DETROIT – As urban ruins go, not much tops Detroit’s Packard plant, a sprawling corpse of steel and brick that hasn’t produced a car since 1956 and that became a haven for scrap thieves, arsonists and the homeless.
Where others see 40 acres of devastation, Fernando Palazuelo of Lima, Peru, sees charisma, architectural challenge — and a bargain. He paid $405,000 in a tax foreclosure sale to obtain the industrial wreck by year-end. He plans to make it a vibrant hub of automotive suppliers, offices, shops, lofts and maybe even a go-cart track in the city that filed the largest U.S. municipal bankruptcy.
“It’s the best opportunity in the whole world,” Palazuelo, a 58-year-old developer, said. He’ll use his experience restoring dozens of buildings in Lima and his home country, Spain, to begin a $350 million makeover in Detroit. He plans to live at the site.
“I am not a dreamer,” he said. “I will be very active at the Packard plant. It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be a war. It’s going to be quite aggressive the first months.”
Among Detroit’s more than 70,000 vacant buildings, the Packard plant stands out as an icon of the decline from an industrial juggernaut and the loss of one-fourth of the population since the turn of the century. Palazuelo said his fresh ideas will help Detroit “overcome its image of disaster, corruption and bankruptcy.”
He beat the deadline for the final payment to Wayne County, putting the remainder of $405,000 in an escrow account earlier this month. Pending an environmental assessment, Palazuelo will own the site and its 3.5 million square feet of buildings designed by architect Albert Kahn by Dec. 31. It would cap a tortuous attempt to unload the plant.
A county foreclosure auction in October drew a $6 million top bid from an Ennis, Texas, physician. That fell through, as did a $2 million offer by Chicago developer William Hults.
That left Palazuelo as the last, best hope.
The father of five with a passion for Ferrari sports cars is trying to secure state money to clean up pollution at the plant. He said he wants to rebuild, not demolish the place, which has been used in recent years as a warehouse, a movie set, a site for paintball games, a setting for rave parties and a photography backdrop.
The plant comprises several dozen buildings whose ruins create a postapocalyptic landscape of abandonment. They are obsolete for manufacturing and they’re breathtaking for their concentrated decay. Bordered by a freeway on one side and a neighborhood pocked with blight and vacant lots, it’s considered Detroit’s largest vacant property.
“There’s cosmetic destruction,” Palazuelo said. “The structure is intact. If you have a structure in good shape, the rest is very easy.” It could even be “a technology hub like Silicon Valley,” he said.
The cost of merely preparing such a large property is daunting, said George Jackson of Detroit Economic Growth Corp., a nonprofit that helps businesses.
“It’s a massive undertaking,” Jackson said. “I’m skeptical until I know what his bank account is. … But more power to him.”