Crews remove brush, trees and debris at the Hantz Woodlands project at Belvidere and Goethe streets. (Max Ortiz)
Detroit — A demolition on Belvidere Street on Friday marked the launch of the largest urban farming and woodlands project in the United States.
Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr and Gov. Rick Snyder approved an agreement for Hantz Farms Inc. to buy a total of 1,500 blighted parcels on the city’s east side and clear blight, the Department of Human Services announced. The deal involves converting some of the property to a tree-growing operation.
“We are pleased and delighted that this project is moving forward,” John Hantz, chairman and CEO of The Hantz Group, said in a released statement. “We appreciate the efforts of Gov. Snyder and DHS Director Maura Corrigan. Their commitment to cleaning up the blight and repurposing vacant land is clearly demonstrated with Hantz Woodlands.”
Hantz has a vision to cultivate the land as a commercial urban farm, but the city must give approval before that can take place.
Tina Bassett, a spokeswoman for Hantz Farms, said the company owned 150 lots and maintained about 700.
“Neighbors would come out and ask for help. We went ahead and did it anyway,” she said. “But now all 1,500 (lots) are available to purchase and we’re looking forward to it.”
News of the project heartened residents in the target area.
LaSharah Smith, who lives in a home on Belvidere her grandparents had for decades, called the beautification plans “brilliant.”
“It’ll be beautiful — green, pretty grass growing. ... It’ll make the neighborhood look better, especially in this area,” she said from her front porch while gazing at the cleared lot Friday evening. “It looks better already.”
Other longtime residents hoped the project will attract development and help residents.
“Urban farming is fantastic as long as people maintain it and food is distributed to those who most need it,” said Bill Warren Jr., who has lived near the demolished home some 25 years.
Bill Nowling, a spokesman for Orr, said Orr signed off on the agreement in August. The state’s formal approval came this week after minor changes to improve protections for the city’s interest in the deal.
The agreement allows the company to buy 1,500 lots for $520,000, demolish at least 50 dangerous structures and plant 15,000 hardwood trees during the first two years. Representatives of the project have said the company would cover costs for title work, demolition of structures and removal of trash at a cost of an additional $3.2 million.
Foes have questioned the sale price and the wisdom of allowing one firm to own so much land.
The property demolished Friday was formerly part of the Michigan Land Bank, which has conveyed more than 130 parcels as part of the woodlands project.
In December, a divided City Council approved the controversial initiative to sell about 140 acres of land for the project spread between parcels on Mack, Jefferson, Van Dyke and St. Jean streets.
Former members Charles Pugh and Gary Brown as well as the council’s current President Saunteel Jenkins, Kenneth Cockrel Jr. and James Tate voted for the agreement. JoAnn Watson, Andre Spivey, Brenda Jones, and then-member Kwame Kenyatta voted no.
The Snyder administration has worked on blight remediation with state agencies and Detroit’s leaders.
The first $25 million for blight elimination was appropriated by the state Legislature and approved for projects in 2012 and 2013, with $10 million earmarked for Detroit.
Under the project, more than 425 blighted structures have been eliminated in the city. Dozens of other projects are completed or under way in other locations throughout the state with funding designated by the Legislature.
In recent months, $52 million in unused federal Troubled Asset Relief Program funds were diverted to Detroit. The money was among $100 million distributed in five Michigan cities. Te others were Pontiac, Grand Rapids, Flint and Saginaw.
“We have made tremendous progress on blight elimination through great collaboration,” Corrigan said in a statement released Friday. “That partnering between public and private will continue, as we advance the governor’s plan for a resurgent Detroit and find innovative solutions — like this one — that help get us there.”
Detroit News Staff Writer Mark Hicks contributed