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Should the Packard Plant be saved?

The abandoned Packard Automobile Factory is emblematic of the financial stress of many minority Michigan communities.
Albert Duce
Wikimedia Commons

Wayne County officials say they soon hope to close a deal with a developer to buy a former car plant: the Packard Plant, a crumbling 35-acre site on Detroit's east side. It's become an iconic image that, to many, represents industrial decay and the decline of a once-proud Detroit.

The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press report the deal between the county and Evanston, Illinois based developer Bill Hults is tentatively set to close next week. Hults wants to convert the 110-year-old facility into a commercial, housing and entertainment complex.

Many hurdles remain for Hults, who hasn't disclosed his partners or completed a project of this size. 

Hults plans to buy the plant for its $1 million unpaid tax bill.

If the deal fails, the complex would be put in a public auction in September.

“I think what makes this building, this complex, and this site so unique is the amount of time that it’s been in neglect, the amount of time that it’s been in disuse,” said Anya Sirota, an assistant professor of Architecture at the University of Michigan. “The kind of iconographic image that it’s produced since it’s been out of use for over 50 years, it’s gotten a lot of people's imaginations going.”

Robin Boyle, a professor and chair of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at Wayne State University, believes that the plant cannot and should not be saved.

“In my opinion, this building is well beyond any form of savior and should in fact be demolished,” he said.

According to Boyle, buildings like this are examples of failure and they get in the way of the city moving forward.

Sirota disagrees, saying that while it is too late to preserve the Packard Plant by bringing it back to its earlier esteem, it could be conserved by reusing the site in a new way.

“There’s nothing shameful about Detroit’s failures, and that doesn’t mean that those failures need to remain as insecure, blighted sites in the contemporary moment. They can be rethought in a completely new, contemporary way, mixing new ideals.”

While they both have different ideas about what should happen to the plant, both of them are dubious about William Hults’ proposal to turn the plant into housing, restaurants, offices, shopping, and a hotel. The building is in such a state of neglect, a complex of that scale does not seem feasible.

“I think [the site] should be cleared, and I think it should be the responsibility of the government to do that,” said Boyle. “Time is now to clear this site and look for other options. . . . There are lots of other areas, lots of other great buildings that can be brought back to life.”

“I think Detroit’s responsibility now, and our collective responsibility, is to think about what to do with this site given that demolition is improbable and that the appropriation and the recuperation of this site for regular commercial use is also equally improbable,” said Sirota. “So I’m hoping that we’re not going to wait another 50 years for this site to just continue to deconstruct itself, but we’re going to be able to think of a way to secure it and render it a usable landscape.”

-Michelle Nelson, Michigan Radio Newsroom

Listen to the full interview above.

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