By: Louis Aguilar

Detroit— Dan Gilbert’s plan for an iconic new structure at the old Hudson’s site on Woodward Avenue may be overdue, but a conceptual design was released Thursday. The timeline when final plans will be revealed remains broad: sometime this year.

Designs show a swooping glass structure that can hold retail, residences and office space. The Detroit News earlier reported Gilbert was in talks with Wayne State University’s school of business to relocate to the Hudson’s site. Those plans seem to have stalled.

The original plan was to have a substantial amount of construction done at the site by December 2015 but that has been changed to June 30, 2016.

The design of the site “is still evolving,” according to a press statement released Thursday by Gilbert. He gave a vague deadline — “this calender year” — for release of the final design.

“All of us in our entire family of companies as well as our two architectural firms, NYC-based SHoP Architects and Detroit-based Hamilton Anderson Associates are committed to getting this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity right,” Gilbert said.

“As we have stated in the past, our vision is to develop an iconic building that will have some ties to Detroit’s past, but more importantly, represent Detroit’s rebirth into a creative and high-tech future.” Gilbert is founder and chairman of Rock Ventures and Quicken Loans Inc.

The Hudson’s site isn’t the only grand plan for retail to return downtown. Next week, designer’s John Varvatos — seller of $1,890 pea coats and $200 shirts — will open a store at the corner of Woodward and John R in the Wright Kay Building. It’s expected, but not confirmed, that Restoration Hardware will set up an outlet store downtown.

Those retailers are early proof that a “lot of shopping-oriented stuff” is returning to the heart of the city, said Dan Mullen, vice president of development for Bedrock Real Estate Services. Bedrock controls 40,000 square feet of retail space in downtown in the more than 70 properties it owns.

“A lot more clothing is coming; all types — children, men and women. And technology and soft and hard goods,” Mullen said. Gilbert recently said “a couple of pretty big name retailers” could be announced soon. A consultant familiar with some of the downtown plans said he was aware of a “half-dozen deals” in the works, though it’s unclear how many of those deals are sealed.

Mullen was more general with the timeline but didn’t shy away from the main point. At least some upscale stores want to be downtown.

A store like Restoration Hardware is a destination store — a brand that will entice people to come to an area to shop.

Such announcements are exciting news in a downtown that has been a retail vacuum since the shuttering of the flagship Hudson’s department store in 1983. For years, downtown struggled to get a 7-Eleven; one opened last year. Stalwarts like Henry the Hatter have survived and the Renaissance Center has always managed to offer a few national retailers, but overall, downtown Detroit’s shopping district has been just plain sad for years.

Now, expectations are so high that an architect and designer familiar with some of the retailers coming downtown made this startling prediction: “Downtown will get an REI before it gets a Target.”

That’s Robert Kraemer, principal of Kraemer Designer Group based downtown. Kraemer’s firm occasionally serves as a consultant to Bedrock’s downtown buildings projects as well as other building owners who are investing in often-neglected historical properties. REI is an upscale outdoor equipment and clothing store.

“You are going to see really high-end national brand names and some more unique regional and local retailers,” Kraemer said. “A lot of the stuff is aimed at the millennial generation and their willingness to spend a little extra on quality products,” he said. Some of it is aimed, too, at the growing number of empty-nesters moving to the city core, Kraemer said.

“That’s why I wouldn’t be surprised to see an REI make a move before an urban Target,” store, he said. “I don’t think the density is there yet for a Target.” And just for the record, REI has no immediate plans to open a store downtown.

Such expectations also means after years of stagnation, the rent for downtown retail space has recently doubled to around $22 a square foot, according to several retail analysts.

Retail is expected to return because downtown is already reversing decades-long trends. The central business district is a jumble of construction these days. It’s the M-1 Rail streetcar line. It’s the estimated three dozen buildings that have been bought and are being renovated to meet the demands of new office workers or the growing number of people who want to live downtown. Many of those buildings sat empty for decades.

Suddenly, sidewalks are crowded, at least during the work week. By the end of the decade, downtown’s residential population is expected to double to 10,000.

That growth is happening beyond the central business district. Midtown is steadily gaining desirable retail, including a Whole Foods grocer and Shinola, designer of watches and bicycles. Later this year, Dearborn-based Carhartt, whose work apparel appeals to a broad range of creative types, is opening a flagship store on Cass.

Then there is the $650 million plan to transform the Cass Corridor, the neighborhood between downtown and Midtown, into a gleaming 45-block set of new districts that will include a new arena for the Detroit Red Wings, along with dozens of retailers and thousands of new residents.

Taken together, it amounts to more than $2 billion of investment. And it’s creating tremendous opportunities for firms like Kraemer Design to revive buildings.

“I think the difference this time is the number of people involved,’ Brian Rebain, architect and studio director for Kraemer. “Bedrock is a catalyst and the difference with them is they brought a lot of new workers downtown. But now, many people, many investors are involved.”

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