Connected vehicle research center slated for former Willow Run plant
Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com
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.
Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com
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.