Hopes rise for Packard site 20 years after police standoff

George Hunter
The Detroit News
Construction crews have cleared debris from several floors of the administration building at the Packard Plant complex on Friday, January 4, 2019.

Detroit — There are signs of hope for a long-awaited revival at the Packard Plant, a sprawling, decaying hulk that has come to symbolize Detroit’s decline from its automotive glory days.

Peruvian businessman Fernando Palazuelo, who owns the 42-acre site, has spent more than $5 million to clear more than 17,000 yards of debris and is working toward converting part of the complex into commercial use, according to officials with his Arte Express development firm.

"It'll be mostly office space," said Arte Express spokeswoman Yvette van der Velde. "There also could be an art gallery on the first floor.

"The cleanup of the interior of administration building continued this summer," van der Velde said. "In 2019, we’re planning on doing roof repairs."

Work crews have cleared debris from several floors of the administration building at the Packard Plant complex on Friday, January 4, 2019.

While the administration building is expected to be occupied by 2020, the entire development could take as long as 15 years, van der Velde said. 

Even as Arte Express works to revive the complex, it continues to attract thrill-seekers and scavengers — trespassers who call themselves "urban explorers."

The death last week of a 21-year-old man at another Palazuelo-owned site — wrongly reported by police as the Packard property — brought renewed attention to the former auto factory, where production stopped in 1956.

"It’s unfortunate; we try and take as many precautions as possible, but people still break in," said Joe Kopietz, a spokesman for Arte Express. "Arte Express has private security patrols around the Packard plant. Because of the size of the plant, it's difficult to put up physical barriers. The guards have lessened the break-ins quite a bit, but people still try to find a way in."

Palazuelo bought the site out of foreclosure for $405,000 in 2013, finally ending years of legal disputes over the plant with roots dating back more than 20 years, when Detroit police engaged in a standoff at the plant with then-owner Dominic Cristini.

Questions still surround the incident, one of the strangest episodes in the plant’s long history.

On the night of Nov. 20, 1998, Cristini huddled behind a large wood table clutching a semiautomatic rifle, with other guns laid out on the floor of his office at the plant. Outside, dozens of Detroit police officers were amassed.

"The cops want to take me out," Cristini told a Detroit News reporter who was present as he crouched behind the broad conference table, which he had flipped onto its side to use as a shield. "If they come busting in here, I'm taking some of them out with me."

The police never entered Cristini's office that night, although a team of officers stayed in the guard shack outside overnight — and police units remained there on 24-hour guard duty for eight months. 

Construction crews have cleared debris from several floors of the administration building at the Packard Plant complex on Friday, January 4, 2019.

The Friday night standoff, which included the police chief and other top Detroit police officials, was the opening salvo in what would become a years-long battle over ownership of the iconic, decaying Packard plant on Detroit's east side.

Twenty years later, it's still a mystery why city and police officials posted members of the Detroit police Gang Squad at the plant round-the-clock. It's one of several twists and turns that occurred during the protracted fight over ownership of the 3.5 million-square-foot plant, which was built in 1903 and stopped producing cars in 1956.

Several questions remain unanswered. Why was the city so interested in the Packard plant property? What was the danger that necessitated a round-the-clock police presence? And why did city officials continue trying to demolish the plant's buildings, despite a court order to stop?

The path leading up to Palazuelo's purchase was marked by misstatements by Detroit police and city officials, Cristini's drug bust and subsequent four-year stint in federal prison — and, finally, a 2006 Michigan Supreme Court ruling that granted Cristini ownership of the Packard property, following years of court hearings.

By then, Cristini was behind bars and didn't have the money for back taxes, so the county foreclosed on the property.

"I went through hell and back trying to prove I was the owner," Cristini, 58, recently told The News. "I put on a hell of a fight and won. But really, what did I win? I lost a ton of money fighting the city."

The battle over the Packard plant ignited hours before the November 1998 raid, when the Detroit City Council voted to replace Packard Motor Properties, which had managed the city-owned plant since 1994, with a new management company, Central Maintenance Services.

During the council hearing, city officials brought up a report that PMP guards were reportedly spotted carrying AK-47 assault rifles. Police checked out one anonymous report, officials said, but found no wrongdoing.

Hours after the council vote, dozens of cops stormed the Packard property, although they said they didn't have a search warrant. As officers, including Police Chief Benny Napoleon and other top officials, milled around near the plant's entrance, Cristini allowed a News into his office and said he feared police were planning to kill him and steal his property. 

That didn't happen, although a detail of at least four officers sat in the guard shack near the plant's main entrance until July 1999. 

The first few nights after the initial standoff, officers frisked people as they entered and left the plant.

When The News contacted Detroit police to ask why people were being frisked, police officials denied it — but after it was revealed that a News reporter was among those who had been frisked, officials changed their story and said the pat-downs were not sanctioned by the department, and that the officers were told to stop.

Napoleon, who went on to become Wayne County sheriff, told The News at the time he had stationed officers at the plant entrance at the behest of the Planning and Development Department.

Napoleon was recently asked why it was necessary to have a round-the-clock police presence at the plant for months. 

"We did have a detail assigned there because of threats that were made," Napoleon said. "We thought they were credible. It's been 20 years, so I don't have a great recollection of what the threat was, but we believed there was a possibility of serious violence."

At the time, however, city officials gave a different reason for the guard. Joe Vassallo, then deputy director of the city’s Planning and Development Department, told The News he requested police presence at the plant because he was concerned PMP would destroy records.

When asked how having cops stationed outside the plant’s offices would prevent anyone from destroying records inside the office, Vassallo said he couldn't provide an answer.

Recent attempts to reach Vassallo for comment were not successful.

On Nov. 23, 1998, the the Monday following the initial police presence at the Packard plant, Wayne Circuit Judge Paul Teranes issued a temporary restraining order staying the City Council’s move to bring in a new management company.

The judge also ordered police to stop surveillance of the plant, but officers remained on the property. Police department officials said the officers were maintaining a presence there, but not doing surveillance.

The next day, city workers erected a 12-foot fence around Cristini's office, but did not explain why. Then, weeks later, on Dec. 22, 1998, Planning and Development sent letters to the 87 tenants of the plant, who rented space for ventures ranging auto parts storage to a paintball arena, ordering them to leave by Feb. 1.

The city had never obtained court eviction orders, but began evicting tenants anyway, using bulldozers to rip through the metal doors of the storage facilities. 

Then, in March 1999, city contractors began demolishing buildings at the sprawling complex. Cristini took the city to court, and on March 12, 1999, Wayne Circuit Judge Kathleen MacDonald issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting the city from "entering the property ... for the purpose of altering the property, preparing to demolish the property, or demolish the property."

However, city crews continued the demolition. When The News contacted the city to ask why demolition work was still being done despite the judge's order, city attorney Brian Morrow denied it. After Morrow was told a News photographer had snapped pictures of the crew demolishing the building, he backtracked and said he was unclear about the language in the restraining order.

The News was unable to reach Morrow recently for comment.

The fight over the plant continued for years, with Cristini and the city each claiming ownership, until Michigan Supreme Court in 2007 denied the city of Detroit's appeal of a lower court's decision that put the property back in Cristini's hands. By that time, Cristini was in federal prison for selling the drug ecstasy.

Another court battle involving the Packard Plant flared up in 2010, after the 555 art gallery in Detroit removed a mural reportedly painted on at the plant by renowned graffiti artist Banksy. The mural was sold in 2015 at Julien's Auctions in Beverly Hills, California, for $137,500.

In 2013, Wayne County foreclosed on the Packard property for $1 million in unpaid taxes.

Work crews continue to clear debris at the Packard Plant complex on Friday, January 4, 2019.

When the dispute over the plant's ownership began more than 20 years ago, city officials said they hoped to attract now-defunct auto supplier The Budd Company to the site, which was in Detroit's Empowerment Zone.

"All I know is, the city wanted my property awfully bad," Cristini said recently. "I fought them in court and won, but was it worth it? I started selling drugs to make money; I'm not going to say it was a smart option, but it was an option I took, and I did my (prison) time with my head held high."

He said his battle for ownership of the plant — including the harrowing standoff with police — was a matter of principle.

"They claimed for years that I didn't own the plant, and the (Michigan) Supreme Court ruled in my favor," Cristini said. "Everyone told me 'you're wasting your time fighting the city; you can't beat them.' But I did beat them. So at least I've got that."

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