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City of Detroit to take a stab at redeveloping former AMC headquarters

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Image courtesy Google Street View.

Plenty of moving parts have gone into the negotiations behind a massive land swap deal between Wayne County and the City of Detroit, but if everything works out, the city will soon take possession of the former American Motors headquarters on Plymouth Road with an eye toward redeveloping it.

While some county officials once considered of razing the facility, a plan that developer Dan Gilbert floated last year would potentially save the property, give the region a new jail, and clean up an abandoned downtown construction project.

The roots of the plan date back to 2013, when construction stopped on a $300 million jail center on Gratiot Avenue at Interstate 375 due to $91 million in cost overruns. The longer the construction site sat, the more of a headache it became for city officials, the more it cost the city, and the worse the existing jails nearby became. Gilbert, through his company Rock Ventures, proposed building a new $533 million jail complex on Warren Avenue at Interstate 75 for the county in exchange for the abandoned jail construction site and the existing jail buildings near the construction site. Gilbert, who previously considered building a Major League Soccer site on the Gratiot Avenue property, has since changed his plans to a mixed-use development.

Except the 13-acre site on which the new jail complex would sit is currently occupied by the Detroit Department of Transportation, using it as a bus depot. To get the site from the city, the county would in turn swap the former AMC headquarters to the city.

Back in October, Wayne County Executive Warren C. Evans and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan reached a tentative agreement to the AMC-DDOT land swap, which Duggan said would allow the city to redevelop the AMC headquarters “to improve the neighborhood. This is a win-win.” That agreement was contingent on a number of factors, including a finalized deal between the county and Rock Ventures and approvals from the Detroit City Council, the Wayne County Commission and the Wayne County Land Bank, the entity which currently controls the AMC headquarters site.

Approval from the Detroit City Council came in November and Evans announced a deal with Rock Ventures last week. Wayne County Land Bank spokesperson James Martinez said the county “likely will submit both the deal with Rock and the proposed land swap to the County Commission at the same time, if and when, a final deal is reached with Rock Ventures.”

Originally built in 1927 for appliance maker Kelvinator, the Plymouth Road facility became the headquarters for Nash following its merger with Kelvinator in 1937 and remained headquarters for Nash successor American Motors until 1975, when the company moved its headquarters to the American Center in Southfield, Michigan. Following the move, the Plymouth Road facility became the Jeep engineering offices, and it continued to accommodate Jeep and Dodge truck engineering after the 1987 purchase of AMC by Chrysler.

Chrysler, in turn, held on to the 54-acre property until its 2009 bankruptcy, when it was transferred to Old CarCo, a company tasked with selling surplus Chrysler properties. A local man, Terry Williams, bought the property for $2.3 million with plans to turn it into a home for autistic children, but later admitted to gutting it for scrap and went to jail for Clean Air Act violations related to the gutting of the building. The county then foreclosed on Williams in 2015 and put the former headquarters up for sale looking to reclaim the back taxes on it, but after having to void the sale instead transferred the property to the land bank.

The city had previously turned down an offer to take possession of the property, Martinez said last year. The city’s statement last October said it would likely market the property for private development.