Pick a Rust Belt city and you’ll likely find a relic from its glory days—an abandoned car factory, steel plant, or manufacturing facility—that serves as a reminder of its industrial past more than a half century ago.
After decades of disuse, many of these sites—some sprawling up to 5 million square feet—are transforming cities including South Bend, Indiana, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, thanks to redevelopment efforts that are offering tourists and residents alike new spaces for galleries, restaurants, breweries, and offices, all imbued with a sense of regional history.
Daniel Shoag, an economist at Case Western Reserve University, in Ohio, says developers are actively scouting these Midwest sites because they tend to be located in desirable locations, such as downtown business districts, and are championed by local officials “who are open to trying new things.”
“Typically it can be really hard for a developer to repurpose a site,” he says. “But in these cases they’re stepping into situations where the local city council is cooperative. That’s pretty attractive when you need support both financially and politically.”
In Fort Wayne, Indiana, developer Jeff Kingsbury is in the process of transforming a 39-acre former General Electric plant into Electric Works, a multi-use building that will encompass entertainment, office space, a public school, and a tech hub. He said millennials want to live, work, and play in dense urban spaces, which means sites such as the GE plant have suddenly become desirable because their sheer size can encompass everything new residents need in what will be an 18-hour district. The 1883 GE plant, for example, spans 1.2 million square feet and formerly accommodated a 20,000-person workforce.
“There’s a character to these buildings that cannot be replicated. The fact that these have brick facades with high bays and large columns and spacings between columns—while that’s not suitable for today’s manufacturing—is ideal for creative office and loft residential,” Shoag says. “They’re what we call really good bones.”
Other industrial sites across the Midwest that are undergoing similar makeovers include:
Detroit: Michigan Central Station This majestic 18-story building was formerly one of the grandest railway stations in the U.S. Spanning 1.2 million square feet, it has been part of the city’s skyline for more than a century. Abandoned for more than 30 years, the downtown property was purchased last year by Ford Motor Company, which will invest $750 million to create a headquarters for its autonomous vehicle division. The project, scheduled to open in 2022, is set to revive Corktown, the surrounding neighborhood that is already perking up with boutique restaurants, distilleries, and record shops. The site is already a magnet for architectural tourists and history buffs interested in capturing its Beaux-Arts style.
Detroit: Packard Plant For years this expansive 40-acre, 43-building plant for the Packard Motor Company, in Michigan, has been a popular site for music video and fashion shoots, as well as curiosity seekers interested in a peek into the city’s automotive glory days. The last Packard rolled off the lines in 1956. Now, a developer is breathing new life into the East Side plant, starting with the restoration of its administrative tower. A restaurant and brewery are in the works. Stop by any day of the week and you’ll find visitors roaming the site’s 5 million square feet, capturing snapshots of industrial history.
Milwaukee: Historic Third Ward Urban planners routinely point to this neighborhood in downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as a successful example of how former industrial sites can be reborn. Once a district of warehouses, old mills, and crumbling commercial buildings, the riverfront area is now a showcase of lofts, restaurants, and shopping. It provides access to the Milwaukee River and is within walking distance of the city’s annual Summerfest grounds. A top spot to explore is the Milwaukee Public Market, home to specialty food vendors and a palm garden.
Indianapolis: Circle City Industrial Complex Between 1918 and the early 1990s, this 540,000-square-foot facility in Indiana was where the turbocharger was developed and built. Its founder, Louis Schwitzer, was a race car driver who, in 1909, became the first Indianapolis Motor Speedway champion. Now the complex plays host to a brewery and taproom, distillery and tasting room, metal and woodshops, artist studios, an ice cream maker, a chocolatier, a farmers market, a monthly First Friday open house, plus seasonal events. “It’s a small city,” says owner Larry Jones who collects artifacts from the original Schwitzer days. “If you like the Indy 500, the history of the city, and the history of automotive technology, it’s pretty cool.”
South Bend: Renaissance District Presidential aspirant and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg is credited with helping push through the ongoing development of this former Studebaker automotive plant—spanning 80 blocks and closed since 1963—that is turning into what the Indiana city says will be the largest mixed-use technology campus in the Midwest. Work on the 1.3 million-square foot-building has already spurred investment for nearby projects such as the repurposing of a 25-story office tower into a new Marriott Aloft hotel. Within walking distance is Four Winds Field, home of the South Bend Cubs (the Chicago Cubs farm team), restaurants, and theaters.
Chicago: Pullman National Monument George Pullman’s railcar factory and company town, located south of Chicago, Illinois, was named a National Monument by President Obama in 2015 in recognition of its influence on 20th-century transportation, industrial design, and labor history. A local historical foundation offers walking tours of the first planned industrial community in the U.S. At the National A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum learn more about the famed Pullman porters and their contribution to the nation’s labor movement as well as the infamous 1894 Pullman strike, the first labor strike in U.S. history.
Mark Guarino, based in Chicago, writes for the Washington Post, Daily Beast, and Chicago Magazine, among other outlets. He was the Midwest bureau chief for the Christian Science Monitor.