A Spanish developer, a German techno maven and a group of out of town reporters walked into an abandoned industrial complex and told us to imagine we were standing in paradise.
Four years later, the abandoned buildings are still there, looking much the same.
The owner of Detroit’s iconic Packard Plant has put the 40 acre property on the market, in a story first reported by Crain’s. This ends years of feverish dreams of a massive redevelopment of the site — a concept breathlessly reported by the media as including techno clubs, race tracks, art galleries and aimed at nothing less than the cultural and economic revitalization of the east side of Detroit.
The Albert Kahn-designed Packard Plant will likely be subject to “sweeping demolitions” of most of the plant’s existing buildings, which means the redevelopment project is all but dead. COVID played a role in the timing of its demise, but most of the project, despite several highly misleading press reports, never really got underway.
Over the past four years, media from ABC to DJ Mag and Resident Advisor have covered the story of the out-of-town entrepreneurs that were going to bring music, culture and life itself back to the Packard Plant. A part of the sprawling complex, where luxury cars for the long defunct Packard Motor Car Company were built, was the site of legendary underground techno events in the 1990s, though bits and pieces of the huge 3.5 million square foot complex have been used at different times for warehousing and other work.
Mostly in ruins, the Packard Plant has been a photogenic symbol for people who want to tell stories about the “decline of Detroit” from its days as the industrial capital of America.
Yet despite those stories, the land underneath the Packard Plant itself has long been eyed by real estate developers. In urban areas, it’s relatively rare to find a contiguous plot of this size with vital access to interstate highways and rail connections. The Packard Plant has both. When the Packard Plant fell into property tax delinquency in the early 2010s — the previous owner, Dominic Cristini, fought eviction for years, sometimes barricading himself in the property with guns, before eventually being jailed for distribution of MDMA — several bids were offered ranging in the millions, though none of them were finalized. Instead, the entire property was purchased in late 2013 by a Spanish investor now based in Peru named Fernando Palazuelo through his holding company, Arte Express, for the slim sum of $405,000.
Palazuelo didn’t want to build a giant fulfillment center for Amazon or a supply chain hub on the site. Instead, Palazuelo entranced the public with talk of redeveloping the Packard Plant into a vast mixed-use facility hearkening back to Detroit’s heyday. His plan from the beginning included light industry space for auto parts suppliers, plus artist work spaces, a racing track for go-karts and residences for people, one of which he planned to be living in himself by April 2014.
“If I am successful and suppliers for the Big Three move into the Packard Plant, it could be a revolution for the east side,” he told Detroit media in November of 2013.
Remarkably, in 2017 DJ Mag even informed their readers that “Tresor’s new Detroit nightclub” was actually “under construction,” posting several photos of plants growing through the floor. “No news yet on the opening date,” they added.
By August of 2016, at least $3 million had been sunk into the project, part of it spent clearing contaminated debris and securing the property against metal scrappers. But construction hadn’t begun. Palazuelo (who had not moved into the property) told reporters that a private equity firm in Peru had fallen through in their agreement to provide $80 million in financing for what was branded the “Packard Plant Project,” which was now estimated to be a “10- to 15-year redevelopment” with a price tag between $350 and $500 million dollars.
Dimitri Hegemann entered the picture around this time. The white-haired founder of Berlin’s legendary Tresor nightclub was part of a group that fashioned themselves the “Detroit-Berlin Connection,” which initiated conversations on the vital connection between the two worldwide techno capitals. Reporters from the music press and mainstream outlets have been drawn to the story of the German techno impresario who praises Detroit’s Black techno pioneers and has his own vision of revitalizing Detroit, in his case with the music he loves.
Hegemann had previously been looking at the former Fisher Body Plant 21 as a site in Detroit which could host a nightclub and kick off a renaissance similar to what he watched take place in realtime on Tresor’s dancefloor after the reunification of Germany.
“I saw Berlin come out of the ruins, how this alternative culture brought people here,” Hegemann told the Guardian in 2014. “We are not stupid dreamers — we know how this works. And we know it can be done.”
By 2016, the Fisher project — which Hegemann had said would include “a 100-bed hostel, European-American restaurant and techno club” — had been eclipsed. Hegemann had been brought on board the Packard Plant Project as a consultant, and boosted their plans for opening a techno club on the site. A fresh round of press followed, much of it preserved on websites owned or controlled by Palazuelo (packardplantproject.com) and Hegemann (detroitberlin.de).
By October 2020, The Packard Plant Project’s owners owed nearly twice as much in taxes & fees as they originally paid for the entire property.
A year later — and almost four years after the Packard Plant had been purchased — Max Pearl struggled to assess just how much of the project was real. Discussion of a “pop-up restaurant, a hostel for international visitors and an art gallery” to be built over the next 10 to 15 years seemed totally unrealistic with a property “contaminated with arsenic and selenium from decades of dumping industrial waste.
“The place is full of asbestos,” Pearl added. “Many of the buildings are structurally sound, though some are collapsing.”
Few people seemed to read this article to its depressing conclusion, when after quizzing city officials and Hegemann, Pearl noted with amazement that “even after getting a rush of international press, I still couldn’t get a yes or no as to whether the partnership would move forward.”
Remarkably, in 2017 DJ Mag even informed their readers that “Tresor’s new Detroit nightclub” was actually “under construction.”
“The new venue, titled The Packard Plant Project, appears to be fully underway,” the article says, likely summarizing (and misreading) unattributed reports from the extensive coverage of Hegemann and Palazuelo’s activities.
“No news yet on the opening date for the venue,” DJ Mag added optimistically. They then published several pictures of the Packard Plant’s windowless walls with plants growing through the floor of the “new venue” as proof of construction.
Something on the property actually had moved forward, though it had nothing to do with “Tresor’s new Detroit nightclub.” In 2017, a ground-breaking ceremony was held for the first substantial construction on the grounds of the Packard Plant — a large administration building.
“I’m committed to the success of this project,” Palazuelo said at the groundbreaking. “I assure you, we will not fail.”
But since that last flurry of press and particularly since 2019, the Packard Plant Project has been the subject of mostly bad news — reports of tax delinquencies and construction constantly behind schedule, if not altogether stalled. Far from showing signs of improvement, the Packard Plant had continued to physically fall apart under the ownership of Arte Express. The site’s iconic pedestrian bridge built in 1939 and which spanned East Grand Boulevard was supposed to be renovated in August 2015 in a process that would take two years to complete. The bridge completely collapsed in 2019. Arte Express’s website for the Packard Plant Project still has an image of the now-collapsed bridge as its header.
Meanwhile, as of October of this year, Arte Express now owes nearly twice as much in delinquent taxes and water and sewage fees — $774,000 — as it originally paid for the property. Palazuelo “risks losing dozens of parcels next year to the same tax-foreclosure auction process by which he bought the dilapidated plant in 2013,” Crain’s reported:
“Property tax foreclosures are suspended this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, although he risks foreclosure next year on 39 parcels for $357,037 due and 45 parcels on $242,004 due, according to Mario Morrow, a spokesman for Wayne County Treasurer Eric Sabree. Another $174,682 is owed on 45 parcels and would be subject to foreclosure in 2022, Morrow said.”
Palazuelo told Crain’s he plans to pay the taxes and fines by the end of 2020 and also settle a judgment against Arte Express for unpaid rent for an abandoned (off-site) office space.
Several weeks later, however, Crain’s reported that Palazuelo has retained a company called Newmark to market the Packard Plant property to new customers. A senior director for Newmark, Larry Emmons, told Crain’s that “when we get customers, we will raze the structures” existing on the site.
“My job is only to find industrial tenants,” Emmons later told The Detroit News last week. “We’re not trying to do redevelopment of existing buildings for multi-family units or multi-use.”
Putting the land up for sale or lease and marking the site for demolition will finally bring the Packard Plant Project to a close. The one renovated building may also be demolished.
Putting the land up for sale or lease and marking the buildings for demolition surely brings the Packard Plant Project to an end. While the hype about a techno club was obviously a lure to generate more interest in the project, there is no evidence of wrongdoing aside from some late payments and back taxes that Arte Express has promised to pay.
It’s tempting to reference the Simpsons’ 1993 episode “Marge vs. the Monorail,” when a city becomes dazzled, swept away by a fast-talking out-of-town swindler with a beautiful song. That didn’t happen here. If anything, locals seemed far more skeptical than some credulous out-of-town observers. Pearl interviewed several members of the Detroit music community who had trouble believing there could be enough local support in the city to sustain a club like Tresor. The planners themselves frequently expressed frustration that Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan (who has been in office since just a few weeks after Arte Express purchased the Packard Plant) didn’t seem all that enthusiastic about the project from time to time either. Like other Detroiters, Duggan has likely seen many other plans to “transform Detroit” based upon slick PowerPoint slides and giant question marks around the funding.
But it’s easy to understand why some did get swept up in the Packard Plant Project hype. Much of it probably comes down to nostalgia for the site itself. The Packard Plant meant something to the old residents of the city, who remember the 40,000 people who earned a good living doing honest work there. It means something else to an electronic music community, too, both the locals and those who revere Detroit and everything about it.
This has been a decidedly unromantic demise for the Packard Plant Project, but being leveled to make room for fulfillment centers and logistics hubs is a horribly unromantic demise for the Packard Plant too. One can imagine that “Packard” will soon no longer refer to an object or a thing but a mere geographic designation, like Chicago’s “Pullman” neighborhood, preserved on a plaque and maybe an honorary street sign. Maybe in a cellar near the new structures they’ll play some music. That’s after all how it really starts, here and in Berlin too.