A sale could end man's time amid Packard Plant's ruins

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

Detroit — A born-again Christian and auto body worker who lives in a warehouse amid the rubble of the former Packard Plant may be at risk of losing his home because the building is for sale.

For several years, Allan Hill, who helps the area's needy, has been an unofficial spokesman for the Packard's apocalyptic landscape, often describing himself as the resident historian. Many out-of-town journalists and filmmakers have documented the white-haired Hill as he carves out a living in the hangar-like warehouse cluttered with broken autos, old boats and other discarded machines of middle-class life.

"I think everywhere in the world is going to suffer like we are suffering here in Detroit," Hill said in a short film made two years ago by Brooklyn filmmakers Lost & Found, as he looked out amid the 40 acres of industrial ruin at the former Packard. "But we can come back."

Hill said Thursday he was "kind of aware" his home may be put up for sale soon.

"I know it's kind of ironic because some people look at the way I live and think I'm sort of homeless now. I'm pretty busy. It's OK," Hill said.

The potential sale of the warehouse comes at a time when some physical progress may actually happen after decades of decline at the former Packard. The site is named after a dead automaker that ended production at the east side plant in 1956. Dozens of smaller businesses still worked out of some part of the Packard until the late '90s. Then the city foreclosed on the property and the facility began to be torn apart by scrappers and vandals.

The sprawling site is starting to be cleaned up, said representatives for the new owner, Peruvian businessman Fernando Palazuelo. Palazuelo is trying to raise an estimated $300 million-$400 million to develop the site, which is about a half-mile in length with multiple decaying buildings. There are more than a few skeptics.

The warehouse where Hill lives is not owned by Palazuelo, but Fat Yu Chan, who is based in Grosse Ile. This week, Chan put the building up for sale after talks with Palazuelo to buy the warehouse fell through, said David Wax, a senior associate with Burger & Co., the commercial real estate broker representing Chan.

The asking price for the 50,000-square-foot warehouse is $450,000. Wax said the warehouse has been "on and off the market" in the past.

"But that was really put on hold for some time because of our talks with Fernando. Now, it's really on the market," Wax said.

Palazuelo bought the former Packard facility for $405,000 during last year's Wayne County auction of tax foreclosed properties. He recently admitted he didn't have clear title to the property until this summer.

Palazuelo's company Arte Express Detroit posted on social media that removal of "environmental toxins" has started at the Packard. The recent Facebook post by Packard Plant Project also said that next week demolition crews would start "to remove dangerous concrete hanging off rooftops and start clearing debris."

Hill is believed to be the sole legal resident of the former Packard. He's lived in the warehouse for about eight years, shortly after he lost his Detroit home to foreclosure.

Sometimes his son and others live with him. He pays for utilities but no rent.

Last year, when he was interviewed by The Detroit News, Hill was working on a prototype of cargo bicycles he hoped to market as Packard Bicycles. He often gave tours to the steady stream of tourists at the Packard. He had recently taken in a large dog he named "Chainsaw."

Hill also spent time driving around Detroit in a shuttle van, looking to give rides to the homeless to soup kitchens or a church called Peacemakers International. Sometimes he would simply take his passengers on what he called "nice scenic tours" of the city.

"I guess I'm a slice of life that can look kind of scary, but I'm not," Hill said.


Staff Writer Christine MacDonald contributed