It's completely far-fetched and has a snowball's chance of materializing, but a Chicago developer is apparently willing to pony up nearly $1 million to purchase the Packard Plant site in Detroit, the city's #2 most-famous ruin porn star.
#1 obviously belongs to the old train station, but that property's not for sale because it's owned by Manuel Moroun, who also owns the Ambassador Bridge. But the Packard Plant, spotlighted here on Jalopnik a few times, could fall into the hands of developer Bill Hults since it's in tax foreclosure.
The Packard Plant, once a hub for some of the Motor City's finest luxury automobiles, has been near-vacant as long as I've been alive (little-known fact: There was at least one business, partially populated by raccoons, that was still operating in the complex until very recently), and plans to refurbish the 3.5-million-square-foot site have been swirling just as long. You're born into this knowing this place as nothing more than a Colosseum-type behemoth and any talk of renovation is met with appropriate skepticism.
As well it should: Demolition alone would cost millions and, as DWhite over at Oppo points out, the land underneath is basically a chemical wasteland. It would take deep pockets abetted by state and/or local funds to get the job done, and it would be years before anything tangible came about. Even Mayor Dave Bing spoke of tearing down the ruins, but the city couldn't find the funds to do so nor could they figure out who even owned the place.
Hults is apparently well aware of this and is pitching a 15-year plan to revamp Packard Plant — while maintaining the iconic bridge — into a site with housing and retail. Like I said, skeptical as all hell; Hults is playing right from the White Entrepreneurial Guy Handbook ("I'm a starry-eyed guy of financial means with plans to save Detroit by redefining an iconic part of the city's history; I can haz free media coverage?") and he's also thousands of dollars in debt back in Chicago.
It's worth noting that Hults is still "in talks" to purchase the property, but here's why — for completely superficial reasons — I'm willing to give the guy half a chance.
Packard Plant is located on the east side of Detroit. Sample every national or international trend piece about Detroit's decline, and there's always a stock photo of the Packard Plant and/or a random east side neighborhood. Some more recent examples are both from the New York Times: The almost-bankrupt piece and the mention of the decrepit neighborhoods around the "last" auto plant in Detroit (which is oddly discounting the plant that builds the SRT Viper or Chrysler's Mack Engine plant).
This is not to say the east side is an entire wasteland (hello, East English Village, Morningside, West Village, Indian Village, Gold Coast, Morningside, NorHam, et al) nor to say that the west side is the happiest place on earth. It's just that if you guess the probable logistics of your average flyover journalist coming to town to write their doom-and-gloom piece on Detroit, they're most likely staying at a hotel downtown, and drive up Mack Avenue east from a Midtown coffee shop, Gratiot Avenue northeast after visiting Eastern Market or Jefferson Avenue east past the Gold Coast but before Alter Road (who doesn't love the contrast of the border between Detroit and the Pointes?), and wind up smack in the middle of some Tonydetroit-approved photo-ops.
If someone were to buy the Packard Plant, it would answer the question that someone owns the Packard Plant, and change the photo captions from "abandoned Packard Plant" to "under-development Packard Plant." But that's not all.
Consider where all the recent development news is going on and it would be finally nice to say that there's something happening outside of MidCorkDown (and this year's feel-good neighborhood du jour Brightmoor) for a change. OK, it'll take 15 years before completion if Hults' plan is approved, but I can stand the wait.
I'm also thinking of East Grand Boulevard, a scenic route I sometimes drive on when I'm going to my grandparents' house in nearby Indian Village. If the development around Packard can spur some interest in those larger homes on the boulevard and the surrounding streets, it can finally look like some cohesion between the tonier Villages and their bordering neighborhoods.
Superficial reasons aside, Bill Bradley at Next City notes that such a project may not be accomplished without some healthy incentives (some of which might have to come from a city that's
nearing ever closer bankruptcy as the days go by actually preparing to file bankruptcy as we speak just filed for bankruptcy today), not to mention that Hults' somewhat sketchy past. Plus, we live in a town where people wet their pants over a few new windows in the old train station.
But if Hults is crazy enough to think this might work, I'll buy into his crazy. And I'm writing this as I'm watching a WXYZ report on demolition of brand-new development in Highland Park that went wrong for a number of reasons. Hults has to realize that he'll be tarred and feathered if he buys the Packard and lets it sit. Let this be his warning about what he's getting into.