By COREY WILLIAMS – Associated Press
DETROIT (AP) — One of the first things Mahalie Wilson, 84, sees when she steps out of her home on Detroit’s east side is the brick, steel and concrete skeleton of the long-vacant Packard plant that hangs over the neighborhood.
Built in the early 1900s and still churning out high-end cars into the 1950s, the sprawling complex that was once one of the city’s industrial gems is now one of the country’s prime examples of urban blight. – an inescapable reminder of Detroit’s better days.
“I get by,” Wilson, who has lived within screaming distance of the factory since 1969, said recently, behind his security gate. ” I got used to it. I pay no attention to it.”
Detroit has aggressively tackled its scourge problem since emerge from the largest municipal bankruptcy in the history of the United States eight years ago, and shaved over 20,000 abandoned houses at that time. That work is ongoing, but it’s been largely covered by federal funding, and the city still has to figure out how to pay for the much more expensive demolition or find developers to reuse dozens of abandoned or aging apartment buildings, factories. and other massive horrors.
The problem isn’t unique to Detroit — Baltimore, Milwaukee and Dayton, Ohio are among many cities looking to get rid of old structures. But it might be more pronounced in Detroit because of its relatively rapid decline during the decades of white flight, when middle-class white families left for the suburbs and beyond, and the city lost more than half of its inhabitants.
Like the Packard factory, many Detroit factories were located near workers’ homes. As buildings faded and decayed, so did Wilson’s neighborhood and others across the city.
“To me, it’s absolutely clear – older industrial sites have closed due to white flight,” said Andre Perry, a fellow in the metropolitan policy program at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
“In many cases, black people have moved in due to falling property values, hoping that some development will come along,” he added. “When development dollars are needed to go into black spaces, it’s hard to come by.”
If Mayor Mike Duggan is successful, parts of the 3.5 million square foot, 40 acre Packard factory complex will be demolished by the end of the year. Other parts will be refurbished. It is one of 100 major structures the city has identified for demolition or renovation.
“It’s emblematic of the industry challenges we face,” said Antoine Bryant, Detroit’s director of planning and development. The easiest solution would be to demolish, he said, but “how can we add to the city instead of just taking it out?”
Bryant outlined a $134 million plan to redevelop the six-story former Fisher Body 21 auto plant into more than 400 apartments and retail space.
Jason Hackworth, a professor in the Department of Geography and Planning at the University of Toronto, is skeptical of any plans to preserve what remains of the Packard factory and believes the fate of Fisher Body 21 will be the wrecking ball.
“The Packard probably should have been torn down decades ago,” he said.
“I don’t know of any other city that has as many abandoned industrial and commercial facilities as Detroit. …Certainly nothing that I know of the size of the Packard plant in any other city,” Hackworth added. “The developers don’t have the money to build it up or tear it down.”
In 2013, Peruvian developer Fernando Palazuelo bought the property for $405,000 at a tax foreclosure auction. His plans to restore and reopen with apartments and shops never materialized. The future of the factory is now in the hands of the city.
Palazuelo “has done next to nothing since he bought it out in 2013 other than amassing more than $1 million in unpaid drainage bills, property taxes and traffic tickets,” said Chuck Raimi, l acting city attorney.
“The city fully intends to rid the community of this huge devastated complex once and for all,” Raimi continued. “For its part, the city has already demolished more than 100,000 square feet of the parts of the plant it owns and will demolish the remaining parts it does not plan to keep for redevelopment later this year.”
The Associated Press could not reach Palazuelo for comment.
Still, the Packard factory isn’t Detroit’s best-known ruin. That title once belonged to Michigan’s nearly 20-story Central Station in the Corktown neighborhood. Ford Motor Co. bought the building several years ago and is converting it and the properties around the station into a future pole of mobility and innovation.
Dayton plans to demolish a 129-year-old building that was for a short time the Wright Brothers’ first bicycle shop.
“This is a dangerous building and the front facade is starting to separate from the building and presents a hazard to pedestrians and motor vehicles,” said Todd Kinskey, director of Dayton’s Planning, Neighborhoods & Development department. “Several engineering studies recommend demolition and no developer has been willing to proceed with redevelopment.”
In 2016, officials in Maryland and Baltimore announced a plan worth more than $93 million to demolish degraded structures and rehabilitate others.
In the East Baltimore neighborhood, which is about 70% black, efforts to redevelop two large run-down sites have proven successful in recent years.
Yard 56, which includes shops, offices and lofts, was developed on the site of a porcelain and ceramics factory built in 1911 and abandoned in 2006.
An old lithography factory has also found new life.
“It was in an economically depressed area…and vacant for many years,” said Colin Tarbert, president and CEO of the Baltimore Development Corp. Now it is reopened and with a number of new businesses, as well as non-profit organizations and a construction training center housed there.
Whether demolished or redeveloped, the plan for these buildings should elevate the black communities where they sit, said Perry of the Brookings Institution.
“It takes a city effort to attract and recruit developers to redesign sites in the image the community wants,” he said. “City and neighborhood leaders need to use every possible lever to say that black people and black communities matter. And, by the way, you will get your return. If you just add water, it will grow.
Some, like Crystal Glass, just wonder why it’s taking so long.
Glass opened its social club in 2009 in the shadow of the Packard factory in Detroit. She doesn’t know if remodeling or shaving will help her business.
“I would just like to see something, anything else,” Glass said.
Williams is a member of AP’s Race and Ethnicity team.
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