Fisher Body Plant #21. Photo by Andrew Jameson.
Despite the date set for the end of production at Fisher Body Plant #21 in Detroit – April Fools Day, 1984 – General Motors executives were serious about moving Cadillac limousine production out of the plant and closing it for good. More than 30 years later, the empty remains of the plant still loom over a highly traveled Detroit interchange, a stark reminder of the estimated 900 vacant industrial buildings – many of them former auto factories or suppliers – that dot the city’s maps.
As highlighted in a report that the independent non-profit agency Detroit Future City released last week, not only do those buildings “undermine adjacent property values, isolate the surrounding communities both geographically and economically, and exacerbate poverty” but they’re also highly unlikely to return to industrial use.
“The city did recently land a new auto parts plant, but new manufacturing on a large scale will always use new development on clear land,” said Tom Goddeeris, the director of community development for Detroit Future City. “Old plants like these are truly obsolete for modern large scale industrial development.”
Yet while Detroit’s decaying auto factories may never turn out another car, the history they represent need not be lost as long as DFC can implement the ideas embedded in its report. The solution, according to Goddeeris and the DFC report, is to open the vacant industrial buildings to adaptive reuse – to turn the factories into large-scale hydroponics-based greenhouses, to lure artists with industrial chic, or to transform plants into small-scale production facilities.
“We want to encourage creative ways to think about reusing the factories,” Goddeeris said. “Things will happen bit by bit if we do.”
Of the nearly 900 buildings – a number pulled from a 2010 Detroit Industrial Parcel Survey and updated with circa-2014 Motor City Mapping data – about a third are more than 10,000 square feet in size, according to the DFC report. Many of those larger buildings, like the former AMC headquarters on Plymouth Road, the Continental Motors plant on East Jefferson Avenue, and the abovementioned Fisher Body Plant #21, housed Detroit’s various carmakers and date to the 1920s and earlier.
The former AMC headquarters on Plymouth Road. Google Street View image.
However, even the smaller buildings covered in the survey often housed companies that supplied the automakers or contracted with them for specialized tasks. Take, for instance, the Edmunds and Jones Corporation building on Buchanan Street, which turned out headlamps for the Ford Model T, or the Goddard and Goddard Company factory on Burt Road, which produced machine tools for Packard, Lincoln, and Marmon.
The challenge they pose, according to the report, lies in the decades of environmental contamination and the tangle of questionable ownership left in the wake of their abandonment. In addition, their scattered locations across the city often puts them close to or within residential neighborhoods “outside of Employment Districts identified as part of the development of the Strategic Framework.”
As Goddeeris put it, many of the factories – especially the smaller ones – date to an era when people simply walked down the block to work at the plant.
On the other hand, as DFC executive director Anika Goss-Foster told the Detroit Free Press, the smaller properties could prove easier and more manageable to rehabilitiate with quicker turnaround times and wider ranges of reuse opportunities.
Despite the challenges, redevelopment can still take place. The Henry Ford Heritage Association and the Model T Automotive Heritage Complex worked to save the Ford Piquette plant – where Henry Ford and his engineers designed the Model T – from demolishing; more recently, real estate developer Fernando Palazuela broke ground on his 15-year redevelopment of the Packard plant, until recently the most notorious example of Detroit’s industrial blight.
“I think a lot more people are encouraged by what he’s doing, though there are also others who are waiting to see if he can pull it off” Goddeeris said. “What we see, though, is that while the Packard was once seen as isolated, now it’s knit into a pattern of redevelopment, particularly as more greenways spring up around the city, and you can begin to imagine how things that were once isolated from one another begin to connect.”
Redeveloping the 900 buildings on the list will require more than just “wealthy developers with singular ideas,” Goddeeris said. While existing resources from Brownfield funding to tax-increment financing to grants through the Michigan Economic Development Corporation should provide sufficient backing for redevelopment projects, small-scale developers need better education about and access to those tools.
In the meantime, DFC plans to lure more creative thinking about reusing the properties by commissioning a study with a local architecture firm that prototypes treatments of various sites on the list. “We want to show what it’ll cost and identify typical obstacles that might benefit from policy changes,” Goddeeris said.
To read the full DFC report, visit DetroitFutureCity.com.