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Why companies are saying farewell to the ‘burbs, and hello to the big city

June 24, 2015, 4:21 PM UTC
Detroit Area Economy Worsens As Big Three Automakers Face Dire Crisis
DETROIT - NOVEMBER 21: The General Motors (GM) world headquarters building stands tallest amidst the Renaissance Center in the skyline of city's downtown on November 21, 2008 in Detroit, Michigan. As car and truck sales have plummeted across the country, large inventories are building at dealerships and factories. The Big Three U.S. automakers, General Motors (GM), Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC, failed after appearing this week in Washington to receive money after asking the government for federal funds to curb the decline of the American auto industry. The city of Detroit, home to the Big Three, would be hardest hit if the government allows these auto makers to fall into bankruptcy. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Spencer Platt—Getty Images

Until a few years ago, Rock Ventures was spread out over “a bunch of different suburban office parks with big parking lots,” recalls CEO Matt Cullen. “But we found we weren’t getting the kind of young, tech-savvy people we wanted to hire. They just didn’t want to work in that type of setting. To be able to compete, we needed to be where they wanted to be.”

So, in 2010, the company, which owns Quicken Loans (No. 26 on our Best Workplaces for Millennials list) and a portfolio of businesses in a dozen other industries, moved its headquarters to Woodward Ave. in downtown Detroit, which also happens to be home to dozens of tech startups. “Detroit is [Quicken Loans founder] Dan Gilbert’s hometown, and mine, and we wanted to be part of its revitalization,” says Cullen.

Rock Ventures is part of a trend. After decades of abandoning the big bad city for pastoral suburban settings, more employers are moving back. A new study of 500 companies in 170 industries by nonprofit Smart Growth America, real estate giant Cushman & Wakefield, and George Washington University notes that in 1960, 63% of U.S. metropolitan areas’ jobs were in cities. By 1996, that had dropped below 16%. Now, the tide seems to be turning the other way. Between 2007 and 2011, the report says, job growth in city centers grew by a modest but steady 0.5% per year, while suburban job growth fell.

That’s partly due to mundane factors like tax incentives and cheap commercial real estate, but it’s mainly because, as one software company president told the researchers, Gen Y finds suburban office parks “boring as all getout. Here [in downtown Cleveland] they walk outside and see cool stuff and it’s fun.”

Cities also appeal to Millennials, who are famously reluctant to buy cars, because they’re “walkable,” as the real-estate parlance has it, with lots of mixed-use neighborhoods where offices, apartments, restaurants, and stores are close together. Public transportation is better, too.

Some companies see downtowns as hives of collaboration and creativity. That’s why biopharmaceutical maker Biogen, which had relocated to suburban Weston in 2010, came back to Cambridge, Mass. just four years later. In Las Vegas, Zappos brought its headquarters into the middle of town from a suburban office park because, chief of staff Jamie Naughton told researchers, “We believe that most innovation comes from outside your industry, and that being downtown would help that.”

One big way urban employers impress Gen Y job candidates is by helping to breathe life back into moribund downtowns. A 2015 survey of Millennials by Deloitte Global found that 77% choose a place to work based partly on whether the company has “a sense of purpose.”

Matt Cullen points out that Rock Ventures has been able to hire so many tech-savvy Gen Yers in large part because the organization has been active in a dozen public-spirited projects in Detroit, like renovating the waterfront and helping to restore the city’s stock of residential housing.

“Our goal is to do good and do well,” says Cullen, adding, “There’s no better example of a downtown that emptied out than Detroit. But everyone’s coming back now.” Lots of Millennials seems to agree. Since the company moved into the city, it has hired about 6,500 people, most of them under 35.