Hardwood trees one way to stop Detroit scars, film argues

By MORGAN LINN
Capital News Service

LANSING — Blight harms Detroit residents every day.

It lowers the perceived worth of a community and makes residents feel unsafe walking in their own neighborhood.

That’s why John Hantz, a finance mogul and long-time Detroit resident, decided to help replace that blight with the world’s largest urban farm.

He promised $30 million of his own money to renovate 10,000 acres of Detroit.

“It’s an investment in a livable neighborhood,” said Mike Score, a Detroit native and the president of Hantz Farms, Hantz’s company.

But Hantz met unexpected resistance from some local residents who saw the move not as charitable, but as a grab for land by a wealthy, white business executive.

The project also led to the release of the new documentary “Land Grab,” about the creation of Hantz Woodlands and the political uproar surrounding it.

Director-producer Sean O’Grady had heard about the controversy and wanted to find out why residents opposed a project that could benefit them.

O’Grady, who grew up in Saginaw, previously produced two other documentaries, “In a World” and “Big Sur.”

The reason for the opposition boils down to a long history of broken promises in Detroit, according to the film.

Hantz’s plan to purchase land and improve it sounded a lot like projects proposed in the past that had failed, making Detroit residents hesitant to trust another “charitable” project.

Under the plan, Hantz would buy thousands of foreclosed lots from the city. Some neighbors worried about that redistribution. They didn’t want a wealthy, white man owning a large portion of the east side and profiting from it.

Some of them had applied to purchase lots that Hantz bought from the city, and were upset that they were no longer available.

So Hantz Farms offered to sell lots at a loss to residents, Score said.

“I insisted that at the beginning, for the first 60 days, the residents of Hantz Woodlands could buy the lots next to their homes,” he said. “We were paying $300 per lot and the neighbors could buy it for $200 a lot.”

Before being purchased by Hantz, the abandoned property wasn’t making any profit, Sen. Bert Johnson, D-Highland Park, said during an interview in the film.

Score said, “We weren’t grabbing land, we were buying it.” Purchasing the land returned it to private ownership. Hantz now pays $180,000 a year in property taxes.

The company paid $7 million to renovate the sites and hasn’t made any profit yet, Score said. And he has no plans to make money off of the land anytime soon.

“It’s not smart business,” Johnson said in the film. Hantz is “beautifying the community without incentive.”

Neighbors worried what would be produced on the land. The initial plan was to create an orchard, but residents worried that rats would be attracted to fruit falling on the ground, Score said. So Hantz planted rows of mixed hardwood trees instead. The trees will eventually be harvested for lumber.

After a four-and-a-half-year battle, the City Council approved the project 5-4 in 2013, requiring that Hantz clear a certain number of lots within two years. Failure to meet the quota meant returning the land.

But in just a year, four workers cleared almost 2,000 blight-ridden lots, knocked down 56 dangerous buildings and planted more than 15,000 trees, Score said.

And property values jumped from $15,500 to $74,750 between 2009 and 2015, according to the film.

Hantz also “formed a family foundation and invested several hundred thousand dollars per year in the neighborhood schools,” Score said. “The Hantz Foundation has been plugging gaps in the educational system, so that in addition to the neighborhoods looking nicer, the schools start performing at a higher level.”

The change has greatly benefited the lives of area residents, Score said.

“Our neighbors tell their families about how the neighborhood’s changed, and they have people who can’t believe it,” Score said. “They take a look around and they’re won over because they now see that their family has a better life.”

And the trees are eliminating areas for crime and dangerous wild dogs, he said. The neat rows of hardwood trees mean more open space and higher visibility.

“The habitat for people who are doing illegal activities is gone,” Score said. “Police came up and told us that now when they’re patrolling, they can sit three or four blocks away from a place where bad things are happening and they can patrol.”

The project’s success has changed the minds of some former opponents as well.

“The most interesting one is André Spivey, who is on the City Council and actually voted against the project,” O’Grady said. “He now says that if he could take back the vote, it’s probably something that he would do.”

The documentary also had a positive effect.

For example, a group of Detroit students saw the movie and it changed their perspective, Score said. “They came into the movie thinking they wouldn’t like Hantz Woodlands, but after they saw the movie, they’re more supportive.”

For those who remain opposed, O’Grady said he hopes they feel their voices are represented and treated as valid by the film.

“I tried to be as objective as possible in terms of putting enough information out there from both sides,” he said. “What’s important to me is that people who are opponents can watch the film and they feel that their viewpoints are represented.”

O’Grady says he hopes the film generates discussion and gets a message of healthy skepticism across.

“It’s important to still be skeptical and to still wonder what people’s intentions are,” he said. But “you can’t be opposed to all progress.”

So what’s next for Hantz Farms and “Land Grab?”

The city had promised that Hantz Farms could buy an additional 180 acres at the same price as before if it met its initial goals.

The project exceeded those goals 11 months ahead of schedule in 2014, Score said.

However, that sale still hasn’t been finalized. If a deal on the new land isn’t reached by the end of the year, the company will take the issue to court, he said.

Instead of 180 acres, Hantz Farms is now requesting only 50 to avoid conflict, Score said.

“We want to finish what we started and make areas truly livable when we’re done,” he said.

Morgan Linn writes for Great Lakes Echo.