reWorking Michigan: Task Force Sets Out to Revitalize Former GM Properties

Mar 18, 2012

Starting in 2005, General Motors closed several of its mid-Michigan factories, including Lansing Car Assembly and the Craft Centre.  The economic blow was devastating to thousands of families who had given generations of service to America’s auto industry.  Now, a new task force is working to bring families, businesses and neighborhoods together to plant new seeds in those vacant brownfields.

Stand on the bridge that spans Saginaw west of Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive at midday, and you’re sure to hear the brisk hum of cars passing beneath you.

The noise here has a lulling, even whispery quality.  But if you’d been on this same spot seven years ago, you’d have heard the mechanical roar of lunchtime rushes and shift changes.  This is where three auto plants once formed the backbone of Lansing’s automotive industry.

Patricia Spitzley remembers it well.  She grew up in Lansing in a G-M family.  Today, when she looks out over abandoned acres, she thinks about the charge that’s been placed before her.

“My family who used to work at the Fisher Body plant and who used to work here are always asking me about what’s going on,” says Spitzley.  “So, I do have a sense of pressure and responsibility to do good.”

Spitzley is the deputy redevelopment manager for RACER Trust.  Her organization owns and manages 89 former GM sites in 14 states.  Almost two-thirds of them are in Michigan. 

Today, Spitzley is touring the remnants of the old Craft Centre. It doesn’t look especially historic, but it is.  Today’s Chevrolet Volt traces its DNA back to the EV-1, the first successfully mass produced electric car.  The first one was built here in 1996. 

Aside from its history, Spitzley says this property has its own environmental budget, which is a selling point for prospective developers.

“That makes the properties extremely marketable to folks who do want to come back into an urban community and site something here but are concerned about legacy environmental issues,” Spitzley says.  “RACER retains the responsibility for the cleanup.”

Matt Brinkley knows what’s here.  He’s a senior planner for Lansing Township.  He says these sites contain a host of volatile organic compounds.  However, Brinkley says there’s also a lot of industrial assets that could one day be used again. 

“Potable water, (a) storm sewer that’s already in the ground; there are two substations that could provide high voltage electricity to any user who might come in here, in addition to the access to the rail line as well.”

Not far from one substation stands a giant metal scrap heap…a mangled mess of rusty rebar 20 feet high.

“This looks like a nest for Mothra from one of the old Japanese films,” Spitzley muses.

Patricia Spitzley says RACER tried to concentrate the waste out of sensitivity for its surrounding neighbors.  Lansing Township’s Matt Brinkley says the contamination here is fairly minor.

“Relative to other sites in Michigan and throughout the United States, I think that Plants Two and Three and the Verlinden Plant Six are relatively clean,” says Brinkley.

Danielle Casavant offers a differing opinion.

“Well, I would think that a lot of neighbors would disagree with that.”

Casavant is the president of the Westside Neighborhood Association.  Part of the Westside borders the old Verlinden Plant.  We talk in a small street corner playground.  Over her shoulder stands a long wall of broken concrete slabs behind a chain link fence. 

“Trash has been strewn about behind the fence, and it does get pretty ugly from time to time; some neighbors have done pickups where they can access, but a lot of it is behind fences, so you can’t.”

Casavant is encouraged to hear about the task force, and she wants to make sure her constituents get a place at the table.  She says while it would be nice to see a mix of retail and residential on the site, Casavant concedes that diminishing brownfield tax credits probably won’t allow it.  Instead, she’d be happy to see light industry – perhaps even green technology – take root.

“If we could get light industrial that brings jobs, that would be a win for all of us,” Casavant says.

After years of inertia, regional planners are excited about what may come of Lansing’s old factory sites.  With some 400 acres of landlocked property minutes away from the capitol and Michigan State University, officials don’t want to squander the opportunity for smart planning.  It’s now up to the task force to rally the community to re-imagine its blank concrete canvasses.


reWorking Michigan examines our evolving economy, as the people of the Great Lake State explore new ways to make a living and build a future.  A project of WKAR NewsRoom, WKAR-TV and WKAR Online.