Next to Hart Plaza is the gleaming GM Renaissance Center (www.gmrencen.com), known to Detroiters as RenCen. Soaring high into the sky, this fortress-like, 73-story hotel/office/retail complex dominates the Detroit skyline, with seven steel towers containing more than 5.5 million square feet of space, including a 1,300-room Marriott hotel, two foreign consulates, and dozens of restaurants, stores, and movie theaters.
Downtown shoppers can spend at least a couple hours browsing the boutiques inside the RenCen. Options run the gamut, from The Runway (313/568-7977, 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Mon.–Fri.), which sells high-end women’s apparel, to the charming Renaissance 500 Tobacco Shop (313/259-6510, 7 a.m.–5:30 p.m.), where the friendly staff provides fine tobacco products and other specialty items.
Of course, the road to the RenCen’s present incarnation was rather rocky at best. The project was originally proposed by Henry Ford II, in part as a response to the 1967 riots. Ford—always a powerful name in Detroit—used his considerable influence to convince friends and foes alike to invest in the riverside complex. With big-name retailers such as Gucci and Cartier, it was intended to draw suburbanites back downtown. But it didn’t work. The RenCen was a huge white elephant from the moment it opened in 1977. Designed by John Portman, best known for building hotel atriums, it was a confusing maze of circles and elevators that ultimately led nowhere. By 1983, many of the original retailers had pulled out and most of the investors had defaulted on their loans.
The center received a much-needed facelift and helpful new directional signs in the mid-1980s, but it never became the city’s much-heralded savior. Through the 1980s and much of the 1990s, the RenCen was supported by the various businesses—including Ford, ANR Pipeline, and others—who have kept offices here. In 1996, however, it received a huge shot in the arm with General Motors’ announcement that it had purchased the landmark to use as its new world headquarters. In a major boost for the city, GM moved the majority of its workers into the RenCen in 1999. A major internal reorganization followed, leaving the space a bit less confusing.
The RenCen is still the largest privately financed development in U.S. history, with more than $380 million contributed by private investors. Representing a huge investment in the city’s future, it is worth seeing on that basis alone. Once inside, you’ll need a map to navigate. Otherwise, you can take a free one-hour tour through this Detroit landmark. Tours depart from the GM Wintergarden, a tropical atrium overlooking the Detroit River, and feature sights like a vintage auto collection, the world’s tallest vertical glass sculpture, and a breathtaking view of the Detroit and Windsor skylines.
by Laura Martone from Moon Michigan, 3rd Edition, © Avalon Travel