He points to the 25-story circa 1930 First National Building, the 26-story One Woodward, Chase Tower, Chrysler House (formerly the Dime Building), and finally 1001 Woodward. The company doesn’t own every building downtown; it only seems that way.
“There was a skyscraper sale going on!” announces Schwartz, a compact and energetic man with peppery stubble and black, plastic-framed eyeglasses whose lenses darken when they’re exposed to sunlight. He wears a plaid scarf, a colorful lanyard, and a black pork pie hat—his trademark, which has somehow made its way, in silhouette form, onto Quicken’s branded mortgage documents.
The culture at Quicken is playful and creative. Gilbert’s hope is to recreate Detroit into a technology powerhouse.
Although Schwartz gives tours of the company’s downtown properties, he’s not an ordinary tour guide. His business card identifies his nebulous-but-important-sounding title as “Detroit Relocation Ambassador.” Even in the workaday world of home lending offices, he’s the life of the party, unable to walk more than a few feet without stopping to greet somebody with an enthusiastic, “What’s up, my man?” This kinglike confidence is owed, in part perhaps, to the identity of the first friend Schwartz made when he moved to Detroit as a child: Quicken founder and chairman Dan Gilbert.
Schwartz gazes down at Campus Martius from a social media command center set up in a room designed to look like half of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers home court. And, although hip and unique office spaces are practically mandatory for Gilbert’s companies, this is more than just a whimsical touch: Gilbert owns the Cavaliers. (Nationally, he’s probably best known for the scathing missive he posted online hours after superstar LeBron James announced he was leaving the Cavaliers for the Miami Heat. In the note, Gilbert called James “heartless,” “selfish,” and “disloyal” and made a less-than-prophetic all-caps guarantee that the Cavs would win a title before James did.)
The Rock Ventures Family of Companies is an eclectic bunch of more than 100 companies, each of which seems to have less to do with the business of making home loans than the last. In addition to the Cavs (plus a couple of minor league sports teams), the family includes Northcentral University, an Arizona-based for-profit school; Protect America, a home security firm; Wedit, a service that lends digital cameras to marrying couples and offers editing services on the photos snapped by their guests; Rockbot, a social jukebox app for restaurants and bars; and several racetracks and casinos.
Bruce Schwartz dons a pork pie hat and is known as the “Detroit Relocation Ambassador.”
In 2010, Gilbert began moving his employees from the suburbs to downtown and started buying up real estate with the aim of turning the once-desolate city center into a thrumming high-tech hub. The pace and scope of this project have been breathtaking. In four years, he’s gobbled up more than 40 properties, investing around $1.3 billion in the process. And he’s not done buying yet.
“We’re actively still pursuing properties,” says Scott Collins, project director at Bedrock. “We really are in a mode where we need more assets to be able to offer our clientele. It’s a great problem to have.”
Bedrock is largely quiet about its efforts around sustainable development, and hasn’t yet pursued LEED for any of the buildings it’s redeveloped in Detroit. But, simply by virtue of how much property he owns, Gilbert will have a large say in how much green building happens (or doesn’t happen) downtown.
The corporate culture of Rock Ventures is centered around 20 or so “isms”—pithy little sayings ranging from the commonsensical (“Every second counts”) to the inscrutable (“We eat our own dog food”). The one that Collins, trim and perpetually smiling, repeats over and over again when discussing sustainability is perhaps the most basic: “Do the right thing.”
“We’re about doing the right thing and not necessarily needing something to hang on the wall to say we’re doing the right thing,” Collins says, pointing to high-efficiency systems the company has installed as it renovates buildings, such as variable refrigerant flow heating and cooling systems. Bedrock is also saving energy—and money—by using “smart” monitoring systems, which give the company the ability to control energy use remotely via mobile devices.
Collins also argues, not unreasonably, that the company deserves some credit simply for redeveloping so many buildings rather than letting them rot. “Instead of tearing some of them down and starting over, we’re reusing them,” he says. “We’ve purchased some that have sat idle for 20, 30 years. Literally, I go into buildings where I’m climbing over rubble to see what the facility even looks like, and then we turn it into a Class A office space that is full of tenants and full of life. It’s unbelievable.”
When sustainable practices run up against one of the company’s other priorities, sustainability doesn’t always win. A prime example is the company’s practice of intentionally leaving its skyscrapers well lit at night. “Believe it or not, it just generates a feeling of life and of business. It says, ‘Hey, we’re back,’ ” Collins asserts. “To walk down Woodward Avenue at night and to have lights on around you is an invigorating feeling. Even if it flies in the face of energy savings, it’s the shot in the arm that the city needs.”
Although Gilbert has not gone after LEED-certification in his downtown office buildings, he does employ sustainable practices in the rehabilitation process.
USGBC’s Jeff Gaines is largely deferential when discussing Gilbert. “Could he be doing things a little bit more efficiently, could he be doing things a little bit more sustainably? Probably,” Gaines allows. “I think he could. But we’ve had so many people come through here, take a look, and then walk away. And he’s stuck it out. He hasn’t just stuck it out on one project; He’s stuck it out on dozens and dozens of projects with more to come. You can’t argue with that, when so many people have ducked and said, ‘That’s too much for us.’ ”
Many of Bedrock’s buildings that had been vacant or close to it for years are now nearly 100 percent occupied. The company has more than 12,000 of its own employees working downtown and says it has recruited more than 100 other tenants. The spaces Bedrock has created are gleaming and undeniably funky. In the basement of the Chrysler House, former bank vaults are now conference rooms, their enormous locks left in place. Outside one of these rooms, a life-size statue of a horse wears a yellow-and-red striped scarf and stands next to a portrait of Abe Lincoln wearing kaleidoscopic sunglasses.
“We have approached [Gilbert],” Gaines says. “His comment to us was, he’s moving very fast. If we can keep up with him, he’s interested. But if we can’t, we need to move out of his way. I think we have to make the compelling argument that we’re not going to slow you down, but we’re going to help you out in the long term.”
Bedrock officials themselves describe the company as having very little patience for delays or red tape. As Collins points out, “I’ve been involved with jobs that are LEED certified, and they have a timing component that is not conducive to the speed at which we work.”
On the tour, Schwartz shows off Chase Tower, once a “brown bank building” with drab carpeting and fixtures. The interior is now open, airy, and filled with pops of color. One floor is filled with a sea of loan officers chatting busily into their headsets, their desks adorned with cardboard cutouts of their faces (the wall decal and graphics company Fathead is another of Gilbert’s properties).
Schwartz points out a single strip of mock ceiling tiles lining the exterior of the expansive room, a concession to regulators who insisted that Bedrock preserve at least the appearance of the building’s old drop ceiling in order to qualify for historical preservation tax credits. It’s clear that Schwartz views this as an eye roll-inducing level of bureaucracy, and it seems unlikely that the company will agree any time soon to subject itself to paperwork and inspections that aren’t absolutely mandatory.
“We know what we want, and we want to do ‘green’ stuff,” Schwartz says, making quotation marks in the air with his fingers. “But at the same time, we’re not waiting around for others to make decisions on what the rules are. We’re going forward.”