Why the Packard plant can fly: lessons from the High Line
Today’s Packard plant naysayers echo the words of New York’s High Line critics back in 1999. Since that time 15 years ago the 1.45 mile-long High Line has been transformed from a disused liability to an enormous asset that inspires reclamation projects globally.
On the surface, the Packard and the High Line may have little in common beyond their status as industrial relics, but the process for creating such a massive success is comparable. Decades from now, the epic story of both efforts will begin with dire predictions by vehement critics, no financial resources and very few leaders willing to step forward to make things happen.
PROCESS, PROCESS, PROCESS
How do dangerous hell holes become prosperous hot spots? How does a vague vision take wing to exceed the founder’s wildest dreams?
Attention all Packard plant cynics, skeptics and dreamers!
Here are five leap-of-faith lessons to be gleaned from the High Line project:
1. You don’t have to be rich to attract major capital.
When the Packard’s new owner Fernando Palazuelo recently told a group, “Sorry, I’m not a millionaire” some hopes were deflated and a few people may have heard only impending doom. But High Line founders Joshua David and Robert Hammond were also not wealthy. Both were resourceful residents of ordinary means who stepped up to attract extraordinary talent and financial support.
They did this by bringing fresh energy and passion to the task while realizing that this was a pivotal moment in history. Joshua David and Robert Hammond knew that if they didn’t find ways to rally people around this cause, nothing would happen. So they stepped forward to get things rolling.
Likewise, we are now witnessing a historic moment for Detroit’s citizens and supporters. Will we find ways to make this site an economic powerhouse and magnet for inventors? Fernando Palazuelo stepped up when no other viable buyer for site came forward. Now we must do what we can to support him, while always keeping our eyes open.
2. “Impossible” projects require many “owners.”
So if Mr. Palazuelo is not a magnanimous benefactor, how should we see his role?
The High Line founders provided a human face and an emotional story—versus an anonymous, unilateral announcement by a remote corporation—that attracted a torrent of support and talent. They found ways to benefit from a wide range of quality consultants, authorities and donors. In particular, they worked with first class designers, including graphic designers, urban planners and architects. Their big idea was to not only preserve the rail line, but to create something new and exciting.
The Packard plant must embody holistic change from Detroit’s old culture of dependency. It must fuel the belief that people can get big things done when they contribute to a common purpose, rather than waiting for a benefactor. Palazuelo is currently the legal owner, but many other citizens must step up and feel a sense of ownership and investment in the Packard’s long-term success.
3. People want to be part of something bigger than themselves.
The High Line offered supporters a chance to make a lasting contribution to a big exciting project and legacy. It brought people together in an entrepreneurial environment to feed the natural human longing to part of something with an enduring higher purpose.
The Packard plant is seen internationally as the most visible symbol of Detroit’s extreme frustrations and suffering. The idea that this site could become a new global symbol for the city’s deeper, inventive spirit presents a cause worth fighting for.
Strong commitment to a cause and legacy will be required to navigate financial, regulatory and political obstacles. Whenever big ideas are proposed there will be naysayers. It is useful to keep in mind that there were prominent Parisians who once opposed the Eiffel Tower.
4. Avoid false dilemmas, such as a choice between “unproductive space” and revenue
Whole neighborhoods benefit when places succeed in developing their true assets. In the early days of the High Line, some naysayers assumed that an either/or choice must be made between preserving the rail line and tearing it down to build revenue generating properties.
Instead of choosing between demolition and revenue, the High Line has accomplished both. More than $2 billion in developments can be linked to the first two sections of the High Line. The elevated park and promenade has become a major iconic tourist attraction for the city, with three million annual visitors (10 times what the founders originally envisioned) a quarter of whom come from outside the United States.
Genuine assets generate interest and investment. The Packard and the High Line offer meaningful stories that connect us with the long march of history. These connections with the past and layers of human intervention are irreplaceable assets that cannot be faked.
5. Overnight success may take a decade or more.
The High Line took ten years to plan and realize. It continues to evolve as an additional segment is added.
Fernando Palazuelo has stated that the Packard plant may take over a decade to develop.
Instant, fully-formed developments rarely endear themselves to the public. The reality of big complex projects is that, while they benefit from a master plan and vision, multi-year phasing allows for new ideas and adjustments to emerge. Phasing also provides opportunities to build enthusiasm, attract diverse participation and to learn from early experiments.
– Sharon VanderKaay