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Detroit public land sales: Just, fair, transparent?

Detroit public land sales: Just, fair, transparent?
• Sun, Sep 02, 2012

By Renee V. Wallace

Everyone agreed, Detroit’s process is broken.

The sale of adjacent lots sometimes bypasses the neighbor next door and transfers land ownership to distant landlords. The adopt-a-lot program doesn’t always work. Detroiter’s ,whose sweat equity and personal finances have been used to care for vacant lots in their neighborhoods, are not distinguished from other potential buyers who’ve made no investment in the community. Some people have been successful at buying land while others have failed. In general the process is convoluted and is as maddening to change from the inside as it is to navigate from the outside. These are examples of the sentiments shared by over 200 people who attended last Wednesday’s Public Listening Session about the land sale process in the city of Detroit hosted by the Detroit Food Policy Council (DFPC).

Phil Jones, DFPC’s chair and general manager of Colors restaurant, opened the session which was held at Gleaners, welcoming us to the space and sharing why the process for selling public land is critical to food security. Two of Detroit’s leaders in the urban agriculture movement, Dan Carmody, president of Eastern Market Corporation, and Myrtle Thompson-Curtis, co-founder of Feedom Freedom and a community organizer, framed the land sale issue for the listeners. The issue was sparked with Mayor Dave Bing’s recent announcement about the Hantz Farm land sale.

Presentations by four panelists explained how the process works from the perspectives of community and city administration. Community members Jerry Ann Hebron of Oakland Avenue Community Garden and Rosie Sharp of Shipherd Greens Garden shared their successes and failures at buying city-owned land. Oakland Avenue applied in 2009 but did not get a response until 2012 when they were told to reapply. To date they have acquired three of the 10 lots they want. Shipherd Green’s story is similar but has a different ending. They too were denied the opportunity to purchase the two lots on which they continue growing food — food that is free for the taking by the community. Rob Anderson, director of the City Planning and Development Department, which reports to Mayor Bing and has direct responsibility for selling city land, made no excuses as he shared his frustration with trying to provide Detroiters the prompt, professional, predictable service they deserve. Marcel Todd, director of the City Planning Commission, which reports to the City Council, discussed responsibility for ensuring proposed land use complies with the city’s zoning ordinances and ensuring that the required approvals outlined in the 1995 City Council resolution are secured. Anderson and Todd spoke of continuing the work to streamline the process to allow more land purchases.

For over an hour, numerous residents recounted failed buying experiences, asked questions, offered solutions and expressed concerns about the city’s land sale process. Flip charts, index cards, notes, video and audio tapes captured this valuable engagement, which is being transcribed so that it is available for the heavy lifting of converting the words spoken into actions taken to create a process that reflects the will of the people of Detroit.

We came, we spoke, we listened and we were heard. Now what? What happens next? How does Detroit move from the broken land sale process it has today to one that is fair, just, transparent and accessible to all? Who will give the call to action to co-create a land sale process that is innovative and takes into consideration the diverse scenarios in the city? Who will champion and lead a change process that results in both social and economic justice? Who will hold city officials, citizens and the DFPC accountable for carrying out their respective roles and responsibilities?

What will the DFPC, who convened the session, do? Detroiters interested in buying lots in their neighborhood or adjacent to their homes were encouraged to contact the city, including those in the footprint of the Hantz Farm project. Will they follow through and buy the land? Will the city’s process allow these sales to happen in an efficient manner?

As faithful stewards of our great city’s future, it is up to each of us to engage in developing a land sale process that creates the Detroit we desire. The process must be just, fair and transparent. The process must not replicate the economic imbalances that remain from past actions. The process must ensure that all Detroiters have an equal opportunity to buy and own land, whether they have $300 or $30 million. What will you do to help make this a reality?

Renee V. Wallace was the facilitator for the DFPC listening session. She is CEO of Doers Consulting Alliance, a Detroit based company.   Doers’ customized “Strategic Execution Management Solutions” help leaders reach their goals through disciplined orderly execution of strategic initiatives. She can be reached at 313.475.7452, or

To learn more about The Detroit Food Policy Council visit or call 313.833.0396.

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