You are viewing this article in the archives. For the latest breaking news and updates in Ann Arbor and the surrounding area, see
Posted on Thu, Sep 5, 2013 : 10:35 a.m.

Connected vehicle research center slated for former Willow Run plant

By Amy Biolchini


The former Willow Run GM Powertrain plant in Ypsilanti Township, pictured here in August, is slated for demolition beginning in October. Plans for a connected vehicle research center at the site were announced Thursday.

Melanie Maxwell |

A connected vehicle research center is planned for the former Willow Run GM Powertrain plant in Ypsilanti Township, officials announced Thursday morning.

A test track for connected vehicles and R&D facility are in the works following the demolition of the 4.6 million square foot plant.

Walbridge Development LLC will buy the majority of the 332-acre property that contains the historic Willow Run plant. The property has been on the market for redevelopment since 2011.

If approved, the new development will sit on top of the legacy of environmental contamination that the industrial facility leaves behind: millions of gallons of industrial solvents, oils and chemicals that have mixed with the groundwater below the plant's concrete slab. Cleanup efforts are ongoing and will continue after demolition.

Connected-vehicle technology allows sensor- and computer-equipped vehicles to communicate with each other and outside devices such as traffic signals or electronic signs to prevent collisions and improve traffic flow and fuel efficiency. The University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute is conducting a major connected vehicles study in a contract with the federal government.

The announcement was made by RACER Trust, the owner of the site, and by Devon Industrial Group and Walbridge Development LLC.

RACER Trust was formed by the federal government in 2011 following General Motors' bankruptcy filing in 2009. It is charged with liquidating GM's holdings and cleaning up environmental contamination at 89 sites across 14 states.

The Willow Run plant is one of the biggest environmental liabilities GM has left behind, and is the largest site in Michigan that RACER Trust is managing.

Trust officials initially tried to market the site for re-use with the plant's massive building still standing—but there were few feasible offers, officials said. RACER announced it would be demolishing the plant in April to try to gain more redevelopment interest.

Devon will oversee the dismantling of the plant, which will be conducted by MCM Management of Bloomfield Hills.

Following demolition Walbridge Development, an affiliate of the major construction company Walbridge Group Inc., will purchase the majority of the 332-acre property from RACER and develop the site in to the research hub.

“Since 1916, Walbridge has played major a role in the history of the auto industry by building some of its most critical manufacturing, assembly and R&D facilities. But more importantly, we want to help build its future. The Willow Run property is ideal for the type of development we envision, one that leverages the region’s assets — both talent and technology,” said John Rakolta III, business development director for Walbridge, in a statement. “We believe in this project’s success, and we’re committed to helping attract businesses and tenants whose R&D interests align with the goals of our planned facility — to develop and refine vehicle technology that will make our roads safer and keep Michigan at the forefront of automotive innovation.”

The plans for the new research hub are subject to the approval of a development agreement with Ypsilanti Township.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for Ypsilanti Township, the surrounding community and all of Southeast Michigan,” Ypsilanti Township Supervisor Brenda Stumbo said in a statement. “I believe this will usher in an era of collaboration and cooperation between the public and private sectors. This development will bring high-tech R&D, excellent jobs, a stronger tax base and be a source of great pride for our region.”

Demolition of the building will begin in October—a deadline that was extended by two months to accommodate the fundraising efforts of the Yankee Air Museum.


Pictured is a portion of the former Willow Run bomber plant that the Yankee Air Museum is trying to save from demolition.

Melanie Maxwell |

Part of the GM Powertrain facility was built to manufacture B-24 "Liberator" bombers for World War II. The Yankee Air Museum has been campaigning for months to raise $6 million to be able to save about 175,000 square feet of the bomber plant from demolition.

Thursday's announcement does not affect the Yankee Air Museum's efforts to save the bomber plant, said Dennis Norton, museum founder.

Rather, the announcement will raise a lot of interest in the future of the bomber plant and will help the museum's fundraising efforts, Norton said. The museum is about $3 million short of its target, Norton said. It has until October to raise the funds.

Locating a research and development facility next to a museum would be a good fit, Norton said.

"It attracts people and bring them there. You're looking at both ends of the spectrum: from transportation during the war that saved the country … and now we’re looking at a transportation development that will save it again," Norton said.

Amy Biolchini is the K-12 education reporter for Reach her at (734) 623-2552, or on Twitter.



Fri, Sep 6, 2013 : 7:59 a.m.

Let's just Hope that RACER (the "Old" GM discarded "assets," now "owned" 100% by us taxpayers) will dedicate a tiny portion of the North End of the Henry Ford WWII Bomber Plant to the Yankee Air Museum! It will be a Win-Win when Congressman Dingell, Dean of the House of Representatives, longest serving member in the history of the United States Congress, Godfather of the U.S. National Park Service National Battlefield Park in Monroe at the River Raisin Massacre of Kentuckians marching to relieve Fort Wayne in the War of 1812, gets Congressional approval for an "Arsenal of Democracy" WWII National Battlefield Park at Willow Run! Do it Big John! Get 'er Done!

Scott Straley

Fri, Sep 6, 2013 : 4:39 a.m.

Any indication as to how many jobs this could bring? I know the construction effort will bring some jobs for the next few years. But, after that? Are we talking dozens of jobs? Hundreds?


Thu, Sep 5, 2013 : 11:05 p.m.

This is great news to hear a portion might be saved but yet to help the YAM to get money to use this portion people need to realize they actually want to initiate a charter school. I really hope they get the money but with the holidays coming on? Bad timing.

Great Lakes Lady

Thu, Sep 5, 2013 : 9:57 p.m.

If the groundwater is contaminated, how deep? Which aquifers are affected?

Bertha Venation

Thu, Sep 5, 2013 : 8:53 p.m.

I test drove one of the computerized connected vehicles for the University for six months. It's nice, once you get used to the beeps and flashing lights.

Ryan J. Stanton

Thu, Sep 5, 2013 : 8:34 p.m.

State Rep. David Rutledge, D-Superior Township, issued a statement in support of the proposed development of a vehicle research center. "This is fantastic news for all residents of Southeast Michigan," he said. "It will result not only in job creation, but will drive innovation in automotive research, drawing on the depth of expertise and experience in this area." He added, "This project is vital to the forward momentum of our community, and the region, and I'm so pleased to see this progress. After years of decline, Michigan is moving forward, entering an exciting period of reinvention and rejuvenation."

Amy Biolchini

Thu, Sep 5, 2013 : 7:49 p.m.

RACER Trust declined to release financial details of the demolition contract and of the purchase agreement with Walbridge, citing confidentiality in its contracts. I do have some details on the demolition: It will begin in October with the removal of materials from the plant that can be sold as scrap metal and that would be environmentally dangerous if left in the building when it's taken down. The entire building will likely come down in December.


Thu, Sep 5, 2013 : 7:30 p.m.

As a participant in the UMTRI Safety Pilot ( I think this is great news. My only fear is if Microsoft has anything to do with the driving of my car...


Fri, Sep 6, 2013 : 1:10 p.m.

I'd be more worried about the NSA than Microsoft.


Thu, Sep 5, 2013 : 7:51 p.m.

What, like you would have to press the Start button to shutdown?


Thu, Sep 5, 2013 : 6:45 p.m.

We kill >30,000 of our citizens each year on the roads. These "connected vehicle" research efforts will change automotive transportation and our world.


Sat, Sep 7, 2013 : 11:27 a.m.

Our DD does too. Waiting to get a car tag so she and park and ride. Yes, the bus is nice so you can get a few Z's in.


Fri, Sep 6, 2013 : 2:49 a.m.

"so where is the fun in driving is the car is going to doing everything for us" I ride something kind of like that every day, called a "bus". It's actually kind of fun, because I don't get mad before I even get to work.


Thu, Sep 5, 2013 : 11:09 p.m.

OK, so where is the fun in driving is the car is going to doing everything for us? I hate to say it I really don't like all this new fangled technology. I like my old fashion car doing old fashion things. A talking car would drive me nuts.


Thu, Sep 5, 2013 : 6:28 p.m.

As a resident of Ypsilanti and an employee at Willow Run I'm very happy to hear this, but I hope that Ypsilanti Township sees what a great opportunity this is for the city and residents and gives Walbridge the approval for the development agreement instead of delays and more delays.


Thu, Sep 5, 2013 : 11:08 p.m.

Brenda Stumbo does see this as a golden goose. The problem is is getting people to buy into this and getting a sustainable and viable growth going on into this area. The township is run like a business which is why we are doing much better then the city. Wish the city did the same thing.


Thu, Sep 5, 2013 : 6:25 p.m.

This is great news - would be interesting to see some site plans/ideas if ever available. I am sad that so many people have lost jobs due to manufacturing declining, but I do NOT miss the industrial waste, smog, stench, etc. At least now there is the capability to manufacture cleanly (well, as long as the EPA isn't hamstrung by politicians and people have the will to improve). On another note, this piece is full of typos and grammatical errors...and being that I am a so-so proofreader at best, article really needs another go-over for corrections.


Thu, Sep 5, 2013 : 7:29 p.m.

Not to worry, it's moving to MLive so that won't matter.

Samantha Adkins-Towler

Thu, Sep 5, 2013 : 4:32 p.m.

I have such respect for Walbridge Aldinger. I am so happy they are involved in our township. Welcome.


Thu, Sep 5, 2013 : 4:19 p.m.

Good to hear that the Township will have some taxable value on that land again. Sad to see that Government Motors, who is now making a profit by the way, was able to walk away from this environmental liability.

Michigan Reader

Thu, Sep 5, 2013 : 8:04 p.m.

The General Motors that's making a profit now didn't use the powertrain facility, ever.


Thu, Sep 5, 2013 : 4:16 p.m.

Good news. Was afraid that property was going to turn into a gigantic Wal-Mart, some kind of massive restaurant hub, or worlds largest strip-mall. Nice to see it is staying part of the automotive sector and especially R&D. Good jobs and talent for the area.

John of Saline

Thu, Sep 5, 2013 : 4:15 p.m.

I bet demolishing the plant would not be easy; they built pretty solidly back then.


Thu, Sep 5, 2013 : 11:46 p.m.

Just like houses, I'm glad I live in a hundred year old house. that plant is amazing, I worked there for 13 years.

Amy Biolchini

Thu, Sep 5, 2013 : 8:49 p.m.

DJ Earl and Ross are correct—the concrete slab is staying in place throughout demolition. It serves as a cap for the contaminated soil and groundwater. The 12 month time frame for demolition is a tight schedule for the contractor. There are many parts of the plant that can be salvaged that will be taken out first, and there's still many machines inside that weren't sold at three auctions RACER Trust had. We'll be doing additional reporting before the plant is torn down. Stay tuned!


Thu, Sep 5, 2013 : 6:09 p.m.

They aren't touching the concrete slab, it's staying put. The building is just steel anchored to the concrete, it can easily be cut apart and knocked down for metal recycling.

DJ Earl

Thu, Sep 5, 2013 : 4:46 p.m.

I read the floor is more than a foot think in some places.


Thu, Sep 5, 2013 : 4:08 p.m.

I can't help but feel that the immutable laws of physics are a factor likely to give this avenue of vehicle research a limted ROI. I suppose the need for grants in Newtonian Physics ended long ago.


Thu, Sep 5, 2013 : 7:28 p.m.

what is going on here

Kellie Woodhouse

Thu, Sep 5, 2013 : 4:06 p.m.

I bet Stephen Forrest and the folks over at MDOT are smiling at this news. They've wanted southeast Michigan to become a hub of this type of research for a while, and a track would definitely help facilitate that...