What Happens to a Closed-Down Auto Plant?

The bankruptcy of Chrysler may sound like good news to critics of American auto culture, but the resulting job losses and plant closures are poised to deal a serious blow to already-struggling midwestern towns. Which is why it’s heartening to see that the Obama administration is working on a plan to help clean up the land surrounding shuttered plants and give it back to its rightful owners in local communities.

chrys.jpgChrysler workers leaving a plant (Photo: New York Times)

Inside the EPA, a trade publication in Washington, reported this week that the government will pay for revitalizing closed auto plants that would otherwise be at risk for joining the list of environmentally blighted Superfund sites. "Local land use" will also be a priority in turning the sites back over for future use, according to the report.

Could we soon see parks or even bike trails being built where domestic manufacturing plants once stood? That change will be a long time coming, but at least the process has begun.

  • I’d prefer to see our industrial infrastructure retooled to manufacture transit vehicles and bikes. There may come a time when we would prefer to build them here, either because of the energy costs involved in shipping, or for the sake of strategic self-reliance. In fewer words: We need industry. The question is what kind.

  • Mark’s right, we mustn’t lose any more industrial land because there might come a day when we actually need it. We’ve already foolishly turned most of our old waterfronts into zones of luxury residence. What happens if shipping becomes necessary again?

    PS. Jane Jacobs had a few things to say about the folly of adding too much parkland to urban areas.

  • JSD

    Agreed with the first response. Parks meant for people are pointless if they are empty.

    America needs skilled workers. The service economy can only take us so far on a planet with so many promising and emerging industries.

  • I have to agree with Mark here. Turning former industrial sites into parks is a lovely idea but it doesn’t provide jobs to laid-off employees. Transitioning them into manufacturing for other types of transportation is a great idea, but A) there needs to be a systemic demand for more train cars or buses or bikes and that demand doesn’t seem to exist yet, and B) it’s not like Chrysler is just going to go right ahead and tell all these employees “last year you were making 300M luxury sedans but this year you’re going to start making R160B subway cars”.

  • DavidDavidDavid

    I agree with Mark. Take the old factory and turn it into mixed use: multi-story multi-family dwellings over retail and small manufacture (make bikes!). The workers can move into town from the ‘burbs, and have the outlying areas revert back to farming. With everything in close proximity, most people can actually bicycle to where they need to. In the winter, if the old factories have all the uses built into the gigantic old buildings (work, living, groceries, services), you could probably bicycle (inside) your way through the cold, harsh midwestern winters completely under a protected roof. And, in a year, they’ll look sexier and healthier!

  • AnnArborite

    The Midwest needs parks, but it needs jobs more. And building bikes in Michigan is not anywhere near enough to soak up the manufacturing workforce.

  • DavidDavidDavid

    Henry Ford brought the cost of the automobile down, so that it was affordable for the ordinary workman.

    Good bikes should be brought up in price, so that they can support someone for an honest day’s work. An honest day’s work. Isn’t that what we want for our children and our children’s children?

  • I too agree with Mark on this and think the idea is a bit foolish. Renewable energy (wind turbines and solar panels) is another industry that could use these skilled workers and manufacturing facilities.

    Don’t forget our ports are already moving freight at max capacity because stuff that was once made in the American Heartland is now made overseas. Also many of the new industrial countries don’t have the environmental laws (and human rights laws) as we do.

  • Barnard

    Firstly, I’ll get it out of the way and join the band wagon that thinks that using these plants to build transit vehicles is the way to go. It is. It’s smart, commonsense. Job preservation is hard to argue with.

    However, I think it would be a great irony to convert these old factories to biking and walking paths. It would make right on the currently broken “rails-to-trails” concept. Right now, rail-trail advocates work to convert old rail right-of-ways into bike paths. I don’t know, shouldn’t old rail right-of-way be converted to…usable rail-of-way? Call me crazy.

    Converting these old auto plants into bike trails would be beautiful though! I need some help coming up with a catchy name…

  • DavidDavidDavid

    Bernard, thats a wonderful idea. But I why just limit it to a bike path? Why not, instead of destroy the building, repurpose it into a potentially self-supporting town? It’ll be sort of like a big shopping mall, but with housing and all sorts of businesses and enterprises. And yes, have bikes go up and down the great big halls. This can even be a place for GM/Segway to try out their two-wheeled concept vehicle. How great it would be for an elderly person to get in one of those small vehicles (or a four-wheeled self-guided mini-carriage (Fisher Body, anyone?)) to visit his/her friend down the hall, go out for lunch, and garden in the afternoon in the community hothouse on the south side of the facilities (that provides heat for the building). Honda’s been thinking about elderly personal transit for years. Toyota’s been coming out with lots of personal vehicle concepts, and also swank two-story prefab housing. Is the U.S. going to let them come out with the better idea first… again?

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Am I the only one that thinks we have other plants already producing transit equipment. In fact, didn’t GE, of all companies, just close down a big locomotive manufacturing facility? Maybe its just me. What did that convert to?

  • “…In key parts of the mass-transit industry, domestic suppliers have exited the business, so public capital investments in mass transit become significantly captured by imports. There is no longer any U.S.–based producer of subways, although assembly operations owned by foreign firms exist and are clustered in New York state. The main foreign suppliers of subways to the U.S. are Alstom, Bombardier, and Kawasaki (principally based in France, Canada, and Japan respectively). South Korean–based Hyundai Rotem and German-based Siemens supply transit vehicles. These firms provide a valuable service to U.S. transit agencies. Nevertheless, foreign sourcing limits the wealth and employment dividend of public investments in subway cars, despite some local assembly.”

    For the rest, see The American Prospect. For still more, Google “U.S. train manufacturing.” Here’s a pie chart. If anyone knowledgable would like to do some shout-outs for U.S.-owned domestic rail manufacturers, I’d love to hear ’em, but the pickings seem slim.

    The big question, at least to me, is what will happen if public investment in rail suddenly increases in the U.S., per my happiest dreams? Would we willingly direct massive new rail spending abroad, or would there be some impetus to rebuild this part of our domestic industrial base?


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