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Detroit’s deal Last night, the Detroit City Council voted to approve a consent agreement with the state to avoid takeover by an emergency manager. That means, as long as the governor signs the deal as expected and the courts don’t strike the deal down, Detroit finally has the first step in a plan to avoid bankruptcy. Partner station Michigan Radio reports on what it all means.

Chicago’s debt problem The Chicago Sun-Times went looking for reasons why Chicago would turn to private partnerships to fund its new multi-billion dollar plan to rebuild infrastructure. One major reason: the city’s staggering debt. Chicago can’t take out any more bonds to pay for improvements because the city spends almost 23 percent of its annual budget paying off the $7.3 billion in debt it already has.

Illinois’ turn Illinois is getting into the fracking game. Crain’s Chicago Business says the state could see a natural gas-drilling “boomlet” as companies explore southern Illinois for possible drilling.

Bulldozing blitz Partner station WCPN Ideastream had a story on NPR’s Morning Edition today that looks at the effort to tear down vacant houses in Ohio. The state set aside $75 million from its share of the $25 billion nationwide mortgage fraud settlement to pay for demolitions.

No more coal ash The Ludington Daily News reports the city’s historic car ferry has received a grant to convert its fuel source. Without the grant, the coal powered ferry would have been forced to shut down by the EPA. The historic vessel dumps about 500 tons of coal ash into Lake Michigan every year.

#goodnewsforDetroit Twitter says it will open a new office in Detroit. Michigan Radio’s Jennifer Guerra reported the news in tweet form. You have to hear it.

On Monday, there will be word on the new members of a growing collection across the Midwest: vacant churches. The Archdiocese of Detroit is expected to officially announce which parishes will close or be combined with others across a six-county region, and the Detroit News says that could result in 39 fewer churches.

Hobbs & Black Architects are in this Ann Arbor, Mich. church

Vacant churches dot our cities — not just Detroit, in but Cleveland and Chicago, as well. But, like other empty places that we’ve reported on in the Midwest, some are being put to new uses.

One longstanding example is in Ann Arbor, where Hobbs & Black Architects have their offices in the former First Unitarian Church. The imposing stone building at 100 N. State Street was built in 1885, and was used as a church until 1975. Hobbs & Black bought it in 1985, and gave it a painstaking restoration, including a soaring Tiffany glass window.

We’d like to know about other churches in our region that are being put to new use. Please let us know about the ones in your city. And if there are churches sitting vacant, we’d like to hear about those, too.

Tell us how church buildings are coming back to life.

Employees crowded around, took photos and cheered as the last Ford Ranger pickup truck rolled off the assembly line Friday in St. Paul,  Minn.

At least one worker was bewildered by the reaction.

Photo by Slobodan Stojkovic via Flickr.

“I could not understand why there were cheering for the last vehicle,” Mike Montie, who worked at the Twin Cities Assembly Plant for 28 years, told the Associated Press. “You cheer for the first one, not the last one. I was like, ‘What the hell?’ I didn’t want it to end, you know?”

He was one of 800 employees who lost their jobs when the Twin Cities Assembly Plant closed Friday. The plant, located along the banks of the Mississippi River, has produced more than 6 million cars during an 86-year history. But sales of the Ranger have slackened since the 1990s, and Ford decided to concentrate on larger, more profitable pickups.

A multimillion dollar cleanup of the 122-acre site will begin early next year.

Local officials are hopeful the site can be repurposed. According to the St. Paul Star Tribune, locals are considering a lot of possibilities, including a green manufacturing complex, a densely populated transit village, a park, an office campus and a middle-class neighborhood.

A study conducted by the Center for Automotive Research released last week showed that nearly 49 percent of the 263 auto plants that have closed over the past three decades have found a new purpose. The study from the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based research center also noted the rate of repurposing has accelerated in the past three years.

“It’s a premier piece of land,” Cecile Bedor, the city’s planning director, tells the newspaper. “There’s  nothing like it anywhere in the region. It is an incredible opportunity for the city, but it does come on the heels of devastating news for many families.”

Of the 263 automotive plants closed across the country over the past three decades, nearly 49 percent have been repurposed, according to a Labor Department study released Thursday.

And the pace of redeveloping them has accelerated.

The New York Times reported today that, despite the fragile economy, developers have bought as many closed plants in the past three years – 32– as they did in the previous 26 years. Lower property values and a glut of plants on the market have contributed to the trend.

The repurposed plants have welcomed traditional manufacturers, and some of have been turned into housing developments, offices and research centers which has helped affected communities rediscover needed tax revenues, according to the study, which was authored by Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Center for Automotive Research.

Regional differences influenced the fate of plants following their closures. Sites in the South and along the East and West coasts fared the best in finding new users, according to The Times, which said all 14 former plants closed in California and Texas were reused. In Michigan, the state hardest hit by closures, 43 of 105 have been revitalized.

Overall, 135 of the 263 remain vacant, including 24 that have been closed for at least two decades.

“They’re not all going to repurposed,” Jay Williams, executive director of the Office of Recovery for Auto Communities and Workers, tells the newspaper. “Not every community is going to find a pot of gold at the end of this pathway.”

Changing Gears recently reported on Empty Places throughout our region — buildings, vacant lots, corporate campuses — and what people were doing to deal with these spaces.

Lee Bey, a blogger at our partner station WBEZ, posed a question about what happens to Chicago Public School buildings when they’re slated to be closed, especially when those buildings are architectural gems. (Bey was featured in my empty places story about a former meatpacking plant on the edge of the old Stockyards.)

Bey is speaking in particular about Walter Dyett High School on W. 51st Street. and Crane Technical Prep High School, at Jackson and Oakley on the city’s near West side, which Bey describes as an “exceptional piece of Greek Revival architecture that’s in fine physical condition.”

But he’s even more effusive about Dyett, designed by Mies van der Rohe protege David Haid. You may know Haid for the auto pavilion he designed that was featured in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – the one where Cameron’s dad’s Ferrari was parked.

Bey’s full post is here.  And for your viewing pleasure, I present you that infamous scene from the movie:


All across the Midwest, cities and suburbs are tackling the problem of Empty Places. Throughout November, Changing Gears took a look at some of the challenges and solutions involved in transforming property from the past.

In Flint, Mich., Kate Davidson found there may be no better example of how the industrial Midwest is changing than the site of the old Fisher Body Plant No. 1.  It’s one of the factories that was occupied by sit-down strikers in the 1930s.  The plant made tanks during World War II.  It was later closed, gutted and reborn as a GM design center.  But GM abandoned the site after bankruptcy and the new occupants don’t make cars.  They sell very expensive prescription drugs.

In suburban Chicago, Tony Arnold reported that  as companies adjust to economic conditions, many in the region have been re-evaluating the basics – including where they’re located. Cities and states bend over backwards to create jobs, and they’re left with some big challenges when a company decides it no longer wants its headquarters there.

For many people, the most threatening emptiness isn’t a shuttered factory.  It’s the abandoned property next door.  But in Detroit, some residents are using that emptiness to quietly reshape their neighborhoods.  They’re annexing vacant lots around them, buying them when they can or just putting up a fence. They’re not squatters, says Davidson, they’re blotters.

Baby tilapia growing in the basement of The Plant, an urban farm inside a former meatpacking plant on Chicago's South Side. (Niala Boodhoo)

There are vacant factories all over the Midwest. But where some people see blight, others see opportunity. One example: a former Chicago meatpacking plant has been transformed into a vertical farm, as Niala Boodhoo discovered.

Barry Van Dyke and his two siblings told us their story of turning Jack’s Liquor Store in Grand Rapids, Mich., into a brewery. As he said to Sarah Alvarez, “Over the last three or four years there has been a huge boom of people re-occupying buildings and putting work into them. It’s great to be a part of that in Grand Rapids. I think the general public sees that, and they are just bending over backwards to be supportive.”

But there’s plenty more work to  be done across the Midwest. In fact, there are 3,000 empty buildings alone in Northwest Indiana. Take a look at the work that’s going on there.

Any thoughts on our Empty Places series? Let us know if you’re working to transform an abandoned place in our region.




Kate Davidson

Workers at Diplomat Specialty Pharmacy prepare custom prescriptions

FLINT — There may be no better example of how the industrial Midwest is changing than the site of the old Fisher Body Plant No. 1 in Flint, Michigan.  It’s one of the factories sit-down strikers occupied in the 1930s.  The plant made tanks during World War II.  It was later closed, gutted and reborn as a GM design center.  But GM abandoned the site after bankruptcy and the new occupants don’t make cars.  They sell very expensive prescription drugs.

There’s one group of experts who can always tell you the history and significance of an old factory.  They’re the guys at the bar across the street.

Dan Wright is still a regular at The Caboose Lounge.  He worked at Fisher Body No. 1 briefly in the 1970s.

“The bars were always full and restaurants were always full and stores were always full,” he says.  “And all these stores, bars and restaurants you go to now, there’s nobody there.  And it’s sad that Flint died the way it did.”

Now Michigan’s governor says there’s a financial emergency in Flint, the once prosperous birthplace of GM.  In fact, seven thousand people worked at Fisher Body No. 1 when workers sat down in late 1936, demanding recognition for the United Auto Workers.

Courtesy of Walter P. Reuther Library/Wayne State University

Strikers at Fisher Plant No. 1 wanted recognition for the nascent UAW

Courtesy of Walter P. Reuther Library/Wayne State University

Crowds gather in support of the sit-down strikers at Fisher Body Plant No. 1

“We’re actually standing in the area, very close right now, where the 1937 sit down strike was,” says Phil Hagerman, president and CEO of Diplomat Specialty Pharmacy.

Diplomat moved in earlier this year.  The company specializes in drugs that target complex medical conditions like cancer, hemophilia, MS and HIV/AIDS.  Many produce side effects, so nurses here call patients to make sure they stick to their treatment plans.

Kate Davidson

The old GM complex is now home to Diplomat Specialty Pharmacy's headquarters.

“Specialty pharmacy is the fastest growing component in the pharmacy industry,” says Hagerman.  “Traditional pharmacy is growing at two to five percent a year.  Specialty pharmacy is growing at 15 to 25 percent a year.”

Diplomat hired more than two hundred people this year.  Phil Hagerman says the company is on track to top a billion dollars in sales next year.

“We’re distributing as many as two thousand or more prescriptions a day around the country, shipping to every state every day from this building,” he says.

The building highlights the transformation of the industrial Midwest.  GM shuttered the sprawling Fisher Body No. 1 plant in the 80s and much of it was demolished.  The footprint of the complex shrank dramatically.  But the steel and concrete of this building’s main structure were retrofitted into an engineering and design center for GM, housed in the Great Lakes Technology Center.

Diplomat later bought about half the space and it’s still enormous: 550,000 square feet.  That’s more than one thousand square feet for each of the 450 employees here.  The other half of the complex is now a biomedical campus, run by the company IINN.

Courtesy of Diplomat Specialty Pharmacy

Last year Diplomat filled more than 600,000 prescriptions

“How often do normal business rules allow a company to have a ten year growth footprint?” Diplomat’s Phil Hagerman asks.  “It just doesn’t happen. ‘Cause the cost of the building is so great.  But because we acquired this from an auction process at a very, very low cost, we have a building that we know we can grow into for about ten years.”

So, that’s one advantage of acquiring property discarded by industrial giants.  Advantage #2: 1700 cubicles left behind.  Advantage #3: Random industrial signs that read: ‘Caution: Pedestrian traffic. Sound horn’.  And advantage #4: The government loves you, especially if you’re a high-tech or medical company.  In fact, Diplomat won’t pay property taxes here for almost 15 years, and it got a 62 million dollar tax break from the state.  In return, CEO Phil Hagerman says he’ll hire four thousand people in the next two decades.

But thousands of people used to stream across the street to local businesses every week. At The Caboose Lounge, waitress Janet Anderson says the new workers at Diplomat don’t come in yet, but she’s hopeful.

“I do good breakfasts,” she says.  “Real good breakfasts you can ask anybody in here.”

And these days, hope itself might be a welcome sign of change in Flint.

(NPR also aired a version of this story nationally.  Listen to it here.)









Changing Gears is all about the reinvention of the Industrial Midwest. As you’re relaxing over the Thanksgiving holiday, check out three big topics that we looked at this fall. 

EMPTY PLACES: From factories to city blocks, our region has thousands of empty places, but people are coming up with ideas to fill them. Kate Davidson explored blotting – neighbors taking over vacant lots next door to spruce up the neighborhood. Niala Boodhoo looked a former meatpacking plant that’s now an indoor farm. Meanwhile, contributor Dustin Dwyer tried to measure the social and economic cost of emptiness.

Memorabilia from the now defunct AutoWorld in Flint

MAGIC BULLETS: Communities across the Midwest are search for Magic Bullets — big ideas that can rescue a town or an industry. Davidson offered a look back at magic bullets over the years. Some people think batteries could create thousands of jobs, but Dwyer found there’s skepticism. Many places would like to copy Cleveland’s success in health care, which Bobkoff says could be tough. Boodhoo explored the contribution small business can make to the economy (answer: it’s small).

MANUFACTURING: Movies and TV have painted a bleak picture of factory life. We found just the opposite. Think there are no jobs in manufacturing? There are plenty, for temporary workers, Davidson found. What are they talking about, when they talk about advanced manufacturing? Bobkoff explained. He also talked to Ron Bloom, the man who led the auto industry bailout. How do ideas become reality? Boodhoo profiled Battelle, an influential but little-known Ohio company.


All this month, our Changing Gears series has been looking at empty places across the Midwest – from foreclosed homes to abandoned factories. But as companies adjust to economic conditions, many in the region have been re-evaluating the basics – including where they’re located.

Cities and states bend over backwards to create jobs, and they’re left with some big challenges when a company decides it no longer wants to be there. Tony Arnold of WBEZ in Chicago looked at the issue.

There’s a hot new trend among companies around the Midwest – threatening to leave. Several companies, especially around Chicago, have been asking big picture questions as they take a look at their bottom lines.

One is the food maker Sara Lee, which is going through a major transition as it prepares to split into two companies. One would be focused on meats, such as sausages and hot dogs. The other one would focus on beverages.

Company spokesman Jon Harris says the company believes a downtown location “would provide our new North American meats company with an environment that will be energetic, that will foster breakthrough thinking, create revolutionary products, offer fresh perspectives and really own the market.”

But that means moving from Sara Lee’s headquarters and test kitchens, which are currently based in Chicago’s western suburbs, in a town called Downers Grove.

While no location has been chosen for the meat company, downtown Chicago is preferred, Harris says. If Sara Lee does pack up and move, it would leave behind a massive office building designed to hold at least 1,000 workers.

That’s something Martin Tully, the mayor of Downers Grove, isn’t too excited about, especially as it relates to collecting property taxes. “It’s not insignificant,” he says.

Tully says he’s working with Sara Lee to try to keep operations based there, but it’s hard when the company is going to split up.

Also, Sara Lee has no deep ties to Downers Grove. Its offices have only been there for six years. Tully says those six years have been worth it – even if he has to find a new tenant. As he says – who would pass up having Michael Jordan on your basketball team for six years?

But he has a word of warning for other towns that might be looking to unload one giant piece of land. “You have to be on your toes and alert for those things as a community and as an economic development engine,” said Tully.

Another example is United Airlines, which is moving thousands of employees to what used to be called the Sears Tower. It’s trying to sell its property in Elk Grove Village, in Chicago’s northwest suburbs, not far from O’Hare International Airport, but nobody is really biting.

Mount Prospect – the town next door – wants to take over the land to try to redevelop it, even though there aren’t any buyers.

Stacey Kruger Birndorf, an expert on office space real estate issues for Transwestern, a commercial real estate company, says towns like Mount Prospect have to keep in mind what companies want when they look for a new home.

“I think so much of it is economically driven,” she says. “I wish I could say it’s geographically driven, but so much of it is economics.”

Kruger Birndorf says companies look at the cost of the property, where new recruits would want to work, and proximity to clients. She says young people by and large want to be downtown. But if a company wants a lot of space, the suburbs might be a better fit.

Asked whether it’s worth it for towns to allow big campuses that are hard to re-work into anything other than office space, Kruger Birndorf says towns have to go for it.

“If we don’t have some hope and some optimism,” there would never be any reason to do anything, she says.

As proof, look at Ann Arbor, Mich.  Pfizer, the international pharmaceutical company, had a 70-acre facility there, but moved out in 2007. It left a modern research facility empty, and took a chunk of the city’s property tax budget with it.

When Ann Arbor couldn’t find a buyer, the price dropped,  and the University of Michigan stepped in.

“You’re getting 2.2 million square feet of office and lab buildings, which seems like an incredible steal for $108 million,” said David Canter, the Executive Director of the North Campus Research Complex.

He’s turning the facility into a new type of research center for academia, putting researchers from different departments into the same workspace. Before taking over the Pfizer complex, each department on the university’s campus had its own building.

Now, Canter says pharmacists, dentists, and mathematicians can all be in the same place.

“As a result, the university will be able to grow without having to invest in designing and developing a lot of series of new buildings that tend to follow growth rather than be in advance of growth,” he says.

Canter says if Pfizer hadn’t left, this research project from the university wouldn’t exist. It’s an example of how thinking creatively about how work space is used  can let both companies and towns breathe easier.

Kate Davidson

"Blotters" are turning Detroit's empty spaces into family compounds.

DETROIT — Our Changing Gears project is looking at the challenges of the region’s empty places this month.  For many people, the most threatening emptiness isn’t a shuttered factory.  It’s the abandoned property next door.  But in Detroit, some residents are using that emptiness to quietly reshape their neighborhoods.  They’re annexing vacant lots around them, buying them when they can or just putting up a fence.

They’re not squatters … they’re blotters.

Blot isn’t a bad word.  A design firm coined the term several years ago.  Academia ran with it.

“Blots are properties between the size of an entire block and just a lot.  So, they are consolidations of multiple lots,” says Margaret Dewar, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan who’s mapped blots.

So, families are creating compounds of multiple lots.  Big deal, right?  Well, keep in mind Detroit was built tightly packed with working class homes.  It sliced up blocks with a very quick knife.  So as the city lost 60 percent of its population, it left these gaping holes in the genetic makeup of neighborhoods.  Blotters aren’t waiting for the city to fix that.

“I call it an everyday remaking,” Dewar says.  “It’s every day there’s a little step in this direction of remaking by people who are pretty invisible.  But over time it becomes a dominant feature of the city.”

People like space.  Margaret Dewar sampled tax-reverted properties resold by the city, up to 2005.  She found more than a quarter were bought by the homeowner next door.

Still, the easiest way to find blotters in Detroit is to look for a very long fence on a lonely street.

Kate Davidson

Paula Besheers and her son Paul Browne tried in vain to buy the empty lot right next door.

Behind one of them is the house Paula Besheers’ grandfather bought in 1925.

“This has been here in the family for four generations,” she says.  “So it’s like 86 years.”

And then, also fenced off, the four empty lots.  Well, not exactly empty…

“I planted in some cherry trees and two apple trees,” says Besheers’ son Paul Browne, who lives a few blocks from the family home.  “I’m attempting to grow some grape vines.  I’ll let you know when I figure out how to get that going good.”

The little orchard, the raspberry patch, the gardens — they’re a relief from the pit bulls, the burnt house and the emptiness across the street. But there’s a catch.

It turns out, the only lot the family actually owns is the one farthest from the house.  HUD sold it for about a hundred bucks.  Browne says the last he checked, the city owned the next lot in, the county the next one, and the city the one after that.  He says the family tried to buy the middle lots years ago, but were told no.  He says it’s probably time to try again.

“They want to sell it, more than willing to buy it off of them,” he says.

So why go to all this trouble?

“’Cause we live next door to it,” Browne says.  “If you go up the next block from here you’ll see what it would look like.  Just overgrown brush piles.  Trash.  Car parts.   And it’s only from stubbornness and perseverance that keeps it from becoming a debris pile.”

Kate Davidson

The family home

Kate Davidson

Across the street

So should cities like Detroit make it easier for residents to take over the vacant space around them?  Detroit’s new planning director Rob Anderson says, basically, yes.

To be clear, Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, even post-Katrina New Orleans all have adjacent lot programs on the books already.  In Cleveland, a homeowner can buy the lot next door for as little as a dollar.  In Detroit, two hundred dollars.  Chicago, a thousand.

Rob Anderson says, most importantly, when a homeowner buys the lot next door, they’re taking responsibility for the neighborhood.  They’re also putting land back on the tax rolls.

“Then that’s one parcel that we can rely on a citizen to take care of that the city really can’t afford to take care of,” he says.

Anderson says Detroit has sold about a thousand of these lots in recent years.

Still, the city owns a staggering 60,000 plus parcels of land, most of it vacant.  So the planning department just started reevaluating the adjacent lot program in southwest Detroit, to see how to expedite and promote it.

“We think it’s a tool that really is well suited for this area that we’re working in,” Anderson says.  “And if we can get it right here, it’s easily transferred to the rest of the community.”

Has the tool been underutilized in the past?

“Looks like it to me,” he says.

The program has inherent limitations.  The scale of abandonment in Detroit means many homeowners aren’t just worried about the lot next door.  It’s also the one after that, the one after that, and, in Paula Besheers’ case, the one after that.  But only the vacant parcel right next door meets the guidelines of the city’s current adjacent lot program.  Residents can still buy multiple lots, but they have to go through a different process.

Then, there’s the time factor.  As I was leaving the planning department, an aide mentioned it can take years for residents to get through the bureaucracy of buying the lot next door.  Rob Anderson was shocked.  He said the department’s new goal will be 30 days.  That would bring Detroit in line with cities like Cleveland and Chicago, where it only takes a few months to expand your yard.

*Inform our coverage: Have you taken over empty or abandoned land near you-or know someone who has?