Detroit's derelict car plant hard to offload

It is the ultimate abandoned building in the city that has become America's unofficial capital of blight.

It is the ultimate abandoned building in the city that has become America's unofficial capital of blight.

For decades, the ruins of the Packard Motor Car plant - a collection of more than 40 crumbling buildings that make up a ghost town of graffiti and garbage and rubble - have been a symbol of Detroit's decay and a stubborn obstacle to the revitalisation of the surrounding east-side neighbourhoods.

Now with the city awaiting court approval of the biggest municipal bankruptcy in history, the decrepit plant, often referred to simply as the Packard, has somehow become a hot commodity for would-be developers from as far away as South America.

Or has it? In a public auction process that has lasted months, six investment groups have bid to buy the 16-hectare Packard site out of foreclosure. The two highest bidders have dropped out for lack of money. Now the prospects for an eventual sale are murky at best. The rebuilding of Detroit has started slowly, with corporate interests buying up vacant buildings downtown at bargain prices.

Yet it is unclear whether dilapidated structures like the Packard can ever be part of its comeback.

The plant is among 19,000 foreclosed properties put up for auction by Wayne County, which includes Detroit and several smaller cities and suburbs. On some residential streets, dozens of burnt-out homes and empty lots were for sale for as little as $US1000 ($1080) apiece.

The last Packard automobile was built there in the 1950s. Since then, small businesses have come and gone at the site, but mostly the plant has been a haven for urban explorers, scavengers and people dumping trash. Its previous owner went to prison for dealing drugs from an abandoned school nearby.

The plant's cavernous, post-apocalyptic interiors are known around the world, having been featured in movies, music videos, news reports and thousands of YouTube segments. Over the years it has become a scarred monument to Detroit's heyday as the Motor City, and a reminder of its sad decline.

"It's a beacon of destruction that people seem drawn to," said Robin Boyle, a professor of urban studies at Wayne State University in Detroit.

"It's a bit like going to a museum and you can't take your eyes off this one piece."

"It's just a devastating situation," said Toni McIlwain, a community organiser in the area. "People are always asking when this blight will turn into something useful."

But useful does not necessarily mean feasible. A developer from Illinois, William Hults, began negotiating this year to buy the plant for about $US1 million - the amount of unpaid taxes that had accrued.

Mr Hults envisioned restoring parts of the factory and transforming it into a complex of residential units, shops, restaurants and a hotel. But when he was unable to come up with the money after missing numerous deadlines, the Packard went on the county auction rolls in September. The auction has since become a spectacle in a city weary of bad news.

The highest bidder was a Texas doctor, Jill Van Horn, who inexplicably offered $US6 million for the property and said she wanted to manufacture modular homes there.

When she was unable to put down a 10 per cent deposit, the county turned back to Mr Hults, who had submitted a $US2 million bid. Mr Hults made a deposit of $US200,000, but failed to raise the rest of the cash. He has since turned his attention to rehabilitating an old automotive stamping plant on the east side.

The county has moved on to the next highest bidder, Fernando Palazuelo, a Spanish-born developer who has a record of restoring historical buildings in Peru.

On Wednesday, Mr Palazuelo gave the county a $US40,000 deposit on his $US405,000 bid and has until December 18 to submit the balance.

He declined to divulge his plans for the Packard, but said he was travelling to Detroit next week for meetings on the project.

The price tag to rebuild the Packard would be huge. Mr Hults estimated the cost of his long-term plan at more than $US300 million.

Mr Boyle said developers believing they could save the Packard were "dreamers," and he bemoaned the attention being paid to the plant that could go toward other, more promising sections of the city.

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