Chances are you’ve read or heard that nearly a third of Detroit is comprised of vacant land. While it makes for a clickable headline, the most sensationalized city in the United States is more likely about 14% truly vacant, below the national large city average of 16.7%. Still, 14% of 142.9 square miles is a lot of vacant land to be on the city’s books, not to mention the tremendous eyesores and potential safety concerns unoccupied land creates. Detroit has already seen grassroots urban gardens, corporate urban farms, and a DTE Energy solar panel farm take shape to eat away some of this land. Below are three more ideas to combat the vacant land issue in Detroit.
1. Bring Industry Back
The Interstate 94 Industrial Park sits on 186 acres (1/67th of total vacant land in the city) northeast of downtown above the I-75 and I-94 interchange. Large industrial corporations like auto parts supplier Flex-N-Gate and steel producers ArcelorMittal are currently building facilities in the vacant space and several more titans of industry are rumored to be interested. Although there are many small vacant residential plots scattered throughout the city, these huge expanses of land sitting next to railroads and freeways are just as attractive to manufacturers as they are unattractive to residents and small businesses. Coupled with Detroit’s automotive and manufacturing prowess and existing supply chain infrastructure, large swathes of vacant land could be combined across the city and sold as manufacturing sites.
Mayor Mike Duggan spoke about the subject in April and admitted the difficulty of assembling large contiguous tracts of land with easy access to transportation veins. “We’re almost out of land…There aren’t that many…So we’re working on creating more of them.” Such work is being considered west of the Coleman A. Young International Airport where various vacant or nearly-vacant residential blocks could be packaged together along with the grossly underused airport itself to create space for another industrial park. Tax breaks and purchasing incentives are obvious methods to attract industrial tenants but what makes Detroit most appealing is its historic network of manufacturing and thriving industrial supply chain.
2. Purchase Side Lots
Smaller parcels of vacant land dot the residential neighborhoods around the city and require a more creative response due to their small and fragmentary nature. When vacant homes are demolished, even in the strongest of neighborhoods, they’re prone to vegetation overgrowth and debris accumulation. Programs such as the fair hosted by the Detroit Land Bank Authority in April allow for homeowners to purchase a vacant adjoining lot at a discounted price. The sheer number of vacant lots scattered throughout the city makes for a daunting task for municipal maintenance but responsible homeowners looking to add to their property can alleviate that pressure while adding to the city’s property tax base. More information about the Detroit Land Bank’s side lot program can be found here.
3. Greening of Lots
Another, less-direct method of raising vacant land value is “greening” these plots by removing debris and planting grass and trees. Although the space is still technically vacant it provides positive impacts to surrounding inhabited lots and paves the way for future development. A 2004 study from the University of Pennsylvania found that the greening of vacant areas raises property values of adjacent lots by as much as 30%. Aside from the increases in property taxes creating increased revenue for the city, greener neighborhoods free of trash are more likely to attract residents and small businesses.
The Philadelphia LandCare program began greening lots in 1996; a bullet point from a page on their website titled “Evidence of Success” states: “In 2012, one study found that the $15.3 million spent by the City on the program yielded a total housing gain of $3.5 billion. This means that for every dollar spent to clean and green vacant land, housing wealth increased by a whopping $224.” The PLC first focused on lots with high traffic in areas already thriving or in the midst of redevelopment and then moved out to the residential neighborhoods in the early 2000s. A similar program in Detroit’s residential neighborhoods and commercial corridors could do wonders for the public perception of the city, for the residents of Detroit, and for the city’s coffers.
“Potential” is the word most often associated with Detroit these days and perhaps nothing has as much potential on a basic level as vacant land. As the city evolves in the next few decades, grassroots organizations and property developers alike will have a large canvas on which to paint their ideas.
By Jared Hoffman
Research Associate, JMJ Phillip Group