Patrick Sisson - Writer, Journalist, Cultural Documentarian, Music Lover

Detroit’s Creative Enterprises Engage With Miles of Vacant Land


November 20, 2015

A Michigan Urban Farming Institute farm in Detroit. Photos by Michelle and Chris Gerard.

What would you do with 21 square miles of urban space? To put that in perspective, consider receiving an area roughly the size of Manhattan to build upon as you please. That vast tract is equivalent to the total amount of vacant, developable real estate available right now in Detroit, according to Data Driven Detroit (D3). If the search is widened to include parcels with vacant buildings, the plot expands to 30 square miles.

It’s a fantasy plot of land, of course, and can’t capture the complexity of urban planning and land use in Detroit. In reality, the developable land is non-contiguous and has come to be vacant through a history of blight, white flight, and government action (or inaction). Detroit also faces an historic foreclosure crisis: 26,406 properties were affected by tax foreclosures last year, according to D3, more than three times the number recorded during 2009. A Detroit News investigation earlier this year discovered that over the last decade, the number of foreclosed homes in Detroit was equivalent to the total number of homes in Buffalo, New York.

Still, amid weed-filled lots and crumbling facades, the sheer amount of land available to be turned into community space, housing, small businesses, and even urban farms is unprecedented in a modern American city. Against the backdrop of a so-called Detroit renaissance that’s attracting more development and activity, mostly in specific neighborhoods such as Midtown, scores of artists, activists, nonprofits, and urban farmers are finding creative ways to tap into the land’s potential. They’re activating vacant lots, abandoned buildings, and foreclosed homes, working in the wake of dedicated community activists who have long pushed to transform these spaces to benefit their neighborhoods. Detroit faces a thicket of challenges right now, but many see the potential of this vacant land to catalyze Detroit’s future growth.


“Want to live in the country 10 minutes from the city? Here we have it.”

Jeff Klein opened his gardening supply store, Detroit Farm and Garden, three years ago in a former police precinct-turned-gallery and commercial space in the near southwest side. A landscape architect who has helped design and develop a series of pocket parks in North Corktown, a neighborhood opposite the site of the old Detroit Tigers stadium, Klein has witnessed the rapid growth of Detroit’s urban agriculture scene over the past 14 years. “There’s no change, and lots of change.” In some ways, that’s true—at its outset, the city was lined with strips of tended fields, called ribbon farms, connected to the Detroit River, and modern urban farmers have tilled the city’s soil since midcentury. But a new generation of farmers have begun to reclaim urban space at a much faster pace. One estimate puts total production last year at 400,000 pounds of produce in the city alone, and according to Gary Wozniak, president of the economic development agency RecoveryPark, that’s just scratching the surface of the potential market. Within a 300-mile radius of downtown Detroit, there are 49 million people who spend $17 billion annually on fresh produce. Only 18 percent of that is locally sourced.

A Michigan Urban Farming Institute farm in Detroit.

The variety of urban farming groups in Detroit is impressive. Nonprofit Keep Growing Detroit, founded in 1989, supports more than 1,400 farms and gardens across the city, and a score of new organizations and projects have broken ground or been announced over the last few months. Hantz Woodlands, which has planted roughly 20,000 trees on a 140-acre plot on the east side of the city near the Indian Village development, seeks to grow a sustainable business from rows of oaks, maples, poplars, and birch. Saplings can be sold for landscaping, and the wood can later be sold for craft projects and eventually lumber. According to Hantz Farm President Michael Score, the $6 million it took to turn a tangle of brush, illegal dumping, and abandoned houses into a timber farm was a successful investment they’d make 10 times over across Detroit.

“It’s both sustainable agriculture and a way to make the city more livable,” he says. “We’re just the first people to think about it this way. A garden is a great thing, and does the same thing, but it just makes a few buildings more livable. We’re taking out a square mile of blight with this farm, that’s novel, and we’re using agriculture so it pays for itself going forward.”

For Hantz, it’s about picking the right crop (“if we grew broccoli, we would have lost a fortune”).  Mixed hardwoods offer easy maintenance and solid return as opposed to, say, a greenhouse full of orchids. The right mix of crops is also a serious concern for RecoveryPark, a $15 million dollar, 60-acre project that will be based at the currently defunct Chene-Ferry Market. Part of the plan, designed by Dan Pitera of the University of Detroit Collaborative Design Center (DCDC), would reclaim a massive, 30,000-square-foot derelict marketplace near a former commercial strip in the Poletown neighborhood and turn it into a cooperative farming enterprise. Abandoned since 1990, the shell of a community space will become an urban farm that provides job training assistance.

The Packard Plant, a massive former automobile manufacturing facility and long a symbol of blight in the city, was purchased in 2013 by Spanish developer Fernando Palazuelo, who plans to redevelop the 3.5 million-square-feet site.

“Thing is, the Coliseum in Rome is actually blight,” Pitera says. “We need to figure out how we can use places like this market, or the Packard Plant, that provide a benefit and celebrate our recent past.”

RecoveryPark speaks to the optimism that seems embedded in the recently redeveloped soil of Detroit’s urban agriculture. Farmers and gardeners alike see it as a means to provide not just food, but employment and community development, a city cure-all. Wozniak shares the optimism, but grounds it in spreadsheets, scalability, and profit projections. For him and RecoveryPark, it’s about exploiting a niche: with a focus on growing dozens of specialty vegetables in hoop houses and hydroponic greenhouses, which are usually flown in from California, Mexico, or further afield, his organization can cut out the transport cost, decrease spoilage, and turn a profit (they already supply buzzed-about local restaurants, including Selden Standard and Gold Cash Gold). A 10- to 15-acre farm with this kind of focus scales up and makes economic sense in a way a smaller city plot—or trying to grow acres of cash crops such as corn, soybeans, or wheat in an urban environment—doesn’t.

A Michigan Urban Farming Institute farm in Detroit.

“We’re a for-profit business investing $15 million in capital infrastructure that will create a tax base for the city of Detroit that hasn’t seen taxes on this land in 60 years and create 100 new jobs,” he says. “This gets people moving into the community and supports restaurants. Why wouldn’t that be a good use of the land? Nobody else is using it now.”

The Afterhouse project, at right, seeks to construct a geothermal greenhouse in Detroit that would simulate a Mediterranean climate.

In a similar vein, smaller scale startups, colorful offshoots of the urban agriculture movement, have also attempted to resolve urban issues. Afterhouse, a collaborative project between Abigail Murray, Steven Mankouche and the Archolab collective, seek to add a geothermal greenhouse to a burnt-out building on Burnside Street. Obsessed with gardening but depressed by the short growing season, the group decided to, in effect, create a Mediterranean climate in Michigan by digging out a semi-subterranean greenhouse. Wrapped in walls of heat-absorbing ceramic tiles, then covered in a facade of charred timber siding and a roof of polycarbonate plastic, the passive greenhouse, set to add soil next month and start planting, may soon sprout olives, mangoes, pomegranates, and potentially bananas, and perhaps become a new way to utilize blighted properties.

“The size of the house isn’t about making high-yield profit,” says Mankouche. “it’s more about producing food for people living on that block. In a way, what we’re doing is more of an art and agriculture project than a practical food growing project. We’re proposing something that’ll belong to a few individuals. Big architecture does not solve big problems. We’re trying to say, maybe if people did small projects that are more civic in nature, they could reach out to more people. We’re thinking of work that’s on a more domestic scale.”

The Afterhouse project hopes to add soil and begin planting next month.

At a site a little more than a mile away, florist Lisa Waud had a similar epiphany that led to her Flower House project. A wildly successful series of floral installations inside a pair of abandoned homes, which Waud picked up for $500 in an auction, the Flower House reimagines the abandoned buildings as eye-catching displays.”It’s every florist’s dream of filling an old bathtub with flowers,” says Waud.

But the installations aren’t her end goal. The proceeds from her two events will help fund the deconstruction of the buildings, which will be turned into a flower farm Waud will use to supply her full-time business, Pot & Box. (Archolab may also provide a greenhouse for Waud’s new venture.) She believes the market for locally grown peonies and dahlias can be just as robust as the one for local food.

While Afterhouse and Flower House offer creative and captivating spins on urban agriculture and horticulture, they don’t address some of the key challenges facing the movement: scale and profitability. Growing isn’t easy for small enterprises, and scaling up to become independent and self-sustaining (if that happens to be the goal) can be challenging.

A Michigan Urban Farming Institute farm in Detroit.

“You need to grow the passion and go through some lean times,” says Will Allen, a former NBA player turned noted urban farming expert who spoke of the great value of expanding urban agriculture in Detroit (his Milwaukee-based Growing Power has 300 acres under cultivation). “It’s not something that’s guaranteed. Sometimes you’re better going to Vegas with your money instead of putting it to seed.”

Near Klein’s work in North Corktown, ACRE Farms, a one-acre plot kitty corner to a youth hostel, showcases the small end of the urban farming boom and many of the issues Allen pointed out. Farmers and friends Ryan Anderson and Hannah Clark, sick of working day jobs in Washington D.C. and Chicago, respectively, decided to move to Detroit in 2011 to start an urban farm. They’ve transformed a city lot into a decent-sized operation sporting okra, eggplants, kale, and more, with a “city do not cut” sign in the middle of their plot, so municipal workers won’t accidentally mistake their vegetables for overgrowth. Over the last few years, they’ve managed to cultivate enough crops to supply a handful of local restaurants and start a CSA program, but still receive some grant funding. They don’t have fences; Clark says they like root vegetables, because people don’t take as much of their food. Anderson says when they run into people taking their food, they’ll usually stop after being told that “these plants are his livelihood.”

The Dequindre Cut. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Detroit’s so-called empty spaces can also be the site of bigger, broader experiments designed  to knit together the landscape or provide shared spaces for the community. For the last few years, designer and creative director Jane Schulak has organized Culture Lab Detroit, a creative summit at which artists, architects, and others brainstorm ideas for developing Detroit. At this year’s event in September, the focus was on utilizing green spaces, with participants, among them Allen, architect Sou Fujimoto, chef Alice Waters, landscape architect Walter Hood, and vertical garden pioneer Patric Blanc, discussing different prospects and proposals, such as Blanc’s idea of creating a series of vertical gardens amid the Dequindre Cut, a former railway turned public pathway.

Concepts like these can be key community builders.”If Sou Fujimoto builds a teahouse downtown, or Patric Blanc creates an urban garden, it’s bringing high art to Detroit and connecting the community,” Schulak says.

As challenging as it can be developing on empty ground, figuring out how to utilize abandoned, blighted property can prove even more difficult. The roughly 40,000 foreclosed homes and abandoned commercial buildings in the city, many relics of when the city’s population exceeded two million (it’s now at 700,000) can be a neighborhood eyesore. But they also represent a loss in revenue, upkeep issues, and a problem of disposal for numerous Detroit neighborhoods.

Popular wisdom says sustainable, self-reinforcing urban development can’t happen with so much empty or unused space between homes, stores, and buildings. According to an analysis of property by D3, that’s mostly true. Stable neighborhoods, such as Avenue of Fashion and Grand River/Southfield, are still relatively dense. But Corktown, which has grown the most between 2009 and 2013, according to DCI metrics, is actually not terribly dense, and Midtown, an area celebrated for a boom in business development, is actually less dense due to the recent closing of public housing projects.

The city’s successful Side Lots Program, which began late last year under new mayor Mike Duggan, has been a big driver for redevelopment, according to Monique Tate, a longtime community activist in the MorningSide neighborhood. The city provides undeveloped property to the Detroit Land Bank Authority, which then sells off the property for $100 to homeowners in the adjacent lots. So far, the program has returned thousands of properties to the tax rolls and productive use. Tate has seen lots in her neighborhood be used for community spaces, even a playground.

Empty lots in Detroit.

“As soon as it becomes available, most people take it and try to stake a claim,” she says. “Staking personal space has been a very positive aspect. And it provides opportunity across the socioeconomic spectrum.”

The Side Lots Program is just a part of Duggan’s plan to deal with the city’s raft of blighted, abandoned properties. A concentrated blight removal effort has destroyed more than 7,000 buildings in the last 18 months. Duggan has come under fire for the rising cost of the program (the average demo price has increased by 60 percent, from $10,000 to roughly $16,000 per house), as well as overpriced “set” bids for demolitions from construction firms and contractors. The recent high-profile departure of the DLBA’s former chief Kevin Simowski, a friend of Duggan who was accused of coming to work drunk and stalking a co-worker, hasn’t helped. But long-time activists have praised the administration’s recent flurry of activity. John J. George, who founded Motor City Blight Busters in 1987 after he and a few neighbors, frustrated by uncontested criminal activity on his block, boarded up a crackhouse in their neighborhood, praises the Mayor’s strategy of assisting community groups on the front line, and helping empower them to do the work of tearing down unwanted buildings.

“Are things better? Absolutely,” he says. “We need to continue to get rid of the stuff we don’t want. Any time you ask for something, like demolitions, to be faster, it’s going to cost more. And now, they’re doing things more safely. You’ll see lead and asbestos people out there in white spacesuits at these properties. Doing more homes and doing them faster may cost $15,000 to $16,000 for a medium-sized house; I have no problem with that.”

Repurposing vacant Detroit lots into an art gallery through the Alley Project.

The demolitions have also racked up demonstrated results, according to a recent study by the Skillman Foundation. The report, “Estimating Home Equity Impact from Rapid, Targeted Residential Demolition in Detroit,” says, not surprisingly, that homes within 500 feet of demolished property are seeing their value increase by 4.3 percent, while the hardest-hit neighborhoods are seeing overall property values jump by 13.8 percent.  Another study, the Detroit Demolition Impact Report, says recent demolition work has had a $209 million impact on home equity.

“I think the Land Bank Authority and the new mayor have really tried to get at the issue with the Side Lot program,” says Sylvia Tatman-Burruss, a data analyst at D3. “It really allows vacant land to be used in different ways for different neighborhoods.”

An empty lot in Detroit.

While the pace of blight removal has accelerated, there are still so many dilapidated homes to break down and cart away. Just ask Craig Fahle, Director of Public Affairs of the Detroit Land Bank Authority (DLBA), to review his organization’s property roll. The DLBA is tasked with turning the tide and selling city property. With a quarter of the land in Detroit under its control, the task is daunting. The agency’s catalog currently includes 22,351 residential structures, 54,669 residential lots, 1,541 vacant commercial lots, 207 commercial structures, and 19 industrial structures. Fahle takes the long view, seeing steady progress in reactivating vacant land, stabilizing neighborhoods, and getting more banks to make loans. Last year, of the 4,500 total home sales in the city, only 450 of them had a mortgage attached; that figure is, in effect, a referendum on the valuation of Detroit land.

“We’re doing a good job of selling, but compared to the number we’re taking in (he expects 7,000 more properties in January), it’s going to be a bit skewed,” he says. “It took the city 40 to 50 years to get here. We won’t get everything back in a few years. The payoff for this will come.”

The Packard Plant.

Scores of new owners and entrepreneurs have taken advantage of the situation and created new businesses or projects. A new manufacturing center and food processing space is set to begin construction in Eastern Market to serve as an incubator for small businesses. A Spanish developer who purchased the iconic, hulking ruins of the Packard Plant, a derelict, multi-block manufacturing facility, plans to begin turning it into a mixed-use development.

At Ponyride, an entrepreneurship hub in Corktown, a neighborhood just west of downtown, co-founder and serial entrepreneur Phil Cooley (who also owns Slows BBQ) has helped create a space that provides low rents to social entrepreneurs, a “space for Detroiters to create their own narratives.” Within a former foreclosed warehouse, he’s helped build a community of businesses, from the Empowerment Plan, which employs formerly homeless women to make jackets, to Detroit Denim, one of only a handful of domestic jean manufacturers in the United States. It’s considered a model of turning the foreclosure crisis on its head.

The Packard Plant.

But just across the street sits a hulking, concrete beast, a massive, crumbling structure sitting vacant and unused. According to Cooley, the empty warehouse is the property of Matty Moroun, “Detroit’s own Montgomery Burns,” and a sad symbol of how some are holding the city back. “Pieces of the facade and razor wire keep falling off onto our property,” says Cooley. “He keeps it empty like there’s a waiting list to get in.”

Moroun and his family are notorious for owning, and not developing, nearby Michigan Central Station, the city’s equivalent to Grand Central, which has been sitting undeveloped for decades (the Morouns just added new windows after the city plied them with a deal that promised additional land for development).  Held up as the poster children for greedy, out-of-town developers, the Morouns, who live in expensive suburbans homes north of the city, are emblematic, perhaps, of the impact the suburbs have on Detroit’s development. According to George C. Galster, an urban affairs professor at Wayne State University and author of Driving Detroit: The Quest for Respect in Motown, the vacant land, the lack of development, all spring from what he calls “a giant sucking sound” from the suburbs.

A Michigan Urban Farming Institute farm in Detroit.

“To understand vacant land in Detroit is to understand why it’s there,” he says, “why the forces at play are still creating the issue. The force is the vast majority of buildings still being created on the suburban fringes. We’ve created a perpetual excess of housing in the region.”

For the last 60 years, he says, Detroit has created an average of 10,000 excess dwellings a year, mostly in north suburban areas such as wealthy Oakland County. When people vacate land, they move up to the next best housing option in a chain of moves that often leaves the least valuable (i.e. inner-city) homes empty. While some areas of the city, such as Midtown, the southwest (an area with a burgeoning Mexican population), and stable older neighborhoods are doing well, the vast remainder of Detroit has seen population and value hemorrhage for the last five decades. While there are many bright spots, plans and projects that have started to make a dent in the staggering amount of open space in the city will need to be expanded to make a serious dent in the issue.

“Suburban property developers don’t care what happens in Detroit,” Galster says. “All these efforts to knock down blighted buildings to make areas more attractive, and more blight will grow back next year. Until somebody deals with the cause of the problem, the city of Detroit will constantly fight this rear-guard action, rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”


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