Detroit: Land Grab or City Revival?

On December 11, the Detroit City Council approved the sale of public land to the controversial Hantz Farms, now called Hantz Woodlands urban forestry project, in Detroit’s eastside neighborhood. The deal confirms the sale of 140 acres of public land at the extraordinarily cheap price of eight cents per square foot ($300 per lot).  The land sold at below market price at a time when Detroit is desperate for revitalization and business investment. This is one of the largest urban land acquisitions in the history of any U.S. city.

Meager conditions on the sale require that John Hantz, a financial services entrepreneur and the private developer behind Hantz Farms, improve the underutilized land by demolishing 50 derelict buildings (some of which are inhabited), clean up and mow overgrown lots, and plant 15,000 hardwood trees. Other cities may not have gone down this route, but in a place like Detroit, where finances are beyond tight, “money talks,” says Rob Anderson, Director of Detroit’s Planning and Development. As a result, many have dubbed the deal between Hantz and the city a “land grab.”

Like other Detroit land speculators have done and may indeed continue to do, Hantz saw an opportunity and discreetly purchased city lots one-by-one before he petitioned to the city four years ago for the “world’s largest urban farm.” Hanzt plans to buy up more and possibly resell it once the land value increases. Hanzt Group, the LLC funding Hantz Farms, works under the auspices that repurposing the land will remediate derelict lots and beautify the neglected urban landscape. Since the City Council has yet to finalize proposed zoning changes that will allow for urban agriculture as the main use of a property, the tree farm was the easier option for Hantz.

Despite zoning restrictions, urban agriculture continues to thrive as a grassroots effort throughout Detroit. Hailed as the leader in the urban agriculture movement, there are now more than 1,200 community farms and gardens in roughly 138 square miles. In a city left with few grocery stores and dwindling public services, urban farming projects, like D-Town Farm and the Greening of Detroit are lifelines, connecting Detroit’s inner-city residents with each other, the land, and healthy food. Organizations, like the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN) lead the charge and have pioneered D-Town Farm. DBCFSN encourages mobilization for social change through urban agriculture and works collaboratively to build food security and food sovereignty.

Several community-based organizations, along with the City Planning Commission, Detroit Food Policy Council (DFPC), many community farms and people from the urban agriculture community spoke out publicly and adamantly against the Hantz Farms deal during the last public hearing on December 10, 2012. Their argument is on the grounds that there exist no clear processes for buying land and that this transaction only exacerbates the land inequality status quo amongst the haves and have-nots. Gary Dennis, a Detroit resident says he’s taken care of vacant lots near his house for years, one of which he bought for $1,000, $700 more than what Hantz paid per lot. “Now you want to sell the land that we’re keeping up,” Dennis asked Council members.

Others spoke about how the city turned down their offer to buy lots for $200-$300 for commercial agriculture. Urban farmers, like Ryan Anderson who moved to Detroit to start a for-profit farm in North Corktown, have struggled with the city to purchase land and are forced to rent or commandeer lots. These farmers want to grow their business and they want to buy land too. The issue of zoning for agriculture in the city will soon be resolved by the City Council’s vote; however, the lack of consistency and process for buying land remains a barrier for those without as much capital and political push as Hantz, though with similar agricultural intentions.

The DFPC published a report this December in response to and in summation of the public hearing on the Hantz proposal. The report outlines the sale of public land to Hantz Farms as a purchase agreement, which has fewer restrictions for the buyer, and provides recommendations for improving the process in the future; recommendations that include the community. It also describes Detroit’s history of discrimination in land sales, and states the city’s desperate financial needs.

The City Council’s affirmative vote to sell public land to Hantz was one in support of revitalization, but it negated the community’s opposition in order to do so. Mayor Bing released a statement in response to the Hantz deal to The Huffington Post that claims that the proposed Woodlands is an answer to the city’s rampant blight. Proponents of the deal agree with Hantz’s statement: “Placing city owned properties back in the marketplace will provide the city with revenue from the sale of surplus property, improve quality of life in surrounding neighborhoods, and reduce city operating costs by transferring maintenance costs to a private sector company.”

When asked about the primary concerns expressed at the public hearing, namely Hantz Farms’ plans and community agreements, many of which are vague, Mike Score, President of Hanzt Group, said that they would work with K-12 programs to offer the Woodlands as a learning lab for students. He also said that they planned a partnership with Michigan State University to allow for research on the environmental and social impacts of the Woodlands. Though they have not engaged the community-at-large in a public hearing, Score described their outreach strategies as more intimate.

Rather, he said that Hanzt Group engages in one-on-one meetings with those interested in learning more about the project and with groups of no more than 10-30 people at a time. These outreach methods leave room for misunderstandings and breed disconnection between neighbors. One community group that publicly endorsed the deal is the Lower Eastside Action Plan(LEAP). As stated, they “have generated a “Community Agreement” with Hantz Farms to assure that they live up to their (Hantz Group) promises and LEAP will monitor the project.”

“There are a lot of different organizations in the community, all of which can argue that they are the true representatives of the community,” said Score. “We chose the connection that felt most local and most appropriate. We won’t partner with everyone, because everyone isn’t affected and it’d be impossible to reach concessions with everyone, even those in the urban agriculture movement.”

Charity Hicks, a member of the Detroit Food Justice Task Force, described the deal as one that “favors capital at the expense of the community,” and said: “Hundreds of people spoke out over the past two weeks against this project to the local legislative body, but it got ignored. We [the Detroit food security and sovereignty community] are shifting gears from mobilization to grassroots.”

Today, there are 15 groups, and growing, that are collaboratively working on a community land trust proposal, which Hicks describes. “Land is equally distributed amongst the community, where the community and government can actively pursue policies, projects, and programs that support community based initiatives that foster self-sufficiency, community ties, and sustainable ways of living.” These groups have worked in Detroit’s eastside for years and offer an alternative resolution to the Hantz deal. “We may have problems, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have solutions,” says Hicks.

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