The Mayor's Land Rush

THINKING FOR OURSELVES
The Mayor’s Land Rush
By Shea Howell
Michigan Citizen, March 21, 2010

In the midst of the lackluster Mayoral election in 2008, University of Detroit Mercy Professor of Architecture Dan Pitera released a newly-designed map of the city of Detroit. Professor Pitera wanted to give people a picture of the under-population of Detroit. He estimated that the vacant land parcels, nearly 40 square miles, equalled the landmass of San Francisco.

Pitera hoped the map would spark renewed discussion about the city’s future. He asked, “What if a lot of the vacant land was allowed to become green? Could Detroit really become the greenest city in the United States?”

Pitera was not alone in this vision. Michigan State University’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources was one of many organizations talking about the possibility of a new urban design based on reclaiming agricultural production.

“Given the amount of open land, I think there’s a real opportunity for Detroit to provide a significant amount of its fruits and vegetables for its population and the surrounding area,” said Mike Hamm, Mott Chair of Sustainable Agriculture at MSU. Hamm went on to say that, aside from improving the diet of Detroiters, “I think it can help create jobs and stimulate small businesses in the city, with the potential for spin-off businesses in processing and distribution.”

Detroit Free Press reporter John Gallagher reported on the unveiling of the map and the subsequent conversation, noting that the idea of a green Detroit was “creating a buzz in local planning circles.”

The buzz was so great that Gallagher posed the question of vacant land use to all the contenders for Mayor, including Dave Bing. Gallagher reported, “The Free Press called several of the mayor candidates to talk about the city’s vacant land but none returned the calls.”

So in December of 2008, Dave Bing while running for Mayor, in the midst of a lot of talk about vacant land, didn’t think enough about vacant land to bother returning a phone call from one of our city’s best-known reporters. Now we are supposed to think he has somehow miraculously both recognized and solved a problem that has stimulated intense debate for several decades. This is sheer foolishness.

Either Bing consciously decided not to engage in public discussion over the issue of land use. Or he was unaware of the discussion. In either case he demonstrated that he is among the least -qualified to propose plans that will alter the face of Detroit for decades.

There is, of course, another explanation. Mayor Bing has actually been thinking about the development of land in Detroit for a long time. He has especially recognized that one of Detroit’s greatest assets is the river. That’s why he has bought up a huge piece of it.

Crain’s reported in August of 2009, 9 months after Bing’s silence, that “Current public space improvements will serve as a foundation for renewed private development on the water once the economy rebounds.” Along with the completion of the River Walk, the $15 million project to build a passenger ship terminal, and the $50 million grant from Kresge Foundation, two major residential projects are still on the drawing boards. Dave Bing owns one. “The Watermark, a high end condominium development originally to be developed by Dave Bing, has been placed into a blind trust while he is mayor.” But once he is no longer Mayor, Dave Bing will still own and benefit from this project. Unlike a blind trust for financial interests, Bing knows exactly where his property is and what is happening to it every day.

The current rush to grab the land of Detroiters is fraught with special interests. Among these is the Mayor. We all need to ask the hard questions of just who is benefiting from yet another effort to seize land from those who live on and care for it.

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