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Hantz Farms relies on community support for project

Hantz Farms President Mike Score shows the demonstration project near Davison and Mt. Elliot, where over 900 trees were planted in vacant lots. ERIC T. CAMPBELL PHOTO

By Eric T. Campbell
The Michigan Citizen

DETROIT — After initial skepticism, some community activists on the lower east side are supporting the sale of city-owned lots for repurposing as a large-scale tree farm.

The 170-acre forestry development proposed by the Hantz Farms Group is one of several projects cited in a foundation-funded, community-based redevelopment plan.

The recently released Lower Eastside Action Plan (LEAP) began with a meeting of concerned activists in the Spring of 2009, according to Maggie DeSantis, president of the Warren/Conner Development Coalition. The initial discussions included members of GenesisHOPE and the Jefferson East Business Association.

“We started to talk candidly about losing population and businesses at an astounding rate,” DeSantis told the Michigan Citizen. “Over time we said, let’s make a plan that’s uniquely resident-driven and also reality-based.”

LEAP participant groups have now grown to eight east-side community groups with the input, through surveys and community meetings, of thousands of east-side residents, according to DeSantis.

A partnership with the Community Development Advocates of Detroit (CDAD) in June 2010 led to funding for several projects designed to repurpose vacant land, including the latest proposal by Hantz Farms.

LEAP planners initially refused to meet with Hantz representatives, according to DeSantis. But residents generally accepted Hantz’ modified proposal, which includes a hardwood tree farm, ornamental plants and, if approved, fruit orchards.

“The lower east side has the largest area of aggregate vacant land in the city. The general assumption is that we won’t repopulate, so we have to generate some kind of economic activity,” DeSantis told the Michigan Citizen. “With the Hantz project, we’re saying, let’s support it, let’s watch and make sure it’s implemented the way it was proposed.”

Joan Moss, executive director of the Church of the Messiah Housing Corporation, says that as long as nobody is being put out of their home, the Hantz plan is a “win-win” situation.

“I’m really conscious of the way that you redevelop these areas is vital,” Moss says. “I think Hantz Farms will do more good than bad.”

Hantz Farms president, Mike Score, says that an agreement with the Mayor Dave Bing’s Office, through Planning and Development Department, has been reached on a proposal to buy land within a development zone that’s adjacent to Indian Village — roughly from Van Dyke to St. Jean and from Jefferson to Mack.

John Hantz, a 20-year resident of Indian Village, is proposing to buy only city-owned property, so the privately owned property stays in place; any vacant structures that can’t be rehabilitated would be demolished, at Hantz’s cost; brush will be removed out of the alleyways, vacant lots and fence rows; grass will be cut; illegally dumped debris will be removed.

John Hantz is the CEO of Hantz Group, a financial services conglomerate based in Southfield.

“Our proposal is, by changing the landscape, the people who live here have a better neighborhood and more equity in their homes,” Score told the Michigan Citizen during a recent interview. “When we get to the point where the trees are planted, we’ll mow the grass, we’ll keep the area clean, we’ll partner with the neighbors, to make sure that the neighborhood is a better place to live.”

Currently there are 1,924 city-owned lots within the proposed Hantz Farms development zone. Score says that residents who have developed adjacent properties on their own will be given the first option to purchase them.

The proposed agreement indicates Hantz will purchase city parcels for $300 a piece — or $3600 for an acre.

Score says the Hantz plan includes shrubs or ornamentals planted in small lots between occupied homes and hardwood trees on larger tracts. Hardwoods grow well in Detroit’s climate and will accrue commercial value over time.

“We took out the crops that created anxiety for our neighbors, and found crops that would beautify the neighborhood and would be appreciated by the neighbors,” says Score.

The City of Detroit, through the City Planning Commission, is waiting for an opinion from the Attorney General’s office, allowing it to develop a new local agriculture ordinance independent of the state’s Right To Farm Act.

Detroit City Council is expected to vote on the matter before the end of the summer. Approval is required before the Hantz proposal can move forward.

Roy Crump has lived at the corner of McClellan and Charlevoix since 1974. He was mowing the lawn in front of the vacant house next door when the Michigan Citizen spoke with him the morning of Aug. 1.

Crump says before he retired, he cut the grass on several lots adjacent to his home. The Hantz project sounds like a good idea, he says, provided they keep their promise.

“If they just throw up some trees that’s one thing — but if they maintain the vacant lots, it would be good,” Crump told the Michigan Citizen.

A city park existed near St. Paul and Cadillac until the city pulled out all the equipment three years ago, according to Jo Branch, who lives next to the lot. She has been planting sunflowers and hostas in the former park since then, along with a rock garden in the alley.

Branch says that she’s optimistic about the plan, although Hantz representatives failed to hold a community meeting in July, or contact residents about the cancellation.

“I think it’s a wonderful proposal if they continue to organize people at the grassroots and get more people directly involved,” Branch says.

LEAP projects will be funded by the ERB Family Foundation, Detroit LISC and the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan.

To read the LEAP Phase I Planning report, visit https://sites.google.com/site/leapdetroit/updates/leapphaseiplanningprocesscomplete

Contact Eric T. Campbell at ericcampbell@michigancitizen.com

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