Thinking for ourselves
By Shea Howell
November 24, Dec 1, 2012
John Hantz is pressuring the City Council to sell nearly 2000 vacant lots on the East side to him. Last week, in spite of an informal agreement that this deal would be put on hold until the Detroit Agricultural Policy was in place, Rob Anderson, the Director of the city’s Planning and Development Department urged the council committee to approve the deal. The council’s Planning and Economic Development Committee, chaired by Councilwoman Saunteel Jenkins, declined approval awaiting more specifics. Mike Score, President of Hantz Farms told the committee he would work with the planning staff to have a planning agreement for their approval before this week’s session.
And that is the core of the problem. At best, this committee will have a day to review a planning agreement that will cover the largest single land sale in the history of the city. This deal is 3 times as large as the Poletown debacle. It holds implications for the residents of the area and has persistently been weak on specifics. As Councilman Kenyatta commented at the hearing, “No one thinks this deal is so Hantz can cut the grass on vacant lots.”
Councilman Cockrel noted that the deal raised basic questions of fairness. Why should John Hantz be given rapid approval for land purchases at this moment? Why are others not given an equal opportunity? As Councilman Cockrel pointed out, the Recovery Park Project, an equally ambitious program, has been put on hold. What is the rush on this deal? Will it make the Recovery Park effort more difficult? What will be the impact on the growing urban garden movement? What will be the impact on residents?
These questions seem worth pursuing. But they also raise some fundamental issues for the Council to consider about its own responsibilities. First, much of the contentiousness around Hantz Farms and other development efforts would be moderated if the Council, as a matter of course, required Community Benefit Agreements (CBA’s). In the early 1990’s activists influenced by environmental justice saw these agreements as a way to offer a broader vision for urban reconstruction and to ensure that residents get permanent improvements in the quality of their lives. Beginning in Los Angeles, the CBA movement has spread to several other cities including Pittsburg, San Diego, Syracuse and Atlanta.
By bringing together a broad based community coalition to work with developers and city officials in an inclusive, transparent, and accountable process, the CBA has proven to be a tool that enables development to reflect deeper community values to the benefit of those often left out or victimized by such efforts in the past.
The Planning and Economic Development Committee is aware of these practices. At the same meeting with Hantz, they requested that Henry Ford Health Systems provide such an agreement with the residents of the area affected by a proposed development plan there. The Council is also aware of the efforts by developers to turn this process into a sham by creating their own sponsored citizen advisory groups. Councilwoman Jenkins sharply questioned representatives of HFHS as to why they wanted to create their own citizens advisory council instead of dealing with the coalition of organizations already well established in the area affected by the proposed expansion.
Additionally, the City Council should consider establishing a policy that protects the tax structure of long term and elder residents in areas affected by sale of city lands. At a minimum, taxes on residents and elders should be fixed at current rates, with predictable small increments over time. This would enable people to stay in their homes, rather than be taxed out as land values increase.
The one specific purpose stated by Hantz for this land grab is to create scarcity. This has predictable effects that bring about the most inequitable and unfair results of development schemes. We, and our City Council can do better than this.