Illustration of the Center for Innovation building
Illustration by Arunika Shee

The University of Michigan Board of Regents announced at their Oct. 19 meeting that they will break ground on construction for the University of Michigan Center for Innovation before the end of the year. The University first announced its plans in March to construct the UMCI building, which will facilitate academic and professional programs for U-M graduate students and Detroit community members. 

The 200,000-square-foot building will be built in downtown Detroit as a part of The District Detroit, a $1.5 billion project that hopes to economically revitalize the city through real estate development. The UMCI will receive a $100 million donation from Related Companies chairman Stephen M. Ross in addition to $100 million from the state of Michigan and $50 million from other donors for its construction. 

When the University first developed the idea for the UMCI building in 2019, the project was initially called the Detroit Center for Innovation and focused primarily on research, education for both undergraduate and graduate education in addition to featuring residential units, a hotel and a conference center. The project has since expanded to focus on community engagement and development in addition to housing graduate programs in robotics, computer science and sustainability. In an email to The Michigan Daily, University spokesperson Kim Broekhuizen said the University shifted UMCI development to have more emphasis on community-based initiatives after receiving local feedback.

“When the innovation center was first proposed, the idea was to offer graduate education primarily,” Broekhuizen wrote. “This was expanded as we learned more about the needs of residents and the city’s employers.”

Broekhuizen wrote that the University envisions the UMCI offering a variety of educational and professional programs for the Detroit community.

“We expect to be able to deliver an array of educational opportunities from graduate studies in high technology fields to workforce development serving employees of local companies and adult enrichment programs,” Broekhuizen wrote. 

LSA sophomore Justine Barnard is a part of the Internal Planning Committee of The Detroit Partnership, a U-M organization that connects students with Detroit-based organizations through community service initiatives. In an interview with The Daily, Barnard said the UMCI is a move in the right direction for the University, considering that the University was founded in Detroit. 

“It’s great we are making steps as a university to invest in Detroit,” Barnard said. “We are literally neighbors with Detroit (and) we were founded there. It’s important that we put in the resources to help it grow because there’s so much in Detroit.” 

Despite UMCI’s collaboration with Detroit, Barnard said there are concerns surrounding the University’s community engagement programs. 

“A big concern here is that the University is coming into Detroit and it’s sidestepping these community-based organizations that are already doing a lot of work,” Barnard said. “(The University) may be (getting feedback from Detroiters already), but they definitely need to make that a top priority.”

This is not the first time the UMCI has received criticism for its construction. When the University first introduced the project, Stephen Ward, associate professor of Afroamerican and African studies, and two U-M faculty members from the Semester in Detroit program published an article on the program’s webpage asking the University to reevaluate the UMCI’s impact on Detroit. 

In an interview with The Daily, Ward said the University could address the interests of Detroit by implementing a community benefits agreement, a legal contract between real estate developers and affected community members that ensures the community will benefit from the UMCI’s development project. 

“Whose vision for the city and particular interests … is (the UMCI) responding to or articulating?” Ward said. “Some (University faculty) have called for the University to voluntarily enter into a robust community benefit agreement, which means conversations with local community representatives (and) organizations to generally discern what the impacted communities would want.”

The District Detroit currently has a community benefits agreement with the city as per the Community Benefits Ordinance. While the University is not required to enter a community benefits agreement with the city for the UMCI, they have yet to voluntarily engage in one. 

In an interview with The Daily, Tonya Myers Phillips, U-M alum and attorney, said the University should be held accountable for its promise to the Detroit community through a community benefits agreement. 

“Regents come, regents go, and staff come, staff go,” Myers Phillips said. “But that community benefits agreement is a legally binding agreement that will stand the test of time to make this project what I believe many people from the University and … from the city of Detroit want it to be, producing equitable outcomes.”

Myers Phillips also said a community benefits agreement would give Detroit residents a voice in the development of the UMCI. 

“It’s recognizing community members and Detroit residents as not subjects of research but actual partners,” Myers Phillips said. “That’s what a community benefits agreement is all about.”

Though construction has just been approved, Barnard said it is important for the University to continue updating community members on the UMCI’s development. 

“It’s important that before we start seeing this as a celebration, we watch the execution actually happen,” Barnard said. “People (should) know about it so that we can encourage this to actually occur.”

Daily News Contributors Grace Schuur and Nicolas Torres De Navarra contributed reporting. Daily News Staff Reporter Eilene Koo can be reached at