Meet Al Hill, the sole resident of the world's largest abandoned building
Developers restoring derelict Packard car-making complex that has been one man's home for 9 years
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.
"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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
'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.
"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."
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."
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."
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.
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.
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.
"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."
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."