Bedrock is Part of a Vertical Movement in Detroit

Jim Ketai, managing partner at Bedrock, discusses helping the Motor City stabilize and thrive

The firm preserved the original dimensions of the Detroit News Building's lobby and remade its old light fixture.

When Jim Ketai helped start the full-service real estate agency Bedrock six-and-a-half years ago, he had one mission: Never give up on making Detroit a better place for everyone.

“I was born and raised in Detroit,” Ketai says. The suburbs, more specifically. Back then, people went to sporting events and plays, he recalls, but didn’t spend much time downtown before heading back home afterward. “I feel like my generation really missed out,” he says. “We didn’t get the opportunity to have an urban experience like so many of these other cities had.”

While Ketai knows that the revitalization of a city relies on the efforts of many, he and Dan Gilbert, chairman and founder of Quicken Loans, started Bedrock as a means of contributing to that mission via the acquisition and renovation of key pieces of real estate.

“Bedrock’s vision,” Ketai says, “is really about creating a unique experience through real estate. We’re not necessarily just a real estate company. We’re a company that is all about moving Detroit forward. We happen to be in the real estate business, so we’re doing it by way of real estate.”

But where does one begin with such an ambitious mission? “We knew we had to start on a focused area,” Ketai says. That ended up being along one of the city’s most prominent roads: Woodward Avenue. By focusing on a targeted area, Ketai and his team knew they could ensure they weren’t disrupting the natural aesthetic and atmosphere of a particular space. “You have to get the right retailers in at the right time and locations to ensure it all flows together,” he says.

“It’s really about the bones of the building. Does this building have the potential to become a great, beautiful part of the history you’re bringing back?”

Though Bedrock started small, it wasn’t long before its portfolio began to grow. The company’s first acquisition was on January 27, 2011. To this day, Bedrock owns more than 100 properties between Detroit and Cleveland. “Most developers do one to two acquisitions a year,” Ketai says with a laugh. “We’re doing some every week.”

Bedrock has also begun branching out. Ketai points out projects on Washington Boulevard and Michigan Avenue and in the Midtown-New Center area. When selecting a location, he and his team look for buildings in active areas or “on the cusp of” one. Structural condition matters as well. “It’s really about the bones of the building,” he says. “Does this building have the potential to become a great, beautiful part of the history you’re bringing back?”

Ketai speaks of the importance of “going vertical,” which, to him, translates to getting “cranes in the air” and the process of ground-up development. “It’s important to have new development coming out of the ground because that’s what’s really going to accelerate the city to the next level,” he says. Essentially, Ketai wants residents to see the change as it happens, to see the dust being wiped away to reveal the beautiful architecture beneath. “You bring them back to life,” he says about the city’s neglected buildings. “It’s just an unbelievable difference. You realize there’s such a beauty in these buildings that was covered up before.”

Bedrock has numerous projects in development, but one that Ketai is particularly proud of is the refurbishing of the 38-story Book Tower skyscraper on Washington Boulevard. When the company acquired it, the building was covered in decades of grime, and the carved, embedded statues that gave its exterior such character were chipped and damaged after years of neglect. Inside, a stained-glass skylight had been completely covered up.

“We’re very careful to maintain the integrity of these buildings,” Ketai says about the restoration, which aims not to replace what’s been broken, but rather to reinstitute its innate splendor.

He also describes the Detroit News Building, a 100-year-old structure that has served as home to both the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press. Using photographs of the building’s original layout, Bedrock restored the lobby—truncated years before—to the original specifications outlined by architect Albert Kahn. Bedrock even replicated the lobby’s original globe-shaped light fixture.

“At the same time, though,” Ketai says, “you have to bring in some of the modern conveniences to satisfy the needs of today.” In the Detroit News Building, for example, Bedrock added a café to the first floor and built in modern glass offices and the open workspaces favored by today’s business professionals. And, it converted an early 20th-century retail building into the boutique Shinola Hotel, with on-site shops and restaurants. By combining Detroit’s history with a forward-thinking hospitality model, Ketai says, the hotel creates “an experience that no one has ever been able to get before in Detroit.”

Ketai has witnessed a shift in perception since Bedrock began participating in the city’s stabilization. He says curiosity is the reaction he most often gets when he mentions he’s from Detroit. People want to see for themselves what a reinvigorated city looks like. Ketai hopes his efforts are contributing to this shift. Considering Bedrock’s legacy, he says that in the future, he can say the company was part of an “instrumental movement in Detroit.”

“And we don’t want to be the only one,” Ketai says. “We want to be part of the movement.”