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RenCen makes comeback along with its owner, GM

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RenCen makes comeback along with its owner, GM

Retail still weak spot for Detroit landmark



Less than a year ago, the Renaissance Center looked like it might become Detroit's biggest vacant address. General Motors, which owns the RenCen, was going to move a huge chunk of its employees to Warren. The restaurant Seldom Blues was headed for a quick death.

Now, it's turning around. GM announced in February that it would keep its employees at the RenCen. At least two popular restaurant companies -- Andiamo and Matt Prentice Restaurant Group -- are vying to take over the Seldom Blues space.

And real estate professionals are abuzz with reports that Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan may bring up to 3,000 employees from the suburbs to the RenCen's 500 Tower.

Jim Anderson, president and CEO of the research firm Urban Science, who has been a tenant since the late 1970s, said the improvement in outlook has been palpable.

"There's certainly a greater sense of optimism for the future, there's no doubt about that, since a year ago, and every month it seems to get a little better," Anderson said.

Landmark gets new lease on life

The interest from the restaurants is just one indicator among several that the RenCen -- Detroit's postcard image since its official opening in 1977 -- is recovering nicely from a dreadful 2009.

Last year, owner GM survived a near-death experience and a fast passage through Chapter 11. During that stretch, it seemed that GM would move many or most of its RenCen employees to its technical center in Warren, and perhaps even sell the landmark complex on the Detroit riverfront.

But in February, GM said that it would keep its employees at the RenCen, where now it has about 4,400 workers.

As for the Seldom Blues space, GM reportedly will choose a new operator in a month or so, allowing a new restaurant to be up and running in plenty of time for January's North American International Auto Show.

Most intriguing, there are reports among real estate professionals that Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan may move up to 3,000 workers from the suburbs to the 500 Tower of the RenCen. Neither Blue Cross spokeswoman Helen Stojic nor GM spokesman Tom Wilkinson would confirm even that negotiations are under way, but Wilkinson showed a hint of optimism.

"I think it certainly would be great news for GM and for the RenCen as an office complex and great news for downtown Detroit," he said.

The RenCen has had other good news lately.

A logistics firm, C.H. Robinson Worldwide, moved in, taking one floor. And Urban Science, a market research firm that in the late 1970s started out by leasing 3,600 square feet at the RenCen, recently signed a new lease for four full floors and a fifth floor to come in the next couple of years as the firm adds to its 250 employees at the RenCen. That's about 80,000 square feet in all.

Jim Anderson, president and CEO of Urban Science, recalled meeting with a client in Frankfurt, Germany, and on the wall behind his client was a poster of Detroit featuring the RenCen.

"We got talking about the business and he asked where we were in Detroit," Anderson recalled. "I said, 'Just turn around and you can see it.' That kind of sets us apart. It's one thing about Detroit that seems to have an international acceptance, and being here really enhances our image."

Matt Prentice, CEO of the Matt Prentice Restaurant Group, which operates the Coach Insignia restaurant atop the RenCen's Detroit Marriott hotel, said Coach Insignia has come roaring back after a dismal 2009.

"Now, granted, 2009 was probably about as bad a year as you could get," Prentice said. "But we've had a very, very good year so far this year and it's only going to get better until the end of the year."

Joe Vacari, president and CEO of the Andiamo Restaurant Group, said he sees better days ahead for the RenCen as GM's troubles fade. "I only see an uptick in that location. I'm happy. I'm excited," he said.

None of this means that the RenCen has returned to the peak employment of earlier years, when 10,000 people or more came to work daily. But if Blue Cross moves in, the RenCen's workforce would be climbing back closer to that level.

The one continuing weak spot at the RenCen may be retail.

Over many years, clothing shops, bookstores and other retailers have struggled to do business at the RenCen, often closing after failing to make a go of the location. Thronged with office workers during the day, the RenCen is often depopulated on evenings and weekends unless the Marriott hotel is booked up for an event such as the annual auto show.

"It's a tough spot for retail, but they're doing a pretty good job," Prentice said. "Is it ever going to be the Somerset Collection? No. But they're progressing, and they want to make to things happen and it's all good."



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