December 2, 2012 by Benji
I really like this article. it was the front page of the Free Press this weekend. Aside from giving the Packard Plant a thorough overview it also did something rarely done in the press. They mentioned Matty Maroun and gave him a fair shake by mentioning that he has cleaned up and secured the building.
The Packard Plant: Big. Ugly. Dangerous.
Like a crumbling headstone to a long-dead time, it sprawls over 35 acres of Detroit, a half-mile stretch of broken concrete and bricks and trouble.
City firefighters won’t venture inside it when it catches fire. Scrappers have pretty much picked it clean. Urban spelunkers still explore it, and graffiti artists see it as a massive canvas. But lately, some of these visitors have been beaten and robbed by predators lurking in the dark among the rubble.
The Packard Plant, or what’s left of it, stands along East Grand Boulevard — a clear and present danger, an obstacle to redeveloping the near east side, a forlorn landmark for camera crews from around the world. Its removal would be a visible victory for the state and city, a relief for cops and firefighters, an invitation to reinvent a once-vital industrial area. But past bureaucratic bungling, future legal hurdles and a lack of money are obstacles to getting the job done.
The owner, a company that is way behind on paying the taxes, must be removed before a long process toward demolition can even start. County officials say foreclosure proceedings are now under way — a first step. But demolition will require city, county, state and federal officials to decide that the Packard Plant is not just an ugly nuisance, but also a priority.
They’ll need to decide that it’s dangerous to anyone in its shadow and to the city’s image. They’ll have to decide that it’s the ultimate abandoned building.
Why the Packard Plant has to go
The stench coming from the Packard Plant is a mix of something dank and something burned.
The site smolders often, set afire by arsonists and scrappers wrenching steel from its wreckage. It is an international symbol of Detroit’s decline, even as other areas of the city are being revitalized — Midtown, downtown, Corktown and the riverfront.
Packard’s 40-plus rotting buildings — the biggest blighted property in the city — are strewn with mounds of wet clothes, thousands of shoes, hundreds of tires and assorted charred cars and boats scribbled with graffiti. Trees grow from the plant’s roofs. Standing water — sometimes neon-colored from chemicals — pools on its floors.
Now, more than 50 years after the Packard Motor Car Co. abandoned the property, city and county officials say they will try to wrest control of it from its current owner, Bioresource. The company should receive certified letters this week notifying it that the property is in foreclosure for $750,000 in unpaid taxes.
Demolition is a far-off dream, but for those who live or work near the site, it can’t come soon enough. The craziness that defines the Packard Plant can be seen every day.
On a late summer morning, freelance photographer Rod Murphy posed a bikini model against green and purple graffiti.
He called out directions to Miss Cora — look over there, take another step forward, shoulders down, squat.
“This is a lot to ask, but reach down and grab that board,” said Murphy, who is drawn to the rawness of the site. She tottered on red patent-leather high heels — tiptoeing over shards of glass.
Fred Jones watched the eye candy. He works for the plant’s last paying tenant, Chemical Processing, whose building is located on the south side of the property. Raccoons have broken into the company’s refrigerator and drank from its toilet. Vandals have thrown cinder blocks and pallets at the company’s building from atop adjacent buildings, ripping holes in the roof, narrowly missing him and co-worker Harold Jones.
“I have a bad feeling there’s going to be a major tragedy over here,” Fred Jones said. “I just hope I’m not part of it. … Every little sound, you feel a threat.”
Down the street, Allan Hill is part-Packard Plant sentry, part-Packard tour guide. He tries to watch for the vandals who break into visitors’ cars, rummaging for valuables — and sometimes attacking people. He gives tours to explorers from around the world — and has met a Swiss man who makes an annual pilgrimage to the plant.
He keeps an eye on the property from his home, a warehouse he shares with son Randy and dog Chainsaw, or during walks or bike rides around the ruins. He said it’s mostly a peaceful existence — except when “punks” throw chunks of concrete from the plant at his building.
“I’m tired of people coming down from the suburbs and harassing us,” Hill said, referring to some of the visitors.
Artists also are drawn to the grittiness of the site. Portions of a video by Eminem and scenes from the movie “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” were filmed there. Internationally known graffiti artist Banksy tagged the plant.
“It’s sickening,” said Detroit political analyst Steve Hood. “It’s insane. It’s not Disneyland.”
Hood said that when traffic backs up on I-94, he knows a shortcut home past the Packard — but when he gets off the highway and slips into the near-east-side neighborhood, it’s with a “horrible feeling of dread.”
The plant “just further reinforces this thought that Detroit is this city in desperate need of a rebirth,” said community activist Jonathan Kinloch.
Ultimately, city officials want to demolish the buildings and redevelop the site. They’ve wanted to do that for years. The process will take time — and it won’t be cheap or easy. Money will be a big obstacle.
But the plant’s neighbors and others have lost patience.
“This building should have been torn down yesterday,” Kinloch said.
And that’s where it gets complicated.
• EDITORIAL: Packard Plant is a problem with potential
• NANCY KAFFER: There’s potential behind the ruins of the Packard Plant
• SOCIAL MEDIA: Instagram photos of the Packard Plant using #PackardPlant
20 years ago, an opportunity missed
A Packard hasn’t been built at the hulking plant since 1954. In the years since, small tenants used the property to warehouse car and boat collections or to operate businesses, including playing paintball war games. Others found the plant’s many nooks ideal for hiding stolen vehicles, running chop shops or throwing all-night raves that drew adventurers — and drug users.
Most of the tenants were shooed out in 1998 and 1999, as the state and city prepared to tear down the structures, remove tens of thousands of illegally dumped tires and decades of environmental contamination. Both governments said the property had reverted to public ownership through a 1993 foreclosure for unpaid taxes. A $5-million demolition plan was drawn up. But it never happened.
According to court records and a Wayne County judge, the city bungled the foreclosure, failing to do a title search and notify the owners of a mortgage interest in the property.
That provided an opening for lawyers for Dominic Cristini, whose company, Bioresource, had been running the plant and collecting rent from tenants following the 1998 death of the plant manager, to derail demolition and launch years of wrangling over who owned the complex.
Cristini won the legal fight — but ended up in federal prison for dealing the drug ecstasy from an abandoned school across from the plant, where he threw raves and hatched big dreams to turn the site into casinos and a Grand Prix race track.
Cristini was released from federal custody last year and has been spotted driving around the plant. The Free Press was unable to reach him; his lawyer did not return several phone calls seeking comment.
But as long as the plant is privately owned, city and state officials say they won’t attempt to demolish it — a job now estimated to be about $20 million, including the removal of contaminants such as asbestos.
In April 2011, the Detroit City Council approved demolishing the plant, but there is virtually no chance of tapping state or federal money unless it comes under public ownership.
City says it has had higher priorities
The city could cite Cristini and Bioresource for code violations, but officials say they have more important priorities than tracking down the ex-con and trying to extract fines.
“The effort that we would have to put into … recovering the fines … does not make a good use of our funds or our resources,” said Karla Henderson, Mayor Dave Bing’s group executive for planning and facilities.
“Plus,” she said, “we have a list of other non-responsible property owners right here in the city that own multiple properties that we are aggressively going after, so we’ve got our hands full.”
Henderson said the city also lacks resources to stop illegal dumping, trespassing and assaults at the plant.
“I cannot see us putting police over there or monitoring what’s going on. You have 139 square miles (citywide) to cover, and our focus will be on where our residents are currently residing.”
The plant is in a sparsely populated area. Its closest neighbors include a cemetery and a 20-unit motel that rents rooms by the hour.
The city could try to force Cristini to fence in the sprawling property, but officials don’t believe he has the means, unlike Manuel (Matty) Moroun, the billionaire businessman whose company owns another derelict landmark in Detroit — the Michigan Central Station. Moroun has secured his building.
The Packard Plant “is just one of the many symbols we need to rid ourselves of in order for the city to move forward,” said state Rep. Maureen Stapleton, a Detroit Democrat whose district includes the property. “That building now is beyond repair. I’m exceptionally anxious to see it torn down.”
In early November, the Free Press interviewed several neighborhood residents, including Beatrice Lollar, 62, who said she had lived near the Packard Plant since she was 6. She said she was tired of the kids who threw rocks at her vehicle from the top floors of the plant. She was tired of the almost daily fires. She was tired of waking up to an eyesore.
“I’m disgusted. I’m just pissed at the city,” she said. “It’s like they don’t care about this street. Every day I get up and look at it, and I’m just disgusted.”
Neighbors said she moved out later that month.
Brad Orville, a physician assistant with the Visiting Physicians Association, crisscrosses Detroit to see patients in their homes, including a 95-year-old who lives in the shadow of the Packard Plant.
“It’s like a ghost now,” he said.
• RELATED: After decades at the Packard Plant, last tenant is moving out
• RELATED: City pays big to fight fires at ‘death trap’ Packard Plant
• RELATED: Hazardous materials, fortified building would make demolishing Packard Plant an expensive, lengthy prospect
State: We no longer have cleanup money
Jim Sygo, deputy director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, said there are three main reasons why the agency hasn’t gotten involved since the failed demolition more than a decade ago. First, the state no longer has the cleanup money needed for such a project. Second, the property is privately owned. And lastly, the Packard is not an imminent threat to the environment.
Such a threat could include drums of solvents on the property or hazardous materials leaching into groundwater — but not the mountains of broken concrete, bricks and household debris, nor the boats, cars and other rubble.
At one time, the plant covered 3.5 million square feet. And while it is the largest blighted property in Detroit, Sygo said it’s nowhere near Michigan’s most hazardous toxic site. Not by a long shot.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency said its role is to ensure that hazardous waste is properly handled and removed to a licensed facility. The EPA did a cleanup of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) at the southern end of the property in 1996, and last year it removed seven drums of hazardous waste. Spokesman Josh Singer said the EPA didn’t find other hazardous waste, so it has nothing more to do with the Packard.
First step: Remove the current owner
City officials are counting on a tax foreclosure to return the building to public ownership, which they say is a major first step toward making a case for demolition money from the state or federal government or other sources.
Because Bioresource owes $747,663 in back taxes, Wayne County officials say they began foreclosure proceedings this fall on the 41 separate parcels that make up the plant. But the process could take nearly a year.
Yet even getting rid of the private owner won’t necessarily mean getting rid of the larger problem.
The federal and state governments typically award demolition or cleanup money when a developer is willing to rebuild a site, creating jobs and contributing to the tax base. But what developer would look at the property if it hasn’t been cleared and cleaned?
Further, the cost of razing the Packard far exceeds the value of the land itself — and the competition for grant funds to subsidize a demolition is stiff.
“To some extent, it is a Catch-22,” said Mark Morante, senior vice president of program administration for the Michigan Economic Development Corp., the state’s quasi-public economic development agency. “It is just a very challenged site. The cost of putting it back in use is so high — basically, it’s economically unfeasible.”
Morante said there is a need for shovel-ready sites in Detroit — his agency hears from manufacturers around the world looking for locations and said they would consider the city. But they need new factories to be operational within 15 months.
“They cannot go to the Packard site and meet that deadline,” Morante said. “It is a difficult issue, particularly when we’re trying to assist Detroit, Saginaw, Flint, Pontiac to reinvent themselves. There is a need for up-front money to get those kinds of things done.”
• NEXT STEPS: What’s next, as Wayne County set to foreclose on Packard Plant
• SOCIAL MEDIA: Instagram photos of the Packard Plant using #PackardPlant
If site is cleaned, will developers come?
Robin Boyle, professor and chairman of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at Wayne State University, said even if the city gets the property torn down and cleared, he is skeptical developers would be interested.
“In the real estate business, you need a certain number of variables clicking together,” Boyle explained. “You need demand, you need clean title, you need as clean a property as you can get, and you need an organization — public or private or both — that’s got the resources to do something with the land.
“All these stars need to align. None of these stars are going to align around the Packard Plant.”
“Because we have so much clean, available property that is better located, better suited, better served than what you have here at present,” Boyle said.
“There are far more attractive properties that could and will come on the market in the next five to 10 years. I don’t see anything happening here, even if it was cleaned, for a very long time. Now, that’s not to say that there couldn’t be alternative uses.”
Boyle said one such alternative use could be urban forestry.
Henderson, however, said she believes the city has to act even if a developer has not been identified. She said the city allowed Ford Auditorium to stand vacant for two decades before tearing it down.
“Once we said, ‘OK, we’re going to remove this blighted building, understanding the historic significance of it,’ we’ve had a number of businesses come forward and say, ‘OK, now what are you going to put there? Because I want to be a part of that.’ So sometimes, it takes us to show that we’re serious about it. It’s not a build-it-and-they-will-come kind of philosophy,” Henderson said.
She said she would like to have demolition on the Packard under way next year — and said she believes the cleared property could be attractive to developers. The city has few sites so large, and theproperty is near I-94 and a rail line.
“It is in a great location,” she said. And once a second bridge to Canada is built over the Detroit River, she sees an increased need for warehouse and distribution facilities. The site of the Packard Plant could be ideal.
“Very feasible,” she said.
• WHAT NEIGHBORS SAY: What Packard Plant’s neighbors want to see instead
• WHAT EXPERTS SAY: What development experts say about the Packard site
• WHO’S WHO: Those with a stake in Packard’s future
A vision of what could one day be
Dan Kinkead, an architect and urban planner with Hamilton Anderson Associates in Detroit who is involved in long-term planning for the Detroit Works Project, said the northern half of the Packard Plant could become an extension of the Mt. Elliott industrial corridor that runs from I-94 to 8 Mile.
“We think there is a tremendous opportunity to transform that part of the site into something that would accommodate new industrial development,” Kinkead said.
He said the Packard site south of East Grand Boulevard could be part of a redevelopment of that area, including new live-work spaces and greenways leading to the Detroit riverfront.
Henderson said the plant must go, not just because of what it is, where it is and what goes on there — but also because of what it continues to say about Detroit.
“Because it is such a strong symbol of the decline of the city, to remove it would say a lot about where our city is going — the revitalization and the rejuvenation that’s happening here,” Henderson said.
“I believe we’re going to get it down. I do. I think that there are enough forces at the table.”
What do you think about the Packard?
On Monday from 3-4 p.m., join Free Press columnist Nancy Kaffer and Free Press copy editor and author Dan Austin for a live chat on Twitter about the Packard plant. Participate by using the hashtag #packardplant.
On Tuesday from noon-1 p.m., join Packard project photographer Brian Kaufman and staff writer Jennifer Dixon for a live chat on Freep.com.
• FULL COVERAGE: Visit Freep.com/packard
Contact Jennifer Dixon: 313-223-4410 or email@example.com