Hantz Woodlands a New Vision or City Sellout?

Hantz WoodlandsMore than a mere land sale, the Detroit City Council’s 5-4 vote Tuesday to sell about 1,500 lots to the Hantz Woodlands project keeps alive the idea that Detroit will serve as a worldwide center of urban innovation for postindustrial cities.

In recent years, hundreds of artists, architects, academics, filmmakers, urban planners and students have flocked to Detroit to see urban innovation at work. The Hantz proposal, billed as the world’s largest experiment in urban agriculture, was a big part of that global interest, receiving worldwide publicity.

The Hantz Woodlands project is a plan to buy about 1,500 city-owned parcels, or around 140 acres of land, for about $520,000 and plant hardwood trees on them as a beautification project. The parcels are almost all vacant lots; Hantz has committed to demolishing at least 50 blighted buildings that remain. Proposed almost four years ago as Hantz Farms, the project now will have a chance to demonstrate whether large-scale blight removal and reforestation will help Detroit’s recovery.

Councilman Ken Cockrel Jr., a “yes” vote on the deal, said urban agriculture isn’t a silver bullet to fix Detroit’s problems, but that it is an important component of redevelopment.

“A ‘no’ vote would have sent the message to the world that Detroit isn’t really serious about urban agriculture,” Cockrel said.

Gary Brown, council president pro-tem, said he voted to approve the land sale over the vocal objections of opponents because he’d heard from a “silent majority” of residents in the east-side area who favor the project. “They’d rather have trees than blight and abandoned buildings,” Brown said.

Of the vocal opponents, Brown said, “Very few of them talked about the Hantz Farms project. It was mostly about a dysfunctional city government that makes it hard for them to buy” land themselves.

Mayor Dave Bing, whose Detroit Works project has suggested urban agriculture as a redevelopment tool, said it’s important for city leaders to keep an open mind to alternative uses of land.

“We’ve got a hell of a lot to offer. We have no issue selling the land to anybody. … It will help us with blight,” he added. “We’ve got to get away from everybody saying, ‘You’re just taking advantage of us.’ ”

John Hantz, a Detroit resident and president and CEO of Hantz Group, a Southfield-based network of financial services companies, issued a statement after the vote saying he was “greatly pleased with today’s decision by the Detroit City Council to approve the development agreement allowing us to contribute to creating more livable Detroit neighborhoods.”

The city acquired the parcels for the project through tax foreclosure as owners and residents abandoned the sites. The city controls an estimated 60,000 vacant lots through tax foreclosure.

The lots being sold to Hantz Woodlands lie in an area bounded by Van Dyke on the west, St. Jean on the east, Mack on the north, and Jefferson on the south. Although the Indian Village district lies within that area, no lots in Indian Village will be included.

Once the sale is closed, the Hantz project can begin trash removal from the lots and begin demolishing some of the blighted buildings. Tree planting could begin in spring.

The council’s vote came in the face of vocal opposition from some of the city’s leading nonprofit community activists, who portrayed the sale as a corporate land grab. They complained that ordinary Detroit residents had tried for years to overcome city inertia and buy lots, and that Hantz was getting special treatment.

This criticism reached a crescendo at a public hearing Monday night in which hundreds of residents vented their anger at the project.

At Tuesday’s council meeting, the Detroit Association of Realtors didn’t support or oppose the plan, but it did ask the council to wait 90 days before deciding so there could be more information.

Councilwoman JoAnn Watson voted against the Hantz deal, saying the purchase price was below fair market value.

“It’s illegal,” Watson said. “It’s against state law.”

But Brown said the developer will not only pay for the property, but also to maintain it, to demolish blighted structures and pay property taxes.

Besides Brown and Cockrel, voting in favor were council President Charles Pugh, Saunteel Jenkins and James Tate. Besides Watson, voting no were Kwame Kenyatta, Brenda Jones and Andre Spivey.

Contact John Gallagher: 313-222-5173 or gallagher99@freepress.com


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