Chrysler’s Auburn Hills HQ Rumor

I don’t know if many of you caught this on the internet earlier this week, but some sources are claiming that Chrysler’s Auburn Hills Headquarters (built from 1993 – 1996) was designed with a second purpose.

This all seems to have started with a Business Week article that was published on April 23rd, 2009:

When the building was erected in the early 1990s, it was designed so it could be repurposed into a shopping mall without too much modification if the perennially troubled Chrysler should go out of business.


The story was picked up by the NPR radio show Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me and aired in a segment on their May 2nd show.  Jalopnik jumped on the bandwagon with a couple of their own stories.  The Oakland Press even had something to say about it (and actually asked a few people to comment on the rumor).

It’s an interesting idea, but it’s one that I have trouble subscribing to.

Sheer Size of the Auburn Hills Facility.

The Chrysler complex — a staggering 5.3 million square feet on 464 acres — includes a 15-story World Headquarters tower and the four-story Chrysler Auburn Hills Technology Center, which includes space for the vehicle product team, five design studios and a 170,000-square-foot pilot plant. The complex is home to the Chrysler Auburn Hills Scientific Laboratories, with its full-size wind tunnel.

As stated in The Oakland Press, this is a mammoth building.  By comparison, The Sommerset Collection (a few minutes south of Auburn Hills) is approximately 1.5 million square feet on less than 70 acres (source).  To drive the point even further, the Mall of America, which opened in 1992,  contains 4.2 million square feet on 78 acres.  Phase 2 plans to increase the mall to 9.8 million square feet on 120 areas.

It’s just unbelievable that at that point in Chrysler’s history, they also had a plan to create the largest mall in America in case their turnaround plan failed.

Mall size = FAIL.

Overall Building Planning

The Mall of America is roughly a ring enclosing a gigantic central space with anchor stores located at nodes around the perimeter.  If you’re working with 460-ish acres, why embrace a cruciform plan, encircle it with a fairly constricting ring-road (but insulate the parking decks), and provide only one freeway access point?

It’s all too sloppy for me and I have a hard time believing this is the best The Smith Group could do to plan a “dual-purposed” facility.

Mall Planning = FAIL.

Local Retail Market Conditions.

Sommerset was well underway with expanding  Sommerset South (completed 1992) and nearly complete with planning on Sommerset North (completed 1996).  Great Lakes Crossing (completed 1998) was being planned.  In total, nearly 3 million square feet of retail space within minutes of each other.  Chrysler failing would add another 5 million square feet.  I doubt the local area or even Southeast Michigan could support that much retail space.

Market Conditions = FAIL.

Minimal Modification

You’ve got to be kidding me.  If you’ve ever seen a Dynomometer wing before, it’s not a “white box.”  There are significant mechanical, electrical, and structural systems that take more than just minimal modification.  Even the 14-story office tower would take some work to presumably re-purpose it as a hotel.

Minimal modifications = FAIL.

I’ve reached out to some architects that I’ve met who were responsible for much of this facility, but they haven’t responded yet.  Since it never came up in our past conversations I doubt there’s any validity to this rumor, but let’s wait and see.

1 Comment

  1. I agree, it would be a bit much. But it’s interesting nonetheless. Perhaps they imagined something like moving back closer to it’s old space in Highland Park or to the city of Detroit?

    As I recall the move came out of conflict with a variety of things related to doing business in Highland Park / Detroit. They wanted tax breaks and government assistance that they didn’t get, they fought with the then mayor Coleman Young about this and other things, and after they got fed up, moved to the land they already owned in Auburn Hills. That was such a shame.

    If it’s at all true, I would imagine that the thinking about such a possibility to convert was largely based on Dennis Archer getting into office after there plans were set, along with Bill Clinton getting into office then too.

    The Federal Government Republicans and Coleman Young never clicked, and that made business harder for everyone in the city for many more years. When Clinton & Archer came in the support and cooperation to regenerate troubled inner cities started to get more traction in Detroit and elsewhere.

    Interesting article! Thanks!


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