Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 August 2019

No longer a failure, Detroit finds its feet

An industrial heartland once dismissed as an economic basket case is alive and kicking, reports Arthur MacMillan

The Packard Building in Detroit. Arthur MacMillan / The National
The Packard Building in Detroit. Arthur MacMillan / The National

The Packard Plant is a freakish landmark synonymous with a city that not long ago was a byword for American urban decline. The crumbling factory brutally symbolised Detroit’s journey from industrial postwar economic boom to a place that people desperately wanted to escape.

So big were the losses and so bad the prospects that residents would simply pack up and leave their homes behind.

Now the ignominy – Detroit was forced into bankruptcy in 2013 – is over. Even one of the city’s biggest and most scarred symbols of a bygone age seems set for a makeover.

Cars were last made at Packard in 1956, but the plant enjoys cult status. There are no windows and few doors, but most of its buildings, linked across more than 40 acres of land, are somehow still standing.

As the site fell into neglect in the 1990s the speed of decay quickened after a final few businesses departed. This allowed an eclectic mix of graffiti artists, vandals, scavengers and arsonists to sporadically invade Packard’s cavernous spaces, often stealing or destroying what was left of value.

No more.

In the past two years, a Peruvian developer has spent more than $5 million (Dh18.36m) – 12.5 times what he paid for the property – clearing the worst of the wreckage. The first of 10 development zones – the former administration building – is earmarked for renting as offices and retail space.

The building is no longer a haunt for the intrigued: security guards zealously patrol around the clock and the only tours are commercially arranged.

Underlining the fragility of Packard’s planned restoration, however, was the collapse on Wednesday of a bridge that links two of its buildings.

The rest of the 1903 Albert Kahn-designed plant, made with reinforced concrete, has stayed upright.

“The concrete work needed on the roof has started and we have quotes for windows,” said Yvette van der Velde, a spokeswoman for Arte Express, the developer. The forecast opening date is 2020.

This entire project is likely to take decades and hundreds of millions of dollars to complete, so big is the space.

In the bleak days of midwinter – an unusually deep freeze and subsequent thaw probably hastened the bridge’s collapse – it is difficult to see how the

potential financial rewards could outweigh the risks.

The area, several kilometres outside the city itself, remains scarred by the blight of recent decades. Nearby roads are lined with dozens of abandoned homes, their structures withering away a little more each day.

“You could probably get it for $1,500,” one resident says of a four-bedroom home, lacking part of its roof. Such properties are mostly owned by local land banks who have put conditions on sales – notably the requirement for owner occupancy – to avoid unfettered speculation.

Resilient homeowners stayed. I-94, a major motorway next to Packard, may be the artery that supplies some commercial hope for the venture.

The Packard Connecting Bridge in Detroit. Arthur MacMillan / The National
The Packard Connecting Bridge in Detroit. Arthur MacMillan / The National

“The initial thought is that there is not much around here, but the highway makes it easy for access and it’ll be cheaper than the central business district,” said Jeffrey Horner, senior lecturer in Urban Studies and Planning at Wayne State University, in Midtown, the cultural centre of Detroit.

He has lived in the city since he was four years old, and once sceptical about the chances of the Packard site recovering, is enthused by the bounce he is seeing in many neighbourhoods and partly credits this to Dan Gilbert, a native Detroiter and owner of Quicken Loans.

Mr Gilbert moved the mortgage company’s headquarters to Detroit in 2010 before the worst times arrived. His property company Bedrock has invested about $5.6 billion in the downtown area. With about 17,000 staff members, his companies are the biggest private employers and taxpayers in the city.

“For a lot of places in Detroit there was nowhere to go but up. He kind of created his own real estate market,” Mr Horner said.

The city skyline tells that story. Some of downtown’s tallest skyscrapers, such as Chase Tower and the First National Building, belong to Mr Gilbert. While old streets are named after cars, the city’s Q-Line – tram-like light trains – are named after Quicken Loans.

From a place that could not fund basic services such as water, education and policing, the scale of Detroit’s recovery now means rising rents are fast becoming an issue.

As the city left bankruptcy behind in 2014 and federal oversight ended, banks, high-end retail and a younger array of hip artists and millennial workers entered downtown. With a younger demographic to be serviced, hotels, bars, restaurants and shops continue to open up.

And, as in any resurgence, there are winners and losers.

The Packard Building in Detroit. Arthur MacMillan / The National
The Packard Building in Detroit. Arthur MacMillan / The National

One key measure – the Gini coefficient of home affordability – last year showed Detroit had the biggest gap between its cheapest and most expensive houses.

While that can be good for buying a home cheaply, it is also a remnant of historically racist housing practices that disadvantaged African-Americans. In traditionally black Detroit neighbourhoods, prices remain cheaper than in white ones, despite racist policies being outlawed by the Fair Housing Act in 1968.

That was one year after the 12th Street riot, when Detroit police clashed with black residents, leaving 43 people dead in what is widely regarded as the worst incident in America’s summer of civil discontent.

With more white renters in downtown Detroit than in past decades the financial gap in housing is not considered a mere statistical anomaly, but also a geographical one.

Starting in central Detroit and stretching for kilometres towards the once-thriving ­Highland Park, where Henry Ford’s workers assembled his first successful car – the Model T – is Woodward Avenue.

It is the decline of such areas, heralded by motor factory closures, that brought about the depopulation and declining tax base that sent Detroit on the path to financial oblivion at the turn of the century.

The latest data put Detroit’s population at about 700,000, indicating that the numbers have hit the bottom, according to Mr Horner, who is among many citizens who believe the reliance on car production both made and broke the city.

In November last year General Motors announced that it would shut another local plant.

The Packard Building in Detroit. Arthur MacMillan / The National
The Packard Building in Detroit. Arthur MacMillan / The National

The future more likely rests with recently arrived residents and whether they stick around. That may be dependent on how good local schooling can be. “We have a lot of young people coming in. Not a lot of families,” Mr Horner says, citing education as a major challenge.

The past is never far away in Detroit. Buildings tied to car production abound. The General Motors Corporation Laboratory is one of the lucky ones. Now home to the State of Michigan, its granite towers stand tall in contrast with numerous houses or former commercial premises abandoned long ago.

They say we're needed to prevent vandalism. But there's nothing to vandalise

Gracie Wallis

One such structure is the dilapidated University Motel. Unused since the 1970s, its signage somehow remains, promising customers rooms, movies and food.

Like the Packard buildings, it is adjacent to the I-94 and also recently gained a security presence, on the orders of a developer who snapped up the site.

But with nothing noticeable of value to steal – a few books line the window of guest room 12 while the reception area’s unbroken window is its biggest asset – the risk of loss seems negligible.

Gracie Wallis, 63, one of three security guards, is happy for the work. “They say we’re needed to prevent vandalism. But there’s nothing to vandalise,” she said. “It’s one of my easiest jobs. Nothing ever happens.”

Updated: January 24, 2019 09:28 PM