The darkened alcoves, decaying brick and tagged walls at the Packard Plant. (Max Ortiz / The Detroit News, file)
Dr. Jill Van Horn had Detroit humming. For days, her $6 million bid for the Packard Plant, Detroit’s most spectacular urban ruin, created a media buzz.
Of course, we never believed it. Not exactly. But we couldn’t completely discount it, either. It brought us all together in the kind of shared delusional moment we Metro Detroiters so enjoy.
Over a final hour of bidding Friday, the Packard Plant went from near-worthless ruin to $6 million asset. Yes, the deal was likely a mirage. But it also ignited the kind of wishful thinking we can’t resist.
Dr. Jill’s outlier $6 million bid bore the signature grandiosity of other Detroit schemes — from the 1977 planner who wanted to plop a plastic dome over the city to Kwame Kilpatrick’s brief flirtation with using Michigan Central for police headquarters. Or last year’s big idea, courtesy of a local developer turned author: The Commonwealth of Belle Isle, a free market, tax-free island utopia, the Cayman Islands with snow.
The scale of Detroit’s problems has been inspiring fabulists for decades. That’s likely because big dreams, even absurdly ridiculous ones, are in the water we drink and the air we breathe. This is a city that powered up swiftly and definitively in the first two decades of the 20th century, transforming itself from a sleepy provincial city to a world manufacturing capital and a center of innovation.
The nation’s 13th largest city in 1900, Detroit trailed only New York, Chicago and Philadelphia by 1920. The Packard complex, whose first stage was built in 1903, evolved into a 3.5 million-square-foot behemoth, a symbol of the city’s industrial might. And then it became an equally powerful symbol of decline.
We may never understand why Van Horn — who was born in Pennsylvania, educated in Texas and spent almost a decade in California — briefly imagined herself as Detroit’s savior. Given her three-page statement on “The Posential Energy in Detroits Assets,” which is as ungrammatical as it is irrational, her foray into the Detroit rescue business likely did not show Dr. Jill at her best.
(I spoke to a receptionist at her former office in Redding, Calif., who said: “Her patients all loved her,” but wouldn’t comment further.)
What’s stunning, though, is how anxious some were to believe a Texas osteopath might miraculously pull off municipal resurrection. Her claims — of Wall Street moguls and hedge fund managers riding into town to create a new industry on the wreckage of the old — didn’t make even superficial sense.
Champion Homes, the Troy-based modular home manufacturer, has in fact installed 72 quite-nifty prefabricated homes in the Penrose neighborhood, a Detroit development. But Daniel McMurtrie, the firm’s general manager, said recently the firm builds its homes in Indiana, where costs are lower. And that’s without taking on the near inconceivably expensive task of clearing 100 years of concrete and toxic debris.
The truth is we were fairly certain Dr. Jill would not come up with the millions she promised. Her document promised to bring Detroit’s assets to life in an undisclosed process that would “churn out capital as never before.”
For a few days, the fanciful ideas of a Texas doctor offered the temptation to believe that in Detroit, even today, anything can happen.