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From Studebaker to studio: Detroit automotive site’s environmental mess cleaned up, will become new housing

There’s more to Detroit’s automotive history than just the Big 3. Names like Hudson, American Motors, Nash, and others once stood alongside General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler. One of the major auto manufacturers of the industry’s early days in Michigan was Studebaker. The company got its foot hold in Motown when it took over the E-M-F plant on Piquette Avenue, not far from where Ford built the first Model T. The next year Ford moved Model T production to its factory in Highland Park and sold the Piquette Avenue Plant as well as the property at 411 Piquette to Studebaker. The company name eventually disappeared beneath of flurry of mergers, leaving behind little in Detroit besides the four-story sales and service center Studebaker built at 411 Piquette in 1920.

Rendering of brownfield redevelopment at 411 Piquette Avenue in Detroit.

Rendering of brownfield redevelopment at 411 Piquette Avenue in Detroit. 


The building was later used for manufacturing rubber products and overalls, warehousing, and as the headquarters for an excavation company. All of that work left an environmental mess behind: two underground storage tank systems, above-ground storage containers, and contaminated soil at multiple spots on the property. Investigations done between 2002 and 2013 found gasoline, solvents, oil, and lead in the soil. A follow-up investigation in 2017 found vapor levels high enough to be risky inside the building.

The cost of cleanup and demolition at the site was estimated at around $2 million. The Detroit Brownfield Redevelopment Authority reached out for help and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) approved reimbursement of nearly $715,000 for investigations, removal of 2,500 tons of contaminated soil, and the installation of a system to keep people from being exposed to harmful vapors in the building. The Michigan Strategic Fund approved reimbursement of another $1.35 million for demolition, asbestos work, and sidewalk improvements.

The teamwork between the state, city, and developers will result in new housing in Detroit’s growing Milwaukee Junction neighborhood. Plans call for 161 units: 71 studios and 90 one-bedrooms. They’re labeled “workforce housing” with the majority priced at 80% or less of the area median income. It’s right across the street from the Piquette Square redevelopment, which was turned into housing for chronically homeless veterans with help from EGLE, the Michigan State Housing Development Authority and U.S Environmental Protection Agency. The success inside the Piquette Avenue Industrial Historic District shows what can happen when government works with communities to address their needs.