Chrysler HQ looks so much like shopping mall: was this planned obsolescence?

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By Steve Shepherd
Vice President, Communications, The Saint Consulting Group

chryslerIn the satellite photo left, Chrysler’s world headquarters in Auburn Hills, Michigan, bears striking resemblance to a shopping mall.

It’s no coincidence, according to some accounts.

An April 23 Business Week article about the value of Chrysler’s various assets in anticipation of its bankruptcy contained this striking nugget:

‘’The Chrysler headquarters building is a spectacular sight from I-75 in Michigan. But the Auburn Hills edifice and its sprawling campus sit in the middle of one of the most economically depressed areas in the country. 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. But there is no interest in another shopping mall in a commercial corridor where unemployment and foreclosure rates are both above 20%, and one of the best-performing malls in the state, The Somerset Collection, sits 15 minutes away in Troy, Mich.’’

What? A huge, publicly held corporation spends hundreds of millions of dollars on its new headquarters, but designs it to be turned into a shopping mall in case it goes bust?

That kind of planning for failure sounds like leaving home for the day dressed in a body bag.

Maybe the banks insisted on a second use as a condition to finance the project. But how would shareholders have reacted if Chrysler shared its land use planning ‘foresight’ at the time?

A spokeswoman for the automaker didn’t exactly deny the mall story when asked about it this week by The Oakland Press.

“That has been passed on as urban legend,” Eileen Wunderlich, spokeswoman with Chrysler LLC, told the newspaper. “We have no indication that it’s true.”

“There were rumors, but I’m not sure if it was verified,” Paul Urbanek, an architect who worked on interior design for the headquarters, told The Oakland Press. “It has mini mall-like quality, with a large atrium in middle and a generous amount of parking in decks attached to the building. I don’t think it would be hard to make that happen.”

Other former Chrysler workers also described the headquarters as mall-like.

Meanwhile, it’s not even clear who owns the complex. As part of its 2007 takeover of the auto maker, the private-equity firm Cerberus Capital Management LLC bought the 458-acre campus itself from Daimler AG, Chrysler’s former owner, public records show. An interesting look at that curious matter can be found on the Seeking Alpha financial website.

Steve Shepherd is vice president for communications, The Saint Consulting Group, email, phone 781 836 4317

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