A Tale Of Three Plants

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DETROIT - "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…"

Those are the opening lines from Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities". Perhaps it is an apt description of our area. There was a time when it was the capital of what was arguably the most important industry in America --the automotive industry. We showed the world how American capitalism and ingenuity could create wealth and innovation. The best of times.

And now, here we are. Detroit has filed for bankruptcy and Michigan is home to some of the most violent cities in the United States. The winter of despair.

We could look at three plants in our area to tell our story of the past, our present, and perhaps our future.

"Get the @#$% out of here!"

That was the message I received as I stood outside the Packard Automotive Plant taking pictures of the once proud building. Back in the day this massive 3.5 million square foot, Albert Kahn designed plant stood as one of the most modern manufacturing facilities in the world.

Now it's ravaged by looters & decorated by graffiti artists.

Those expletives were yelled at me from a passerby in the backseat of jalopy. I understood his sentiment.

He must have been afraid I was an out-of-towner regaling in Detroit's "ruin porn".

I admit to finding some beauty in the architecture and scale of sites like the Packard Plant & Michigan Central Station. I admire them the same way I would a Vincent van Gogh: Love to look, but never damage or take away.

There is still hope

Developer Bill Hults and a group of investors are working with Albert Kahn Associates (the architectural firm that built the complex) to renovate the site.The redevelopment project hopes to convert the space into a commercial, entertainment, and residential complex.

"Undoubtedly, the program will have big challenges merely due to the size, age and condition of the buildings," says Rick Dye, Director of Project Management at Albert Kahn Associates, "Reutilizing as many of the salvageable buildings for a new purpose is a challenge our team is excited to take on."

What about the doubt that inevitably crops up  when people hears plans like this?

"Similar negative things were said about many other notable renovation projects that have been successful here. If there is ever a good time for a redevelopment plan for the Packard Plant to succeed, now is the time," says Dye.

A bit north , you'll find a place long forgotten but perhaps more important in our state's automotive history: The Durant-Dort Carriage Co. "Factory One" plant in Flint. It is the birthplace of General Motors.

The plant was used in the late 1800's and the beginning of the 1900's by Billy Durant's Durant-Dort Carriage Company. The company was the largest producer of horse-drawn carriages in the country. The money Durant made, and the experience he gained, would lead to the creation of General Motors. The plant was eventually converted to produce automobiles and many of Durant's early decisions about the company were made right there on Water Street.

Today, the plant is falling apart. The cobblestone street it's on is missing brick, windows are smashed out, and people walk by without a passing thought that this place helped start a revolution.

It has potential though. The brick still looks beautiful and the Carriage Town district is trying to make a comeback.

General Motors still sees value

A purchase of the plant by GM has just been finalized.

"There is a group within GM meeting on a regular basis discussing possible uses," says General Motors spokesperson Tom Wickham, "The Carriage Wheel Room is large enough for vehicle displays and can host dinners and meetings. The facility could host product and technology events or could support GM dealership activities. We also have discussed having some historical displays so visitors can learn about what was done in the facility for the last 133 years."

Work has to be done on the plant before any of that could happen. The roof, walls, and foundation all need some work to support the weight of display vehicles. 

"We hope the facility becomes a destination place, potentially for researchers, students, families, GM dealerships, GM employees and the general public." adds Wickham.

Speaking of the birthplace of a revolution, the Ford Piquette Plant sets claim as the birthplace of the Model T. In a room on the third floor, you can see where Henry Ford and his team put together the first vehicle for the middle class.

This is the ideal story of what could be for the other two plants. Sitting quiet for years, there was a fear in the late 90's that the plant would be bulldozed. A non-profit named The Model T Automotive Heritage Complex was formed and purchased the building. It was renovated and has been a museum ever since.

If you travel there, you'll see history in the cars that fill the plant floor & the building itself. They kept a lot of the building as-is but updated it to be structurally sound. It's the perfect example of how to show off a part of our history without turning into something unrecognizable. It's as if the plant is frozen in time.

Three plants, three different times

The Packard Automotive Plant has an idea but will it happen? It's a grand plan! But haven't people in this area heard a lot of promises before? Yes, but perhaps the difference now is there is hope and that's just what this area needs right now. Plus, investors have retained the original architectural firm that designed the plant.

Factory One has been purchased and by the company that's roots started there. General Motors has the money, and the incentive, to turn it into something worth visiting again.

The Ford Piquette Plant is here. It's been in its current iteration for over a decade now and the future is bright.

The dichotomy set up in Dickens' opening passage might one day not be representative of our area. Perhaps these three plants show us we are heading towards neither a season of light nor dark but somewhere in between.

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