November 15, 2010 at 1:00 am

City officials, alleged title holder at odds over Packard plant

Dominic Cristini, who was recently released from federal prison, says he owns the Packard plant and wants to work with the city to figure out what to do with it. (David Coates / The Detroit News)

Detroit — The man at the center of a long-running battle over one of the city's most recognizable ruins is out of prison and staking a claim on the Packard plant, adding another hurdle to efforts to demolish it.

The city wants the owners to clean or raze the dilapidated 3.5-million-square-foot eyesore on East Grand Boulevard near Concord — but the landmark's murky ownership has made that difficult. City officials are in the midst of "an exhaustive" title search so they can start demolition hearings.

But Dominic Cristini, who was recently released from federal prison after serving a four-year drug sentence, claims he's the sole owner through his company, Bioresource. Cristini now says he wants to work with the city, after nearly 13 years of battling over ownership and three years after the Michigan Supreme Court put the property back in Bioresource's hands.

"I'd like to sit down and talk about ways we can make this property viable again," he said. "I'm open to ideas. I wanted to go with the original plan — to have a Packard museum there — but I don't know if that would work now, because the area is so blighted. There was also talk about building low-income housing there. That might be doable."

But city officials have said they believe other owners are involved.

The confusion is the latest chapter in the often-bizarre battle over the sprawling plant that at its peak churned out 100,000 cars a year. It closed in 1956.

The ownership debate renewed this summer, after a local art gallery removed a mural reportedly painted at the plant by graffiti artist Banksy. Bioresource filed a lawsuit in July against the 555 Nonprofit Studio and Gallery to reclaim the work by the artist, whose work has sold for as high as $500,000.

The suit listed real estate investor Romel Casab as the company president; prior to the lawsuit, Cristini was the firm's only owner or agent on record. State records currently list the company, which filed for bankruptcy in 1997, as dissolved. The Banksy lawsuit was significant because Casab hadn't acknowledged his role before, city officials said.

Cristini, 51, said several others have helped him pay Packard's tax bills. Those include Casab, towing magnate Gasper Fiore and Fred Sitto, owner of Metro Equipment, who helped pay $700,000 in back taxes during the court fight with the city in 2000, Cristini said.

Kim James, the city's director of building safety and engineering, said the city is open to "productive conversation" with the owners but demolition proceedings are pending — and the city could bill the owners for the tab.

"The Packard plant is a blighted and dangerous structure," James said." It is in a central location that would be desirable for development. It also requires significant resources as a fire hazard."

Last week, it was disclosed that Packard plant parcels have been in the city's name since the 2007 court ruling, said Dan Lijana, a spokesman for the city. The Detroit Free Press reported that the city added the properties back to the tax roll after the newspaper pointed out the error. Lijana said officials plan to try to recoup the lost taxes from the owner.

Cristini blames City Hall for bungling the situation from the start, saying it is responsible for the condition of the dilapidated facility.

Under his control, Cristini said he made nearly $200,000 per month in rent from tenants in the mid-1990s.

The battle started after the city claimed ownership through foreclosure over back taxes and in 1998 sent dozens of police officers to raid the plant. That kicked off a bizarre series of events.

For eight months, Detroit Police Gang Squad officers lounged on folding chairs in the plant's lobby around the clock, watching a small black-and-white television set.

Cristini hid inside his office, afraid to leave unless his attorney or reporters were present.

City officials drew the ire of Wayne Circuit Judge Kathleen MacDonald in 1999 for continuing to demolish the plant after she had ordered the city to stop.

"The city kept claiming they owned the plant, they evicted my tenants, then knocked down a half-million square feet," Cristini said. "Then everyone and their brother went in and scavenged the place while I was in prison. Did they expect me to take care of it when I was locked up?"

Fred Rottach, a former top official in the planning department who was involved in the ownership battle, said the city had funding from the state to clean up the site and interest from a handful of companies, including Chrysler and General Motors.

Cristini only had a "hodgepodge" of month-to-month tenants, and the city was trying to woo a bigger development, he said.

"No one in their right mind would have invested money into fixing up what was there," said Rottach, who is now retired. "We had hoped to have it start development in the area."

Cristini, who lives in an east side halfway house, said he hopes the long battle for the Packard plant ends soon.

"I'm tired of fighting," he said. "I want to work something out with the city. I've got too much tied up in that property to just let it go to waste. But if anyone wants to fight me for ownership, let's go. I'm not going away."

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