Detroit announces redevelopment of long-vacant American Motors Corporation site

Gremlins in the Rearview

Detroit announces redevelopment of long-vacant American Motors Corporation site

The iconic but long-forsaken headquarters of the American Motors Corporation in Detroit. (Courtesy City of Detroit)

Earlier this month, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan announced that a blighted former industrial site site along Plymouth Road on the city’s northwest side that once played headquarters to the long-defunct American Motors Corporation (AMC) will be potentially redeveloped into a 728,000-square-foot employment hub. Project developer NorthPoint Development will work to secure a tenant for the proposed Class A industrial facility, which the city has said is suitable for a new automotive parts supplier and is expected to generate more than 300 permanent jobs once it becomes operational in late 2023 or early 2024. The city also noted in a press release that NorthPoint will seek out a tenant that has committed to preferencing Detroit residents in its hiring process in lieu of tapping out-of-town prospects.

If the estimated $66 million project is green-lit in early 2022 as anticipated following a slew of required approvals from various city agencies and the Detroit City Council, environmental remediation and demolition work would begin later next year.

Sitting forsaken since 2010, the roughly 2-million-square-foot erstwhile AMC complex, also known as the Plymouth Road Office Complex, has been dubbed as “another massive vacant eyesore” by the city and in 2020 was listed by Curbed as one of the 16 most ripe-for-redevelopment dormant buildings in Detroit. The site is anchored by a stately main administration building with an art deco tower that looms over Plymouth Road; tucked behind that is a sprawling three-story factory building that stretches northwards for blocks. The complex was designed by Amedeo Leoni and William E. Kapp for Detroit architectural firm Smith, Hinchman and Grylls (now SmithGroup) and completed in 1927 for pioneering home refrigerator manufacturer the Kelvinator Corporation.

In 1937, Kelvinator merged with Wisconsin-based Nash Motors and the building became headquarters to Nash-Kelvinator. Following a wartime stint as a helicopter assembly plant, the complex was expanded and converted from a hotbed of home appliance innovation into a major auto hub when Nash-Kelvinator merged with Hudson Motors to form AMC in 1954. During its mid-century heyday, AMC, which moved its corporate offices out of Detroit to Southfield in 1975, developed a slew of classic American vehicles at the Plymouth Road facility including the Jeep, Javelin, Matador, Rebel, and most (in)famously, the Gremlin and Pacer. Following AMC’s 1987 takeover by Chrysler, the facility was used an engineering center for Jeep and Dodge Trucks. Although Chrysler relocated the bulk of its research and design division to Auburn Hills in 1996, the plant remained in active use and wasn’t shuttered entirely until 2009, two years after the then-bankruptcy-plagued automaker first put the property up for sale. An unfortunate situation then ensued and the vacant building fell into an advanced state of decay and disrepair.

“One by one, we are taking down the massive vacant buildings that for too long have been a drain on our neighborhoods and our city’s image and putting something new in their place,” said Duggan in a statement. “We’re seeing that happen now at the former Cadillac Stamping Plant where Northpoint is building a new parts facility for Lear, we’re about to see them do it again here at the former AMC headquarters. I expect we will announcing plans for other such sites in the city very soon.”

While news of the historic building’s demolition hasn’t (yet) led to considerable pushback from preservationists, some have wondered if the building could perhaps be spared from the wrecking ball, restored, and incorporated into the redevelopment scheme. Wrote Amy Elliott Bragg for a commentary piece published by Crain’s Business Detroit:

“[…] Detroit has failed for decades to take a comprehensive, proactive approach to preservation that would protect sites like the AMC. Detroit has always had bigger problems to solve, or so the argument goes whenever the fate of a single historic building is weighed against other interests: job creation, economic opportunity, neighborhood revitalization — even though we have plenty of examples, in Detroit and abroad, of how historic preservation can accomplish all of these goals.

The AMC Building is worth saving as a time capsule of Detroit industry. It illustrates our manufacturing dominance beyond the motor, the rise of electric refrigeration, the Arsenal of Democracy and milestones in automotive history. It’s also architecturally striking, with an art deco-detailed central tower that is a neighborhood landmark.”

In a statement shared by The Detroit News, Duggan said that the building has been “so stripped down by past owners that nothing is salvageable.” However, he hinted that there will likely be some effort to commemorate the history of the site as part of the redevelopment.

The old, publicly-owned AMC site comprises just a chunk of the larger proposed 56-acre redevelopment zone abutting the Paveway neighborhood. As detailed by the city, its $5.9 million acquisition deal with NorthPoint also entails roughly 26 adjacent residential parcels owned by the Detroit Land Bank Authority as well as an 8.5-acre parcel to the west that was recently purchased by the Detroit Brownfield Redevelopment Authority. As mentioned by Duggan in his statement, this is the second major factory-razing redevelopment project for Missouri-headquartered NorthPoint in Detroit. In 2020, the city announced the NorthPoint-led transformation of the abandoned, Albert-Kahn designed Cadillac Stamping Plant originally built for Hudson Motors into a $48 million automative and manufacturing campus with auto supplier Lear Corp. as a main tenant. Demolition of that building began in June.

In addition to finding a tenant committed to hiring locally, NorthPoint has also pledged to embark on a series of green infrastructure projects on both sides of the redevelopment site to better manage stormwater and provide a natural buffer between the complex and nearby residential areas. Per the city, NorthPoint will also invest in enhancements at Mallett Playground, which is located immediately west of the AMC site, and a new greenspace beltline located between the east side of the development and Shirley Street.

Like Duggan, who has said that the redevelopment of the AMC campus marks a major effort to further “erase the ruin porn from the city’s landscape,” some area residents have deemed the iconic but increasingly decrepit building as an eyesore. In a statement, Pastor QuanTez Pressley of the Third New Hope Baptist Church on Plymouth Road said that “[…] this plant has come to represent the decline and disinvestment this community has endured for years.” He noted that news of the site’s redevelopment “signals to community residents and stakeholders alike that we have not been forgotten. We hope that this investment will spark other businesses and corporate partners to see the great potential this community has.”

AN will share further details as this major Detroit redevelopment project progresses.