How Detroit’s transportation landmarks are—or aren’t—being saved from ruin – Jeff Peek @Hagerty

How Detroit’s transportation landmarks are—or aren’t—being saved from ruin – Jeff Peek @Hagerty

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The signs are everywhere, but they might as well be nowhere. Yellow markers, warning against trespassing, that violators will be prosecuted. They no longer serve as deterrent, if they ever did. As Detroit’s once-proud Packard assembly plant continues its slide into ruin, interlopers have turned the automotive landmark into a giant dump. The buildings, or their remains, hold unwanted junk of all sorts—as large as cars and boats, as small as household waste.

Now it appears the brick and mortar will soon follow suit. After a foreign developer abandoned his redevelopment plans for the plant, the City of Detroit was given permission to level the place in the name of public safety. The wrecking ball could get to work any day. When that happens, a hundred-year-old landmark and long-contested symbol of a struggling city’s glory days will be gone for good.

Detroit being Detroit, the Packard plant is not alone. Eleven miles to the west, the former American Motors Corporation headquarters will also meet the wrecking ball as part of a redevelopment costing $66 million. Other historical industrial/transportation buildings are also undergoing change. In the Corktown neighborhood, the 18-story Michigan Central Station, opened in 1914, is receiving the finishing touches of a reported $738 million makeover. (USA Today says the number is closer to $1 billion.) Like the Packard plant, Michigan Central has been deserted for years. Unlike that plant, it is on the way to becoming the centerpiece of a new high-tech campus for the Ford Motor Company. Meanwhile, the long-vacant Fisher Body Plant 21 on Piquette Avenue is set to be repurposed as Fisher 21 Lofts, a $134 million project.

Detroit has been a home of “ruin porn” since the tail of the last century—these buildings are but the four most visible and well-known. Depending on where you stand, their diverging futures are either exciting or tragic.

Fisher Body Plant #21 Cameron Neveu

“I grew up in the city. I know all these buildings well, and yeah, you’d like to preserve them, but it’s a balance,” says Tim Conder, vice president of acquisitions for NorthPoint Development, which is redeveloping the AMC site. “Sometimes you can preserve them, sometimes you can’t. People compare Central Station [which is essentially an office building] with AMC, but you’ve seen AMC—that’s not an office market out there … It just wouldn’t work.”

The problem with saving these buildings, Conder says, is the cost. And there are other considerations with structures like these.

“If you want to maintain the historical aspect of it, you want to get tax credits,” he says. “That’s a long process, it’s a tedious process, and it’s not an easy process. It’s like restoring a car; do you want to do it halfway? Maybe there’s adaptive reuse, and you can include portions of a façade, but that still costs money. That wasn’t factored in at AMC. That building is just too far gone.”

The Motor City is a place both shackled and bolstered by its past. These four buildings are a tangible version of Detroit’s complex relationship with history, but they’re also deeply representative of how the city operates and has always operated. How optimistic plans born of good intention can repeatedly stall. How tradition matters, but long periods of decline can bring too much entrenchment in the past. And how the city’s very strengths can stand in the way of it becoming the best modern version of itself.

The undeniable truth is that things in Detroit are changing, and not always as everyone would like. So, we went there to see the condition of these historic for ourselves.

One: The AMC Headquarters

The former American Motors Company headquarters and factory sit at 14250 Plymouth Road, about 10 miles northwest of downtown Detroit. At 95 years old, the AMC complex is the youngest of the four sites in this story. It is also the only one not built from the start for the transportation industry.

Designed by the city firm of Smith, Hinchman & Grylls, and built under the direction of architects Amedeo Leoni and William E. Kapp, the facility’s administration building and factory were completed in 1927. They were constructed for the Kelvinator Corporation, which made home refrigerators. Originally 1.5 million square feet (later expanded), the park included a tall office tower facing Plymouth Road. Behind that building sat a huge, three-story factory in multiple sections, plus a self-contained power plant. Kelvinator’s name was chosen to honor the British physicist Lord Kelvin, who developed a scale for measuring absolute temperature. A Kelvin quote was once engraved above the doorway to the plant’s administrative entrance: “I’ve thought of a better way.”

Kelvinator Corporation in the 1930s. Courtesy Reuther Library / Wayne State University

For Kelvinator, the better way involved a merger with Nash Motors in 1937. In 1954, the resulting company, Nash-Kelvinator, merged again, this time with Detroit’s Hudson Motors, forming the American Motors Corporation. When AMC relocated its headquarters to suburban Southfield in 1975, the Plymouth Road facility refocused on Jeep. In 1987, when Chrysler bought AMC, the complex was renamed the Jeep and Truck Engineering Center.

Twenty years later, in 2007, Chrysler filed for bankruptcy. The Plymouth Road complex closed in June 2009.

Drama began soon after. In 2010, the AMC facility was sold to Terry Williams for $2.3 million. (The original ask was $10 million.) Williams announced that he was going to turn the facility into a school for autistic children, but he began stripping the factory of scrap metal, which authorities said “disturbed asbestos-containing materials and released ozone-depleting substances.” In 2014, Williams was convicted of violating the Clean Air Act and sentenced to 27 months in prison. The AMC property, seized by the court, was transferred to the Wayne County Land Bank. It wound up as property of the City of Detroit in a 2018 land swap. A subsequent environmental-cleanup operation included demolition of the power plant and much of the rear of the factory

After the property sat vacant for more than a decade, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan held a press conference on December 9, 2021. NorthPoint, he announced, would demolish the remaining buildings and replace the complex with a $66 million warehouse development.

“One by one,” Duggan said, “we are taking down the massive vacant buildings that for too long have been a drain on our neighborhoods and our city’s image, and putting something new in their place … (and) I expect we will be announcing plans for other such sites in the city very soon.”

Not everyone was so excited. Because NorthPoint pursued public incentives (the firm eventually secured $32.6 million in brownfield TIFs), the Missouri-based developer was required to hold public meetings about its plans for the site. Those meetings resulted in “a ton of pushback” from preservationists, Conder says, and a December 2021 editorial in Crain’s Business News—the headline was “Detroit needs a plan to save its industrial history”—advocated saving the historic structure. The Crain’s story immediately prompted an open letter to the editor from neighborhood residents, who were thrilled that something was finally being done with the abandoned complex. It was an eyesore near a public park, they claimed, one with racist ties to the area.

“The joy in our neighborhoods was indescribable,” the letter read. “For many years, that monstrous abandoned AMC site has devastated our community, driving down the home values of those who stayed, crippling any effort to rebuild commercial businesses on Plymouth, and permanently affecting our children’s view of the neighborhood where they are being raised … We won’t sit by while outsiders, who couldn’t find our neighborhood without a map, presume to tell us how much we should value their precious ‘Art-deco neighborhood landmark.’”

NorthPoint’s Conder, despite his admitted affection for historic buildings, agrees: The time to save the AMC facility has come and gone.

This huge sign, which hung inside the former AMC headquarters after it had become Jeep Engineering, reads “A New Dawn … New Opportunities … ” The missing right side of the sign featured a silhouette of the plant’s administrative tower, backlit by the sun. Cameron Neveu

“Do you know how long that building has sat there untouched?” he says. “The moment someone is interested in the site, all of a sudden people come out of the woodwork and say, ‘You can’t do that …’ No one cared about it until we got it under contract. Talk to the community; they’re happy to see it go. Hey, I love historical buildings and want to preserve as much history as we can, but again, you have to balance that with economics and business going forward.

“The problem with Detroit is, there are not enough readily available sites to develop. So, when requirements come out for space in the city, they quickly realize there are no sites available, so they immediately look in the suburbs. And there are sites available in the suburbs, so none of the business stays in Detroit. What we’re really trying to do is help the city of Detroit create developable sites that are readily available … We’re trying to remove blighted properties, bring in new projects, bring in new jobs to the area.”

Northpoint says the plan to build a 794,000-square-foot warehouse or light industrial space on the former AMC campus at Plymouth Road will create 350 permanent jobs and 100 temporary construction jobs. Demolition is expected to begin this month. Conder says it will take approximately six months to “prepare the pad” and 12 months to complete construction.

A map showing the location of the planned warehouse. NorthPoint Development
A rendering of the proposed building on Plymouth Road. NorthPoint Development

“We approach these as spec developments, meaning we don’t have a tenant,” he says. “We buy the property, tear it down, clean it up, and go vertical—all while talking to prospective tenants.”

In addition to cost, Conder says, the number-one reason NorthPoint never considered saving even a portion of the AMC structure is that every bit of the 50-acre site is needed to deliver adequate warehouse space.

University of Michigan’s Zimmerman has not visited the AMC headquarters recently, so she admits that it might be too far gone. Regardless, she says, the facility never should have reached this point. On historic Detroit buildings in general, she reasons, “The City of Detroit is not thinking about the city’s heritage here; they’re thinking about the city’s budget … (but) once these things are gone, they’re just gone. You can’t recapture them.

“I think it’s a little bit of a failure of the public realm not to have some provision to guard the history of the city and its significant buildings. Yes, they require some maintenance, and you’d have to do serious work to bring them back up to a usable state, but what do we have city governments for? We have them to keep law and order, and to preserve civic identity.”

George Romney Chairman of AMC with Nash Automobiles in 1955

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