The future of the Highland Park Ford Plant is in the past

The Highland Park Ford Plant would be 105 years old this year. Designed by Albert Kahn, it was the largest manufacturing plant in the world when it opened its doors. And it was the first automobile facility in the world to use Henry Ford's assembly line, which revolutionized manufacturing to what we know it today.

The historic -- and that's putting it lightly, considering its impact on the auto industry -- building is currently a vacant hulk in Highland Park's busiest commercial area, a prime example of the "ruin porn" with which urban explorers fill their Instagram feeds.

But not for long.

If the Woodward Avenue Action Association and the city of Highland Park have it their way, 2015 will be the year renovation kicks into gear at the abandoned plant. And the benefits of restoring such a building should trickle down and improve the neighborhood by association.

Giving an old building new life

Deborah Schutt, executive director of the Woodward Avenue Action Association, wants to transform the Highland Park Ford Plant into an automotive heritage welcome center that would focus on innovation, both past and present, in the automotive world and beyond.

It's a historically significant site, she says, considering the region's role in the auto industry, but it's been walled off from public access. She wants to change that within the next five years.

"We at the Woodward Avenue Action Association recognize the significance of what we have," she says. "Opening up that site to the public is establishing a huge heritage tourism destination for Detroit."

She doesn't want to tell the automakers' stories so much as talk about the innovation and creativity that is a part of the auto industry in the first place, and also how it affected other industries. For example, auto engineers from General Motors developed the first mechanical heart pump in 1952, and Ford Motor Company using its team of "Whiz Kids" - former WWII veterans who became executives - to coordinate its logistics and operational information.

"Everyone has a tie to the auto industry, yet we have very few things that have been packaged and put together to allow ourselves and our visitors to experience our stories," she says. "Where do you send people to learn about automotive history?"

Potential impact

The Highland Park Ford Plant has done plenty of decaying in the 40-odd years it's been shuttered, but the excitement is building in the neighborhood as activity starts to pick up, says Mark Hackshaw, chair of the Highland Park Tax Increment Finance Authority -- which he called a DDA on steroids. The authority has a 20 percent ownership interest in the plant alongside WA3 and represents the city's interest in the project. 

Those interests are looking to restore it without accruing any debt so it can sustain itself once it's open, which will also have a positive effect on the community. "The world is really excited about seeing this thing revitalized here," he says.

He says although the plant restoration has high visibility in its location on Woodward, it would still be important to renovate "if it were sitting in the back of the woods in the corner in the dark." Plus, that area of Highland Park has built up in the last few years, with a Tim Horton's coffee and donut shop, Checkers fast food restaurant, and other retail nearby.

"It's one of our most vibrant areas," Hackshaw says. "We get some retail in, and we're going to do really well."

Highland Park Community and Economic Development Director Louis Starks agrees: Especially because of the location on Woodward Avenue in the heart of Highland Park, he says the restoration would be a "catalytic project that would revitalize the city."

Other restoration projects have had positive effects on their own communities. In Milwaukee Junction, generally surrounding where I-94 and I-75 intersect, the Friends of Milwaukee Junction group was put together to preserve the infrastructure of the neighborhood and to help it look inviting to visitors.

It was formed in 2010 after the loss of the Studebaker plant due to fire. As Friends board president Dave Biskner says, "How do we keep this from happening again?"  

Milwaukee Junction includes such landmarks as the Piquette Plant, the Russell Industrial Center, and the Fisher Body Plant 21, which has been in the news recently as a potential new electronic music club. These are the buildings where the auto industry got started as an industry, even before the Highland Park Ford Plant. Later they were occupied by the suppliers that wanted to set up shop nearby, Biskner says.

Biskner points out that when buildings are fixed up, they're more likely to sell, attracting yet more people to the neighborhood. And a rehabbed industrial building sets an example that even though large buildings may take a lot of work to rehab, it's not an impossible task. "It sends a message that Milwaukee Junction is open for business," he says.

Biskner, a former Midtown resident who is part of a small development firm that does work in the city, feels the same improvements could happen in Highland Park -- if there's a coordinated effort. "It has a great anchor as a starting point," he says.

Amy Elliott Bragg*, board president of Preservation Detroit, advises not to overlook buildings such as vacant assembly plants. "Many of our industrial buildings provide great, one-of-a-kind reuse opportunities," she says. "Detroit's new Fowling Warehouse is in a former factory building, Galapagos (Art Space) is moving from Brooklyn into a former factory building in Detroit, the Berlin techno guys see the potential of our industrial heritage sites." (The aforementioned Fisher Body Plant 21.) "This is the stuff that makes Detroit so appealing to people from all over the world."

She adds that although many blighted properties -- including industrial buildings -- will be solved through demolition, "reuse is also a viable blight mitigation strategy." "These factories were built to last and many of them retain architectural features that still make them appealing to modern workforces, like loads of natural light," she says. "The Ford Highland Park Plant is really a site of global significance, and in the future it could be a place that people from all over the world come to see."

What's next?

The WA3 took ownership in April of the administrative building and the executive garage, which front Woodward Avenue, via a purchase agreement. Now, they're looking at a price tag of about $20 million for restoration and site improvements, hopefully partially covered by tax credits. Then will come the capital campaign.

Unfortunately, Hackshaw points out, $20 million these days isn't much when it comes to restoring a building that size, so they're looking to creative financing options. Hackshaw hopes that window restoration in the administration building can start by April through partnerships with local engineers to help them learn the process, and nonprofits that will train people how to restore windows and learn a new trade in the process. Such partnerships could cut the budget significantly.

They're also looking into the possibility of sponsorships for each window to help cover the cost of restoration. The upper floors will likely be leased to create revenue for the center itself. 

Schutt says that in addition to the historic restoration, the WA3 wants to use state-of-the-art upgrades, such as geothermal and solar power. And that becomes another chapter in the story of innovation told at the welcome center. "Our heritage isn't just about history, because what we're doing today will be history," Schutt says.

Hackshaw says support for the project has been "outstanding," from the federal government to neighborhood residents who recognize its historical impact. "Everybody is doing everything they can to put their resources together to make the project happen," he says. "This thing touches damn near everybody around here. Anyone's folks that came to Michigan from somewhere else had something to do with the auto industry.

"It's a piece of real history," he says. "And it's right here."

*Full disclosure: Amy Elliot Bragg is also the Content Director for Issue Media Group, Metromode's parent company.

Kristin Lukowski is a Detroit-based freelance writer.   All Photos by David Lewinski Photography

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