A year into revival efforts, Packard Plant cleans up

Candice Williams
The Detroit News

Detroit — It’s been nearly a year since the owner of the Packard Plant publicly kicked off the first phase of a $300 million-plus renovation plan of the sprawling 40-acre property.

A year into the revival efforts at the Packard Plant, $4 million has been spent on clean-up and pre-development. The first phase of redevelopment focuses on the administration building at 1580 E. Grand. It is expected to house several tenants when work is complete in 2020.

In that time, $4 million has been spent on pre-development and clean-up, with more than 14,000 yards of debris hauled away from the lower east side plant that sat mostly vacant for decades, according to Kari Smith, director of development for the project through site owner Arte Express Detroit. There are plans for a brewery to open next year, and more than 1,000 people have taken tours to get a look at the site.

The goal is to create a mixed-use development over the course of 10 to 15 years, Smith said.

“It will function like a mini city,” she said. “There will be commercial, restaurants, eventually residential. There will be several uses.”

Fernando Palazuelo, a Peruvian developer who owns Arte Express, purchased the Packard building for $405,000 in 2013 at a Wayne County auction. The last Packard automobile was built there in 1954, and although dozens of smaller businesses worked out of parts of the plant until the late 1990s, it has largely been abandoned for decades. It drew vandals and scrappers and became a massive symbol of Detroit’s decay.

The focus of the first phase of redevelopment is the former Packard Motor Car Co.’s 121,000-square-foot, four-story administration building at 1580 E. Grand. The building is expected to house several tenants when work is complete in 2020. Other project focuses are a former grocery store across the street and a smaller building down the street from the sprawling plant. The latter building will become home to a brewery that would open in mid-2019.

Arte Express is expected to determine who will run the brewery this month. The brewery will be the first building occupied on the site.

In August, Pure Detroit, a company that sells Detroit-related merchandise, began offering tours of the plant. The tours were so popular that Pure Detroit expanded tour times each weekend until December. Tours will resume March 24.

“There’s a lot of interest and fascination with the history of the Packard Plant and how it relates to Detroit,” said Kevin Borsay, co-owner of Pure Detroit. “It’s really exciting to see so many people from so many different areas really respond coming out on these tours. ... I think the history of the Packard Plant is the story of industrial America — born, thriving and then it went into decline. Now it’s ready for its next life.”

Palazuelo, whose $405,000 bid was the third-highest at a 2013 Wayne County auction, won the property after two higher bidders dropped out. There were no conditions on the sale of the property, according to a spokesman with the Wayne County Treasurer’s Office. Property taxes are current on the site.

Remediation work began in 2014, and members of the news media were on site to watch as an excavator removed a slab of reinforced concrete from a gutted building.

In May, Arte Express held a groundbreaking ceremony to mark the first phase of the renovation. At the time, Palazuelo said his company would start installing windows and doors in the administration building by last summer. During a recent visit to the site, there were no new windows or doors, and the building was still open to the elements. Water pooled on the floors of all the buildings during that visit.

To those who may feel as though the project should move at a faster pace, Smith has a response.

“It takes time to properly administer pre-development for a 3 million-square-foot former industrial site with massive amounts of contaminated debris left vacant for plus 20 years,” Smith said.

The redevelopment plan includes salvaging whatever materials can be used in the future, Smith said. Some items have been moved off-site for later reuse.

“We’ve salvaged all the wood on the floors,” Smith said. “There’s arches and dentil work on the bottom floor. That’s been kept. ... There wasn’t much because it was scrapped pretty significantly.”

One feature of the building had to go. In the fall, a penthouse photo lab on top of the administration building was demolished as it had already caved in, causing a safety hazard.

Qualified Abatement Services performed work at the site last summer with a crew ranging from 15 to 30 workers at any one time. The abatement work is near completion with construction being the next phase, said Forrest Goyette, president of Qualified Abatement Services.

Smith said she has images of the interior of the administration building for reference. Her grandfather was an executive steel buyer for Packard from 1927 to 1952.

“His office was in that building,” she said. “My grandmother had a lot of photos from the interior of that building — marble floor, the marble stair, what the interior looked like when it was in its prime.”

Eric Kehoe, board president of Preservation Detroit, said the Packard Plant is one of a kind and the organization wants to see it reused in a thoughtful way.

“We think there’s potential for them to do a great job and we’re excited to see how they reuse the space,” he said. “One thing that we’re always looking for in preservation projects is we like to see rehabilitation over complete renovation. Keeping as much of the historic dimensions of the space is important to us.”

Kehoe said it can be a challenge preserving such a long-abandoned site, but well worth it.

“With a project as large as the Packard Plant there’s going to be some give and take,” he said. “I think what’s important is to see the buildings put to productive use again.”

Twitter: @CWilliams_DN