By Shea Howell
Special to the Michigan Citizen
DETROIT — Hantz Farms’ drive to take over nearly 2,000 publicly owned lots on the city’s east side is an opportunity to think very differently about how we approach land use. We urge the City Council to put in place productive, visionary principles, policies and practices to guide this and all future efforts at development.
There are some things everyone agrees upon. First, Detroit neighborhoods suffer from neglect. Public policies and private developers have focused their efforts downtown. On those rare occasions when developments moved into smaller communities, long-term residents were evicted, driven out or displaced. This history fuels much of the opposition to Hantz. It is not a distant history. It is a pattern repeating itself today in the Cass Corridor as it transforms to Midtown, in Corktown, parts of southwest Detroit and the east side.
Second, this is the largest single land deal the city has ever considered. It will be a massive property transfer of public land to a private developer.
Third, citizens of Detroit have a fierce determination to have a say in the policies that shape our collective future. From the first ill-fated Detroit Works public meeting where over 1,000 citizens unexpectedly turned out, through the 82 percent vote rejecting emergency managers, to the more than 300 people outside City Council chambers at the end of November demanding a public hearing on Hantz plans, Detroiters want a collective, engaged, broadly based, participatory process for determining the direction of our city. They are becoming increasing less tolerant of representative bodies that bow to corporate interests. Many recognize that corporate-foundation managed engagement processes are no substitute for serious democratic decision making.
Against this background, the Detroit City Council has been struggling to fulfill its responsibilities. In spite of the relentless criticism by the mainstream media and corporate elite, Council has been consistently sensitive to public processes. Their refusal to turn Belle Isle over to state management was recognition of their role as guardians of public trust.
Council should bring a similar skepticism to bear on the Hantz Farms deal. Instead of jumping into a massive land sale, we encourage the Council to put in place policies and practices that will move neighborhood developments onto positive, principled and productive frameworks.
The council should develop Community Benefit Polices requiring that all developers commit to Community Benefit Agreements (CBA) and to produce Community Impact Reports. These processes have been widely adopted by other cities and could go a long way in answering concerns about the most vulnerable among us. These processes would build on the authentic democratic process emerging in our city.
A CBA is more than an agreement between Hantz Farm and the Lower Eastside Action Plan (LEAP) group. While I have respect for LEAP’s work, they have been little more than a cheerleading organization for Hantz. They have not questioned the purpose or process of the scheme. Their letter of support to the Council says they believe Hantz’s mission “is to help people achieve their life dreams, and to build more sustainable communities.” How do they reconcile this with the comment that Hantz’s main objective is to create scarcity? How to they account for Hantz’s refusal to meet with opposition community groups to find common ground?
A true CBA would explore questions like how Hantz intends to handle the demolition of 115 structures. At a conservative estimate of $8,000 per structure, this will cost $920,000. Where will this money come from? Where will it go? What is the cost-benefit analysis of the tax credits Hantz is counting on for doing this demolition?
A CBA could mandate that 75 percent of the demolition be handled by Detroit firms. It could demand 50 percent of those be nonprofit and faith-based groups.
The City Council should seize this opportunity to create new processes that could benefit the whole community, not just the dreams of a single individual.
Contact Shea Howell at firstname.lastname@example.org