Packard Plant makeover finally springs into action

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Detroit — Detroiter Esteban Castro sees the redevelopment of the Packard Plant as a rebirth for the city, the neighborhood around the decayed landmark and even himself.

The owner of Esto’s Garage, a southwest Detroit catering company, said he is excited about Tuesday’s groundbreaking ceremony to kick off the first phase of a $22.6 million renovation plan of the plant. Castro thinks the transformation will act as a catalyst for economic revitalization for the lower east side, where the sprawling facility has lain broken and abandoned for decades.

“This is an exciting project. All this space, so many people have given up on,” said Castro, who has signed a letter of intent to lease space in the renovated Packard when it’s complete. “This building, it represents a kind of a rebirth of not just people, it’s like having another chance. It’s like believing in yourself.”

It’s been three and a half years since Peruvian developer Fernando Palazuelo bought the complex from Wayne County for $405,000 at a tax foreclosure auction and promised to revive the massive ruin that is a symbol of Detroit’s history of lost manufacturing and a magnet for dumpers and trespassers.

In that time, Palazuelo’s crew has cleared more than 1,500 yards of contaminated debris from the property, removed 25 dangerous reinforced concrete columns and installed 24-hour security. Tests, meanwhile, have found arsenic and selenium in the soil on the site.

This week, project developers say the time has come to fulfill Palazuelo’s promise to breathe new life back into the facility with the first of four phases of the developer’s master plan, which will take at least 18 months and up to three years. Palazuelo has said the entire project is estimated to cost at least $350 million and take up to 15 years.

Construction was slated to begin in the fall of 2016 but was delayed for unknown reasons. The property has remained relatively quiet the last three years, prompting observers to wonder whether its revitalization would ever occur.

But shovels ceremoniously hit the dirt Tuesday as Palazuelo, who declined comment on the project last week, and city officials attended a groundbreaking for phase one, which focuses on the 121,000-square-foot, four-story office building that served as the former plant’s administrative home. The 11 a.m. ceremony is open to the public at 1580 E. Grand Blvd.

For phase one, five buildings on the 3.5 million-square-foot commercial complex will be transformed into a community of mixed-use spaces including multifamily residential units, recreation, artist work space and light manufacturing.

Project costs at the plant include about $5.3 million in infrastructure improvements and brownfield work, such as $744,000 for demolition, $680,618 for lead and asbestos abatement, and $858,850 to prepare the site including excavation and disposal.

The scope of phase one involves the historical restoration of the administration building to preserve the outer structure and façade to appear as it did when the building was first constructed in 1911, according to a plan submitted to the Detroit Brownfield Redevelopment Authority by Kari Smith, a spokeswoman with Arte Express Detroit, the development company on the project.

Albert Kahn Associates, the original designers of the administration building, will do that work.

According to documents filed by Smith with the redevelopment authority, the project will incorporate “a new age of environmental and social awareness,” using green building and sustainable design technology. That could include a green rooftop that will provide amenity space for tenants, prolonging the life of the building and result in less waste.

For years, the former Packard facility deteriorated into a hazardous playground for artists, thieves and tourists eager to explore one of the city’s most notorious ruins.

The site is named after the dead automaker that ended production at the east side plant in 1956. Dozens of smaller businesses worked out of part of the plant until the late ’90s. Then the city foreclosed on the property and the facility began to be torn apart by scrappers and vandals.

Arte Express has secured letters of intent from several prospective tenants, which account for nearly 60 percent of the functional space at the administration building.

Improvements are needed to parcels adjacent to the administration building to ensure public health and safety, the report says. Once cleanup is done there, it will be turned into parking spaces for tenants and outdoor courtyard amenities.

According to marketing materials provided by Smith, seven tenants and Smith’s Arte Express Detroit have signed letters of intent to lease space inside the refurbished administration building.

Douglas Marketing Group, Silveri Architects, Detroit Training Center, Testing Engineers and Consultants, Sterling Security, and Environmental Consulting and Technology are listed on publicity materials as tenants. There will also be room on the first floor for a coffee shop and an art gallery/event space.

Arte Express has agreed to lease an entire floor to the Detroit Training Center. The company will offer vocational training to local residents to support employment initiatives for adults.

Councilwoman Mary Sheffield said that is one of the many aspects of the new development she is looking forward to.

“Anytime we are talking about a major investment that is outside of downtown and Midtown and directly impact the neighborhoods is exciting. They need resources and recreation,” said Sheffield, who will be at Tuesday’s groundbreaking.

Sheffield, whose council district covers the Packard Plant complex, said her concern going forward is that the community around it, which she says is composed of mostly women and children, be aware of changes in the project.

“Because it is such as large project and things have change several times, it’s important that we all be aware of the project as it moves forward if it’s going to change,” she said.

Esto’s Garage’s Castro, 37, said it is an honor to be a part of the new plant and its life.

“It’s about community, not just industrial space. I want the space not to just serve food, but serve the community,” he said. “It’s about believing in things and having second chances. I couldn’t draw myself away from it.”