DETROIT – As urban ruins go, not much tops Detroits Packard plant, a sprawling corpse of steel and brick that hasnt 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-kart track in the city that filed the largest U.S. municipal bankruptcy.
Its the best opportunity in the whole world, Palazuelo, a 58-year-old developer, said in an interview in Detroit. He said hell 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. Its not going to be easy. Its going to be a war. Its going to be quite aggressive the first months.
Among Detroits 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 photography backdrop.
The plant comprises several dozen buildings whose ruins create a postapocalyptic landscape of abandonment. They are obsolete for manufacturing thanks to their multistoried design and theyre breathtaking for their concentrated decay. Bordered by a freeway on one side and a neighborhood pocked with blight and vacant lots, its considered Detroits largest vacant property.
Theres cosmetic destruction, he said. The structure is intact. If you have a structure in good shape, the rest is very easy.
The cost of even preparing such a large property for renovation raises questions about Palazuelos plans, said George Jackson, chief executive of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., a nonprofit that helps businesses.
Its a massive undertaking, Jackson said. Im skeptical until I know what his bank account is. No one would make an investment like that and not want to make money. But more power to him.
Converting the site for use by automotive suppliers is a long shot, but not impossible, said Gregory Burkart, leader of site selection and business-incentive services for New York-based Duff & Phelps Corp., a financial advisory and investment services company. The Packard plant is close to automotive assembly plants, freeways, rail lines and two border crossings to Canada, Burkart said.
The property should be used for new industry, according to Detroit Future City, a 50-year plan for Detroits redevelopment created by a nonprofit project. Cleared of dangerous buildings, the Packard site would be one of the largest vacant parcels for reuse in the city, according to an emailed statement by Dan Kinkead, the organizations director.
Palazuelo said hed never heard of the site, or Detroits mounting financial crisis, until he read about the citys record $18 billion bankruptcy filing July 18.
I thought Detroit was like the rest of the U.S., like Miami or Boston, a town without problems, he said. I realized Detroit could be a place to repeat one more time the model of Lima.
A Lima newspaper dubbed Palazuelo El conquistador del centro – the conqueror of downtown – for his work there.