Packard Plant fires become big problem

Two women in their 50s rummaged through the sprawling Packard Plant for scorched wood to use for an art project.

They didn’t have to look far.

As the pair sifted through the debris Wednesday, a fire quietly burned inside one of the factory’s buildings, sending smoke into the sky. Not far away, a trio of thieves pulled metal from the plant and tossed it into a pickup truck.

It was another day at the Packard Plant, more than 40 acres of concrete, twisted metal and broken glass. Once home to the luxury Packard car, the factory has been virtually vacant since the late 1990s, becoming a stark symbol of the auto industry’s devastating descent.

If the Packard already weren’t a nuisance for the city, it has become a target for perpetual arsonists. Dark smoke regularly billows from the windowless labyrinth.

The timing of the fire bugs is terrible. Mayor Dave Bing cut the fire department by $23.5 million – or 13% – to avoid a state takeover of the city’s finances.

Firefighters are no longer stationed near the Packard. So when a blaze breaks out there, firefighters travel farther with less manpower and equipment. And since firefighters refuse to enter the dangerous building, arson investigators can’t probe the fires.

It’s an incredible drain on one of the country’s busiest fire departments.

“It’s insane,” a firefighter told me yesterday. “One of these days someone is going to die because we’re messing around with the Packard.”

So what’s the city to do? Not much, apparently.

Ownership of the Packard is disputed. One reported owner, Dominic Cristini, pledged in February to tear down the 3.5 million-square-foot factory. Never happened.

That didn’t stop the media from trumpeting the news, as if Cristini should be trusted. The barrage of attention has turned the Packard into a busy destination for urban explorers, photographers and graffiti artists. Thieves have taken notice, breaking into cars. Broken bits of glass – so ubiquitous it’s jokingly referred to as “hipster glitter” – litters the parking lot and adjacent streets.

“WARNING!” a 19-year-old wrote on Instagram, a photography app for smart phones. “I was recently at the Packard plant today parked in the old meat market parking lot where a man with a black truck picked my car and stole mine and my friend’s hidden stuff! We were keeping an eye on him and were gone no more than ten minutes. Black truck with red jet ski. Just be careful guys. I unfortunately found out the hard way.”

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.