The Strange Saga Of Detroit's Packard Automotive Plant
When it opened in Detroit in 1903, the Packard Automotive Plant served as a symbol of the meteoric rise of the city's production economy. Now, it is representative of the city's plight.
Designed by the great American architect Albert Khan, the plant's 3.5 million square feet stretch over a 40-acre campus on Detroit's east side. It was once considered the most advanced automotive factory in existence, and after several years of expansion contained one of the longest assembly lines in the world.
Today, that same plant is a black eye on a beaten city that is $16 billion in debt and in the throes of the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. The Packard plant, once a testament to American industrial might, now sits slowly decaying on Concord Street near I-94. It functions as a sanctuary for graffiti artists, urban explorers, auto scrappers, criminals and scavengers.
After several false starts, a potential sale of the property at tax auction is in the works. Detroit residents are hoping for something better to rise up from the ashes, but the deal, much like the city as a whole, still has a long way to go.
The End Of An EraBy 1958, Packards had disappeared from America's roads and the plant was shut down. Around this time, the once bright future of the Motor City began to fade. Jobs and residents fled on newly constructed freeways for suburbia. Shops shut their doors. Large companies moved their business around the country and overseas.
Until the mid-1990s the plant was partially in use by other businesses, mainly for storage, until they, too, vacated. All the while, complete lack of care put the plant into a perpetual state of deterioration. Today, the hulking property is in shambles after years of neglect by numerous former owners. When enough back taxes piled up, the plant was put under the control of Wayne County, Mich.
Curious visitors have recently been beaten, carjacked and robbed at the Packard plant. The campus has become a grisly dumping ground for murder victims. Firefighters refuse to enter the dangerous ruins, allowing near-constant fires caused by illegal scrapping efforts to smolder unattended.
Controversial artThere have been innumerable interesting and eccentric stories that have involved the Packard plant over the years. A recent one involved the plant's iconic bridge and an artist's attempt at social commentary.
The famous bridge, built in 1919 to ferry parts from one side of the plant to the other, once read "Motor City Industrial Park." In August, an artist caused an outcry by posting "Arbeit Macht Frei" or "Work will make you free" on the bridge, referencing the infamous slogan that greeted all who passed through the gates of the concentration camp Auschwitz. Artist Penny Gaff was accused of anti-Semitism, though Gaff told Motor City Muckracker that the sign was meant as commentary on the 'economic genocide" of Detroit.
Auctioning the PlantWayne County has been desperate to get the plant off of its books, and has held several auctions with bizarre outcomes.
Before going to tax auction the county made several attempts to sell the plant, all of which fell through. The first auction, which was held in September of this year, drew zero bids. The site was listed for at least one million dollars, the total of the back taxes owed by the original holding company. Unable to break even on the property, the county then listed the plant at the knock down price of just $21,000 in October.
Longing to be rid of the huge complex, the county was delighted by the results of the auction, which took place October 8 to 25. The highest bidder was Jill Van Horn, a doctor living in Ennis, Texas. Van Horn won with a bid of $6 million dollars. But soon after, Deadline Detroit reported that an odd, rambling press release entitled "THE POSENTIAL [sic] ENERY IN DETROIT ASSETS" led many to believe she was a hoax. Sure enough, Van Horn did not produce the funds she claimed were backed by "...Investment Bankers, Hedge Fund Lenders, Private Investors, and several Foundations promised."
Next stepsWhen Van Horn, or whoever was behind her character, reneged on her offer, the plant was awarded to the second-highest bidder, a Chicago-area housing developer named William Hults. According to Crain's Detroit Business, Hults has until 3 pm on November 1 to come up with a non-refundable $100,000 deposit or lose his claim on the property. He also has to pay the $2.2 million dollar purchase price in full by November 4. Many are concerned Hults will also fail to come up with the cash, though, as he had already backed out of a $1 million dollar pre-auction deal to buy the plant.
Until the money exchanges hands, the future of the Packard plant will continue to hang in the balance. Detroiters, starving to move on, anxiously wait in the hope that the city can finally begin a new chapter with a transformation of the hapless property.