World·CBC in Detroit

Meet Al Hill, the sole resident of the world's largest abandoned building

A developer keen to lift Detroit aims to transform one of Motown's legendary automotive plants from an abandoned factory to a mixed-use urban space. But amid the renewal, what's to become of the man who has lived there alone for the past nine years?

Developers restoring derelict Packard car-making complex that has been one man's home for 9 years

For the last nine years, Al Hill has lived alone at Detroit's sprawling, abandoned Packard automotive factory. The 71-year-old is about to lose his solitude as prospective new neighbours eye the property for a revival amid the city's economic comeback. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Alan Hill's life is in ruins. More than 35 acres of them.

To visit his home in Detroit's long-abandoned Packard Automotive Plant, you pass under the crumbling pedestrian bridge on East Grand Boulevard, continue past the hollowed-out office spaces and then pick your way through a graveyard alley of bricks, concrete and junked tires.

Stand under the sneakers strung up on a telephone wire on Concord Avenue, and you might hear a shovel scraping the snow, the sound of Hill clearing a path in the industrial wasteland he's occupied alone for nine years.

Al Hill shovels snow in front of warehouse 42 at Detroit's old Packard car factory. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

"Welcome to my cave," the 71-year-old retired auto-body worker greeted a visitor recently, dragging open a barn door-sized metal gate to his sprawling digs in Warehouse Building 42.

"I live in the world's largest abandoned building," Hill likes to say. "I'm quite proud of it."

The former auto-body shop worker has resided alone at the deserted Detroit factory for nine years. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

A somewhat scruffy born-again Christian who found Jesus and then sobriety after losing a marriage years ago due to alcoholism, Hill has resided legally inside the deserted Packard complex since 2006.

Just him in a 3.5-million-square-foot mausoleum of American engineering that once thrummed with industry, rolling out some of the world's premier luxury cars from 1903 until the assembly line stopped running in 1956.

Developers draped a graphic around Detroit's decrepit Packard bridge, showing it as it appeared in the 1930s. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Hill doesn't have much here. No electricity, no plumbing, no hot running water. He sleeps on a cold mattress on the floor of an old office. He doesn't mind one bit.

"It's been a real blessing. Like the North Woods," he says. "Peaceful. Serene."

But that's about to change.

A pair of shoes dangles on a telephone wire near a block of warehouses at the old Packard automotive complex in Detroit. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Prospective blight-busting developers have big plans for downtrodden Detroit's legendary factory.

Work is underway to transform it into a $500-million mixed-use urban fairground with cafes, apartments, a concert stage, a beer garden and a go-kart track.

'I spend a lot of time at church,' Hill says. 'I drive people to soup kitchens and hospitals and things like that. I do a lot of ministering to people, either out on the sidewalk or in a hospital.' (Matt Kwong/CBC)

The vision is part of a plan to turn this beaten-up section of Detroit's downtown east side into a cultural hotspot.

For Hill — whose daily routine consists of some hobby car restoration, caring for his two rescue dogs and teaching an apprentice to weld in his workshop — that means bracing for some new company.

For months now, a friendly security team has been roaming the property to dissuade trespassers.

Renovation of the old Packard plant is estimated to cost about $500 million. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

The 'ultimate man cave'

As it stands, the 113-year-old Packard lot is a rotting effigy of the Motor City's economic collapse. Twisted metal flops down from open roofs. And crumbling staircases lead to creaky, cavernous floors.

In recent years, two bodies were found here in separate crime scenes.

Hill, who lives on social security, never worked at the Packard plant, though he has worked at auto-body shops and earns some money doing car repairs, fitting tires and welding. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

To urban explorers, the old Packard plant makes for a creepy photography subject. To vandals who often drop bricks shed from nearby towers, it's a playground for destruction. But to Hill, who agreed nearly a decade ago to act as caretaker of the estate in exchange for rent-free lodgings, it's "the ultimate man-cave."

"I love it. It has its rough points, but for the most part, it suits my needs," he says, feeding logs into a donated fireplace he jerry-built into a wood-burning furnace.

Hill's warehouse has, over the years, become a storing house for odds and ends, including several vehicles. 'There's probably 50 bicycles, six motorcycles, two boats, a couple riding lawnmowers, maybe about four trucks and three forklifts,' Hill says.

At least for now, Hill is in no immediate risk of eviction. Fat-Yu Chan, the previous owner of the Packard warehouses, invited Hill in 2007 to move into the warehouse buildings with the caveat that Hill would protect it from scrappers.

Peruvian real-estate investor Fernando Palazuelo, the developer behind the new Packard Plant Project, bought the former factory during a 2014 foreclosure auction for $405,000.

But the deal did not include Chan's parcel.

An adjoining warehouse to where Hill sleeps includes a workshop he uses just for restoring bicycles. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

That means development will have to take place around Hill.

"It's like a subdivision with 50 houses," Hill says. "He bought 49 and I'm in the 50th. I guess at some point he'll approach someone and attempt to purchase it from him to include in his bigger plans."

Historic preservation

'These punks come from the suburbs, they start tearing the place apart,' Hill says. 'Throwing rocks. They were up here one time throwing rocks and hit my friend Fran.'

While the Chans no longer own the warehouses, David Wax, a senior associate with Burger and Co., who brokered the sale to another party late last year, says the new owner is honouring the agreement to allow Hill to remain there.

"With the dogs and him down there, it kind of keeps the property intact," Wax said.

Hill has met with the new warehouse owner as well as Palazuelo.

So far, he approves.

Hill sleeps on a mattress on the floor of an old office, often with his rescued dogs Chainsaw and Dolly. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

'A love project'

"Every time there's a meeting with Fernando, people get so excited they want to start picking up trash around here," Hill says. "It's contagious."

Representatives for the Lima-based businessman insist Palazuelo is not just interested in reviving "Detroit cool" in a city ravaged by the 2008 economic collapse and a 2011 bankruptcy.

Hill descending the stairs at the abandoned Packard auto plant in Detroit. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

"Fernando is an advocate for historic preservation," says Kari Smith, director for the Packard Plant Project, which is being overseen by Palazuelo's firm Arte Express.

"Packard is a huge space, largely abandoned, neglected, and [this project] will have a lot of outlying effects on the neighbourhood, including jobs for Detroiters through landscape teams, architectural teams, security teams."

A billboard advertises the $500-million revival project for the Packard plant in Detroit. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

After nearly a decade alone in this hulking shell of a former factory, Hill keeps an inviting outlook toward the proposed changes.

"To me, it's a love project," he says of Palazuelo's plans. "I think he sees the possibility. When he took these old decrepit buildings in Lima and rehabbed them, I understand hundreds of people worked there. It revitalized Lima, which was kind of like Detroit — alcohol, drugs, prostitution, gangs. He helped take a bite out of that."

Hill, standing on the third floor of the gutted offices of the former Packard automobile factory in Detroit's downtown east side, often explores the 3.5-million-square-foot space and thinks about its early days as a mecca of American manufacturing. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Part of the 'American dream'

Smith says the renovation scheme, which could take 10 to 15 years, started across the boulevard from Hill in daytime hours so as not to disturb him.

"Alan is a neighbour and a friend of ours," she says. "He's very much a staple of the Packard community."

Al Hill was invited by the former owner of the Packard warehouses to live rent-free on the property in exchange for agreeing to take care of the estate. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

So far, about $2.5 million has been spent on cleanup and demolition of unsalvageable buildings.

And while the warehouse's new owner has been unwilling to sell his parcel to Palazuelo, Smith said Arte Express is hopeful negotiations might someday proceed.

Hill watches over his welding apprentice, Fran Chavarria, right, from his workshop at a warehouse in the Packard complex. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Were a deal to be struck, she promises, "we'd make sure that Alan is well accommodated."

For his part, Hill just looks forward to a day when the property buzzes with life again.

Packard closed its operations in 1956, but the complex didn't empty out until the 1990s.

Detroit's Packard automotive plant opened in 1903 and closed in 1956. In its heyday, the factory employed thousands of Michiganders and rolled out some of America's most high-end luxury cars. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

On warmer days, Hill climbs to the factory's rooftop, looks out to his stark surroundings and daydreams about an era when thousands worked here, building luxury cars that "every king, queen, ambassador, president wanted to ride in. Even a pope had to ride in a Packard."

He imagines "some new girl, maybe 20 years old, just out of secretarial school" decades ago, being welcomed to Packard.

Hill jerry-rigged a fireplace donated from Habitat For Humanity into a wood-burning furnace to heat his workshop. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

"They shake her hand, pat her on the back. And she looks out over the manufacturing facility, out the window with all the smoke and people down there doing various chores. She's part of the American dream."

'Some of these buildings are caving in,' Hill says. 'On occasion, you can hear a cracking. You wouldn't even have time to take the cigarette out of your mouth before it fell.' (Matt Kwong/CBC)

The renewed Packard site may not become the manufacturing mecca it once was.

"But this will be a revitalized city," Hill says. "To me, it's just good to see young people renewing their faith in Detroit."


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong


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