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Access to publicly owned land in Detroit

Marja M. WintersBy Marja M. Winters
Special to the Michigan Citizen

Just a few short years ago, the issue of vacant land in Detroit garnered international attention. As academics and researchers studied the complexities of America’s older industrial cities, the issue of vacant land took center stage.

Everyone wanted to know just how much vacant land existed in the city and the extent of the associated liability.  Others wanted to know what the city planned to do with the vacant land. Everyone had ideas and opinions about what the future of vacant land could be.

Over the course of time and many different conversations, the widely held perception that vacant land only constitutes liabilities and problems has been overshadowed by the reality that vacant land is an asset and can be leveraged to create significant opportunities now and in the future.

As the deputy director of the Planning and Development Department (P&DD) for the City of Detroit, the subject of vacant land is a critical component of my daily work. P&DD is the City agency responsible for the disposition of surplus city-owned land.

Currently, we have more than 60,000 parcels of land in our inventory (inclusive of vacant land and structures). The land we own is not concentrated in one or even a few neighborhoods; it is very much scattered across the city.

As you may know, there are several other public agencies that own land in Detroit, including:  Detroit Public Schools, Michigan Land Bank Fast Track Authority, Detroit Land Bank Authority, Detroit Housing Commission and the Wayne County Treasurer. All of these agencies are now working collaboratively to devise policies and strategies that enhance efficiency and transparency in the land sales process.

Recently, there has been extensive dialogue about the reality that investors from across the globe are realizing the opportunity in Detroit and have increased interest in purchasing property.  We have heard the community loud and clear, including at the Detroit Food Policy Council Listening Session, and agree that access to property by Detroiters is a priority. We invite interested and qualified individuals and organizations to discuss their plans with us and apply to purchase available City-owned land. To that end, we are working to refine our land sales process.

Changes include getting the inventory online so the public can search for available land — including legal land uses and approximate pricing, simplifying the application and making it available electronically, and establishing standard timelines for a response to land sale applications. Citizen and stakeholder input is vital to our success, so please contact the Detroit Food Policy Council or our office directly if you have ideas on how to improve our process.

While we are working on these changes, it is important to note that we continue to review, evaluate and process land sale applications. Due to staff reductions, it may now take longer than it has in the past, but our work in this regard continues. Additionally, traditional programs, such as the Adjacent Vacant Lot Program and the Adopt a Lot program, are also still open and available. As a result of the recently adopted Urban Agriculture Ordinance, we are also working with a number of stakeholders, including the Detroit Food Policy Council, to devise a policy to govern the sale of land for this now legal land use.

While it is important for us to strategically retain some land for economic development and future development purposes, we also realize that there are citizens and community organizations that can put the land to productive use, which we support fully.  We are committed to continuing the dialogue on this critical and transformative subject and look forward to working with citizens, private property owners and community organizations to ensure we are being good stewards of one of our most valuable assets.

Marja Winters can be reached at


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