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Finally, Detroit’s Packard Plant Has a Date with the Wrecking Ball
A judge has ordered Peruvian businessman Fernando Palazuelo and his company, Arte Express Detroit, to demolish what remains of the Packard plant and clear the land by June 29.All 40 parcels of land are facing foreclosure, but a city attorney tells Autoweek that Palazuelo paid about $100,000 to redeem six of the 40 parcels on March 31.Could the Detroit Three automakers join in the effort to clear the land and potentially repurpose it?It’s about time.Automotive historians, particularly those in the Detroit area, were probably saddened but not surprised when a local judge ordered the demolition of the Packard Motor Car assembly plant, which has been wasting away since car production ended there in 1954.On March 31, Wayne County Judge Brian Sullivan ordered Peruvian businessman Fernando Palazuelo and his local company, Arte Express Detroit, to clear in 90 days what took decades to build, followed by decades of suffering at the hands of scrappers, graffiti artists, ravers, apocalyptic movie crews, and tour guides. Slowly, Mother Nature has been reclaiming the land as her own. Odd that there’s now a deadline, largely because the good people at Detroit city hall—the plaintiff in this case—can’t stomach this eyesore any longer. The insistence on completing the job in three months is as ridiculous as the decades of tortured litigation over this property, who owns it, who’s willing to pay the back taxes, and whose demolition business is going to make a killing when the time comes. We spoke with Judge Sullivan’s office this week, where no one has heard from Palazuelo since the default judgment was issued with regard to the 40 parcels of Packard land that were headed to foreclosure. However, Chuck Raimi, acting corporation counsel for the city of Detroit, told us Palazuelo paid about $100,000 to redeem six of the 40 parcels on March 31, the day of the judge’s order.Of those six parcels, Raimi says five are vacant while the sixth has a building on it, facing the north side of East Grand Boulevard. This doesn’t mean Palazuelo has latitude to preserve this one decrepit building—Raimi says everything has to be demolished and the rubble cleared on all 40 parcels by June 29. There’s a more pressing deadline: Palazuelo and Arte Express Detroit have only until next week—April 21—to apply for necessary demolition permits, and the wrecking ball must start swinging no later than May 12. “All necessary abatement shall be completed within 90 days of this order,” the judge decreed. “Defendants are subject to contempt of court sanctions if they fail to comply with the terms of this judgment.”It’s easy to vilify Palazuelo for failing so miserably after buying the property in 2013 for $405,000 at a Wayne County tax foreclosure auction. A year later, I got to meet him at the Detroit Freep Film Festival, where he spoke on a panel after a riveting documentary (“Packard: The Last Shift”) about the plant and its demise was shown for the first time. The guy had charm and said all the right things about reviving the site, but skepticism also ran deep when he promised part of the property would be habitable within a year. If Palazuelo doesn’t take quick action, the city is authorized to “engage qualified contractors to perform all demolition and other necessary actions to abate the nuisance.” Oh, and Palazuelo will likely have to pay the city’s tab. Clearly, it’s to his advantage financially to hire the demolition crews himself. Even if Palazuelo hires Michigan’s five biggest demolition companies tomorrow, the job is too gargantuan to finish in 90 days. The surreal monstrosity covers several city blocks on Detroit’s east side. There aren’t enough gravel haulers in the state for the job, and how many landfills will be necessary to receive thousands of truckloads of crushed bricks, rebar, concrete, steel, and wood—most of it contaminated before the EPA even existed?As for me, a Packard owner, I’m bitter and ashamed this automotive shrine of sorts came to such an embarrassing and ignominious end. Beyond the magnificent cars, this place created good jobs for tens of thousands of people (including my grandfather) and built marine and fighter-plane motors during the war.The Packard plant helped take Detroit to its heights in the first half of the 2oth century, then led the way in hitting rock bottom in the second. The Packard plant is not unique as a symbol of abandonment in the city of Detroit. Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis (former Chrysler Corp.) owned lots of land previously dedicated to automotive development or manufacturing. The difference is, those companies are still around and can be held accountable.Today, some disgruntled neighbors living near Detroit Three operations might say otherwise, but there’s no denying Detroit’s automakers have invested billions in world-class facilities to support their respective businesses and employees. I’ve been hoping for years (perhaps unrealistically) that all three of them would join with the city of Detroit and—at the very least—help clear the land, then come up with a modest improvement plan to make it usable for small businesses, light industry, shops, and perhaps a coffee house to support the neighborhood that has suffered while the site attracts all manner of hooligans. Revenue coming in could be shared by the investing automakers and the city. This land would have a new purpose—honestly, it’s the sort of plans Palazuelo was discussing in 2014—and a historical pavilion dedicated to Packard would be a much better reminder than what exists today.Ford has the right idea with its renovation of the Michigan Central Station in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood. Like the Packard plant, it languished for decades and sections of it cannot be restored. But Bill Ford Jr. has led the way to save the building and repurpose it as an “Innovation District” for entrepreneurs and new technology, while bringing a youthful, vibrant energy to a tall, dark edifice.Granted, any plan to improve the Packard site would require a much deeper commitment, which is where the Detroit automakers could step in.It’s time to look forward.