Economy
7:08 pm
Wed December 12, 2012

STATESIDE: Ambitious Detroit agriculture project starts to take root

There are parts of Detroit that have basically reverted to nature – the homes long gone, the grass tall, the pheasants outnumbering residents on some blocks.

One entrepreneur sees potential in all that empty, blighted space. But he’s not building new houses, or opening up a factory. Instead, he’s planning to plant thousands of trees.

Seeds of revitalization

Mike Score is the president of Hantz Farms, which is owned by John Hantz, a financial services entrepreneur.

Score walks through a demonstration project that serves as a sort of mock-up of what the Hantz Woodlands project will be a few miles south.

“The brush is gone from alongside the road, and out in the open area here you can see that there are still houses,” Score says. “But the vacant space that used to be covered with tall vegetation, and brush and garbage, is clean.”

The space where homes once stood is cleaned up, and – you have to look closely, they’re pretty small – planted with neat rows of hardwood trees.

“So we planted 900 oak trees, then we came back in and planted about 300 sugar maples in between the oaks. And we’re managing this as a tree planting,” Score says. “This is the concept. And we want to do this on a larger scale.”

The project is four years in the making, and it’s evolved significantly. Earlier plans for a large-scale farming operation were jettisoned after people who live in the area expressed concern about pesticide use and other issues.

Hantz won’t be able to do anything with the trees until the city approves an urban agriculture ordinance. Such a law won approval from the City Planning Commission last week, and could see a vote by the city council early next year.

Plan stirs controversy

Hantz Woodlands will be located a few miles south of the demonstration area, on Detroit’s lower east side. The project promises to clean up about 140 acres, and put that property back on the tax rolls. The City Council voted yesterday to approve the sale.

The lots are scattered across about a square mile that includes some denser neighborhoods on the western half, but that quickly empties out as you driver further east. At the corner of Saint Paul and Crane streets, there are no houses for long stretches down any of the blocks.

“I’ve lived a lot of places, and this part of the city feels like a very small town in a rural area,” Mike Score says.

The agreement with the city will require Hantz to tear down 50 homes in the next two years. That’s about half of the abandoned homes in the area now. The company will also have to haul away any trash – and there is a lot of that. It’s also agreed to mow the grass at least every three weeks.

But before you get all warm-hearted about the prospect of a cleaner, brighter future for this little corner of Detroit, you should know there are lots of people who question this deal.

“What I see right now is kind of a repeat of history,” said Linda Bane at a public hearing this week. “If you are a second, third, or fourth generation of being a black Detroit person, I am going to say to each of you: remember Black Bottom.”

Black Bottom was a thriving black business district that was demolished in the 1960s in the name of urban renewal. Critics look at John Hantz – a white, wealthy businessman who’s paying $300 a lot – and they see a speculator getting a sweetheart deal from a city desperate for money and development ideas.

Mike Score says the idea that his boss wants to sit on the land for a few years and then develop it to make a quick profit just does not track with market realities.

Building community

Score says the notion that Hantz is making a land grab doesn’t track with Hantz’s personal objectives, either. Hantz lives in the neighborhood next to the project site, and Score says his boss thinks it could help convince some of his neighbors to stay.

“And if nothing gets done, if everything in the city looks like the area across the street where the blighted houses are located, the people who live here will want to leave, but nobody will buy their houses and they’ll feel trapped,” Score says. “And I don’t think that’s a mindset that nurtures stronger communities.”

The Hantz Woodlands project will purchase 1,500 city lots. That still leaves about 58,000 parcels the city owns but doesn’t have the resources to manage.

Score says that leaves a lot of opportunities for other people with different ideas about how to best use Detroit’s most abundant resource.