how much Corktown and communities in southwest Detroit feel a part of it and benefit from it and how much the impact on those communities is the result of a real and active dialogue,” Sirefman said. “I’m looking forward to meeting people in all of those communities and elsewhere in Detroit.”
As a graduate student at the University of Michigan in the mid 1990s, he grew “very involved” in the work and activities of Detroit, also working with AmeriCorps.
“I worked with a Community Development Corporation on the east side of Detroit, the Islandview Village Development Corporation. … I was the program director for an empowerment zone program,” Sirefman said, describing his work with then-Mayor Dennis Archer toward a model urban industrial area.
At the time, Sirefman lived on Brooklyn Street — within walking distance of Michigan Central Station.
“I really view my career as having started in Detroit, I have always wanted another opportunity to be directly engaged and hopefully make a contribution and impact in Detroit,” Sirefman said. “I don’t think there’s another project in the country as important as this or that has such extraordinary ingredients.”
The potent combination of Ford, Detroit, Michigan Central Station and the Corktown site is “truly phenomenal” coupled with his longstanding desire to come back, Sirefman said. “I feel like it was meant to be.”
Farley, Bill Ford and Culler all played key roles in recruiting Sirefman, he said.
“Joshua is the perfect fit to lead the development of Michigan Central,” said Culler, chief of staff to Bill Ford and president of Ford’s philanthropic organization, in the news release. “His experience in mobility, developmental planning and community engagement — which was especially important to us — will be key to helping guide the district’s team and partners along the path to meaningful innovation that truly helps in creating a more accessible future for all.”
He will work with city officials as well as Google and others in developing the real estate project while also including neighborhood residents committed to protecting the integrity of the neighborhood. Corktown, just west of downtown, was named for the county in Ireland and honors the city’s Irish immigrant history.
Defining the future
Corktown residents have been watching and waiting for this restoration project after decades of neglect.
Sirefman will identify and recruit new talent to the district and manage the business association that shapes the agenda for the district and its partners, supporting their projects and execution as they work toward collective mobility goals, Ford said in its news release.
“Like all things, the best ideas in mobility come from diverse perspectives and I firmly believe Michigan Central is uniquely positioned to both catalyze such ideas and support the long-term vitality of Detroit,” Sirefman said in the news release.
The new Michigan Central Foundation will provide charitable and educational training, programming and research for residents, students and businesses in the area, as well as science activities, according to the news release.
Earlier this month, Ford announced Google as a founding member of the innovation district at an event featuring Mayor Mike Duggan and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Duggan said the deal, which is designed to attract startups and investment from all over the world, is a bigger deal than the Detroit Lions moving their stadium back to the city. The site is intended to be a public-private collaboration that spotlights economic, workforce and community development — a Transportation Innovation Zone that’s touted as the first of its kind in the Midwest, to test technology with support from a city willing to fast-track projects.
Coming back to Detroit
Sirefman, a New York native, earned his bachelor’s degree in African American studies from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, and his master’s degree in urban planning from the University of Michigan. He said he views this return as an opportunity to apply all he has learned over the years.
Ford pointed to his track record at the non-profit community redevelopment organization in Detroit, saying in the news release that Sirefman “transformed a declining industrial corridor into a model urban industrial area while encouraging job growth and economic development.”
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