From Cleveland to ‘WEBward’ Avenue: Dan Gilbert Has Big Plans for Downtown Detroit

Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert.

During the Transformation Detroit media briefing this week, I saw Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert speak at the company’s new headquarters inside the Compuware Building (and yes, he used the Comic Sans font in his slides). I came away wondering what happened to trigger his apparently limitless zeal for his home town.

Gilbert, you may recall, is the founder of Quicken Loans, born in 1985 as Rock Financial. Despite being known as the face of the Cleveland Cavaliers, he’s become one of Detroit’s biggest champions; last summer, he moved 1,700 Quicken employees from Livonia to the Compuware Building. The remaining 2,000 are heading downtown in the coming months.

Meanwhile, while not running any of his numerous other business ventures, Gilbert is funneling his energy into things like the M-1 Rail project in Detroit, his Bizdom U entrepreneurial academy and the Detroit Venture Partners, which he said often makes moving to downtown Detroit a condition of investing venture capital in a business.

A view of the Quicken Loans offices inside the Compuware Building.

Gilbert, whose father and grandfather were also Detroit business owners, has been acquiring a lot of real estate. After news leaked earlier this week that he is finalizing the purchase of the Dime Building, Crain’s reported that Gilbert is now probably the second-largest non-government landlord in the city. He now owns or is close to owning:

  • First National Building
  • Chase Tower
  • Madison Theater Building
  • Dime Building

The 49-year-old Gilbert has designs on all of that space, including filling the Chase Tower with the rest of his Quicken employees, adding a ground-level retail component to the building and filling the rest with “Detroit 2.0”-style businesses he is heavily involved in recruiting to the area.

Campus Martius as seen from the Compuware Building. Chase Tower is at the opposite end of the park.

“We’re really in the brain economy now,” said Gilbert, who has proposed renaming Woodward Avenue as “Webward Avenue” to reflect the transformation he envisions of downtown Detroit as an entrepreneurial hotbed.

Already, his Quicken offices, located on a few floors of the Compuware Building, look more Silicon Valley than the home of a bean-counting mortgage lender. They’re filled with color, inviting collaborative meeting spaces, stunning views, video game consoles, spacious kitchenettes, ping-pong tables and glass windows that double as dry-erase boards.

“There is a feeling among people here that you just can’t get in the suburbs,” Gilbert said. “Working downtown, there is a certain feeling, a certain buzz that people get working here.”

While Gilbert acknowledges viewing his real estate portfolio as a good investment, he says he’s amassing it more to guide the growth that he’s confident is coming to Detroit. It’s probably his most ambitious deal to date.

Do you think doubling down on Detroit’s commercial real estate market is a sound bet? Will Gilbert’s moves be enough to jump start a real community of entrepreneurs in a city with more than its share of economic struggles?

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  1. Sir, I am happy to say that Mr. Gilbert has ignited the same fire here in Cleveland. We are a city known for great ideas but little follow through. Mr. Gilbert is changing that culture.

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