Arts and Culture

Redeveloping the Abandoned Packard Plant in Detroit

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By Kelly Lett

No city in America was hit harder by the economic collapse of ’08 than Detroit, MI. In 2013, it became the largest municipality to ever file for bankruptcy. Waving such a large white flag captured the eye of investors at home and around the world. As local boy done good, Dan Gilbert, began snapping up buildings downtown with an interest in only corporate tenants another Michigander quietly began working with Arte Express.

A European company with a fetish for taking on impossible historical restoration projects, Arte Express is own by Fernando Palazuelo. Mr. Palazuelo is best known for his giant development project in Lima, Peru that restored the city’s historic district and created 15,000 new jobs. When he heard about the bankruptcy in Detroit, his interest as a developer was peaked. In 2013, he purchased the old Packard Plant on Detroit’s east side for all of $400,000, that is nothing more than $.10 a square foot.
Confused by how stupid cheap that is? Go visit your Mom and sit through some HGTV with her for reference.

Fernando Palazuelo. Image:

After acquiring the 3.5 million square foot plant Mr. Palazuelo installed Kari Smith as the Director of Development. Born in Lansing, MI. Ms. Smith spent her time between the North and South growing up. Having been run out of New Orleans by a hurricane she settled back in Michigan, where she finished her education at the same time she began working with the city of Detroit. Ms. Smith started her career on the Historical Review and Planning Development board for the city. After helping restore parks and other buildings while fighting to catalog what is left of historic Detroit it made sense for her to take over the Packard Plant Development Project on the ground locally for Mr. Palazuelo.

I met with Ms. Smith in her office that sits overlooking the derelict old plant. Her clean, contemporary office a stark contrast to the missing roof and crumbling façade that is set to become Feranando Palazuelo’s personal capstone project.

Kari Smith as the Director of Development

The groundbreaking for the project was held in May of this year. Why the four-year wait? According to her they are doing things the European way, not the American way. With a focus on quality over quantity, making informed decisions before taking action, honoring the history that already exists and not looking at just the bottom line.

That all sounds nice. And vague.

Urban development of any kind is a touchy subject. Long term residents are often ignored and pushed out of neighborhoods as gentrification spreads coffee shops, craft beer bars and high rent homes across the land. So how does a person develop an old site without angering the already existing tenants?
You start with community meetings, then you implement the idea’s gathered in those meetings. Ms. Smith and her team have held two meetings so far and one of the biggest take-aways was the need for not just mixed income housing, but senior housing in particular and they are taking steps to meet those needs. Along with the senior housing accommodations there will be the familiar artist live/work spaces all new developments like to brag about.

Packard Plant 1954

Packard Plant 2009

And while Arte Express has purchased almost all the land surrounding the Packard Plant with the intention of turning old shipping containers into mixed income single family homes; what endears them most to long term East Siders is their focus on building profit for the Detroit community as much as they can. That commitment started with the hiring process, unless it is a unique skill that cannot be found in the city, every person currently working on the Packard Plant Development Project is a Detroiter. That matters. And the neighborhood has noticed. They have noticed that Ms. Smith is more than just false hope and unfulfilled promises and have responded with respect. There has been new graffiti since cleaning it up, no fires have been started at the plant and cars are not broken into.

I mentioned missing a favorite piece of graffiti that once waved at passing cars from the front of the building. Ms. Smith chuckled and agreed then informed me that they have had a team of graffiti specialists out to look over all the work on the site. Pieces done by well-known artists are being saved as are entire sections of stunning rogue artwork that will be placed in museums or kept in parts of the refurbished building.

A Bansky, at Packard Plant, Detroit MI

“We are not anti-graffiti, we would just like no graffiti placed on the Packard anymore.”
There really is a focus on what is best for growing the boulevard out first. Yes, there will be loud, trendy restaurants, kitschy little stores, offices, and fancy new condos, but in keeping with the do-it-right-the-first-time European model they are developing the business center first. With 70% of the space already leased to strictly Detroit owned and operated businesses they are showing a good faith display to both the mayor’s office and the people.

Final Assembly line at the Packard Plant 1940’s

In fact, unlike Downtown Detroit and the Cass Corridor, the Packard Plant will be marketed to truly independent business owners and artists. The hope is that by supporting local business suburbanites will be encouraged to move in to the city they claim on T-shirts and bumper stickers. Arte Express is a for-profit company after-all. The East Side is desolate and while they have been working hard to please the community, there needs to be more bodies to grow a financially thriving community.

Breaking ground

It’s going to be a long, slow road, final competition dates are 10-15 years out. Still the environmental clean-up of hundreds and thousands of yards of debris has begun, and thankfully the ground is nowhere near as toxic as first predicted. And the act of restoring the buildings to their original appearance while using green technology will be a unique challenge, but a worthwhile one.

“The Packard is iconic to a lot of people. It has a power to it, that I can’t explain.”

For more information on the project:

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