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Hantz Woodlands information session leaves citizens with more questions

By Victor L. Walker
Special to the Michigan

DETROIT — More than 100 residents and homeowners of the lower eastside filled St. Maron Hall March 4 for an information session that gave them details of how Hantz Woodlands will remove blight from their neighborhood and plant more than 15,000 trees.

In December 2012, City Council approved the sale of more than 1,500 parcels of land to Hantz Woodlands, which has said it would commit itself to beautifying the neighborhood. The sale is considered the largest speculative land sale in the city’s history and has received widespread criticism.

The panel, facilitated by State Rep. Alberta Tinsley-Talabi of the 9th District, included Mike Score, president of Hantz Farms LLC; Marcel Todd, director of Detroit City Planning Commission (CPC); city planner Laura Buhl; Greg Holman of Planning and Development; and Khalil Ligon, project manager for the Lower Eastside Action Plan (LEAP).

Talabi said she wanted residents to be informed by asking questions directly to the people responsible for the Hantz development project.

“So much has happened as it relates to this land sale and information is power. Greater information is greater power,” Talabi said.

Attendees not only wanted to hear from the panel how the project will move forward, but some felt the process had not received enough input from the community and didn’t address their concerns, particularly the properties adjacent to their homes.

One of Holman’s roles in the process is to identify which of the properties for the Hantz sale are city-owned and adjacent to properties owned by residents. The goal is to allow residents to purchase the adjacent parcels. Some residents were surprised to find out March 4 was also the deadline to apply to purchase adjacent parcels.

Holman said letters offering residents the opportunity to purchase adjacent parcels went out more than a month ago and residents should have received them. When some residents insisted they had not received letters, Holman said he would look into possibly extending the deadline to accommodate them.

“Some properties have sat for 30 or 40 years without any interest in purchasing them,” Holman said. Gloria Lowe, of the community organization We Want Green Too, challenged Holman’s claim.

“In order for us to move ahead, we have to move ahead with the truth and that’s not true. People have been trying for years to purchase land from the city but were faced with road blocks,” Lowe said.

Lowe was also concerned that the Hantz project doesn’t include a commitment to employment for Detroiters.

“Everything we’re hearing right now either benefits the city or Hantz Woodlands. We’re talking about demolishing buildings and planting trees but no one is talking about jobs,” Lowe said.

“Our primary focus is not job creation but blight removal,” Score responded. He also said he was not comfortable promising job creation in an effort to secure the land, but did say the Hantz plan could impact job creation in the future.

“By replacing the blight with beauty, we can impact job retention because businesses may be compelled to stay in the community,” Score added.

Lowe insisted the Hantz project could create jobs by hiring Detroit subcontractors to clean the properties and demolish structures on the land. “Hire organizations like WARM Training Center to do the demolitions and get Detroiters working,” Lowe said.

WARM Training Center is a nonprofit organization that promotes the development of resource-efficient, affordable, healthy homes and communities. Reclaim Detroit, founded in 2011, is part of WARM and uses a method called deconstruction to keep materials from vacant homes out of landfills and ready for reuse.

When Jeremy Haines, sales and marketing manager for Reclaim Detroit, heard that Lowe mentioned the idea of Reclaim Detroit partnering with Hantz, he said he would definitely be interested.

“I would love to identify properties that could be good candidates for such a partnership. However, there are a variety of approaches to removing buildings. It isn’t always about demolition versus deconstruction.”

Haines said, with such a large amount of properties, there are some homes where deconstruction is the best method and others where demolition is more economical. Haines said he would be interested in taking a closer look.

Residents say some of the vacant homes in their neighborhood are old and they fear asbestos and lead contamination will become an issue if demolition is the primary method of blight removal.

“I prefer deconstruction over demolition. If we are going to be growing food on this land we don’t want it to be over land with 80 years of lead paint,” homeowner Maria Thomas said.

Thomas also said people have been beautifying the neighborhood for decades and should receive some benefit.

“When you have people who have been taking care of some of this land for 10 or 20 years this land should be given to them. We’ve paid for it with sweat equity. Give it to us and get it back on the tax roll,” Thomas said.

Another concern residents had is that such a large amount of land was sold to Hantz Woodlands without an Urban Agriculture Ordinance to govern land usage in the city.

“We wanted to wait until the Ordinance was in place to safeguard the public’s interest in case the city has to reclaim the properties,” Todd said.

However, the anticipated ordinance has moved closer to adoption and will be discussed during a hearing at City Council March 7, according to Buhl. Without the ordinance, though, Hantz Woodlands will still be held accountable for the promises made in the proposed development agreement.

Holman said Planning and Development will evaluate Hantz Woodlands’ compliance with the agreement, including following zoning laws and ordinances, demolition of vacant structures and garbage removal, and keeping property taxes up to date.

“LEAP is a committed to bring the land on the lower eastside to good use,” Ligon said. LEAP developed a community response to what should happen with the land on the lower eastside and created a community agreement to address community concerns with what Hantz Woodlands will do with it. Though the agreement is not legally binding, Score said he is also committed to community input and direction.

“I want to have more open meetings in the community. I want to walk around your neighborhoods with you and talk about opportunities and if we are keeping our promise to the community,” Score said. Score gave out his cell number and encouraged residents to call him anytime throughout the process. “One main goal is to make sure the community is informed and satisfied,” he added.

Right down to the last minute, residents still had questions about the Hantz project. Seeing that, Talabi committed to having more information sessions in the future. However, Lowe didn’t seem as thrilled about the meeting.

“This meeting has been just like all the others. It has not dealt with all the concerns residents have. No mention has been made to discuss timelines for this development and no one is discussing why this land has never been accessible to the people,” Lowe said.

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