Vacant land is one of Detroit’s greatest liabilities, or its greatest opportunity — depending on whom you ask.

This spring, as the snow finally fades on parcels of green, residents across Detroit are going to be asked what future they see for the vacant land across their neighborhoods and offered a guidebook to get there.

Several initiatives, funded by nonprofits and foundations, are in the works to arm community groups and individual residents with information and ideas on how to transform thousands of vacant lots into new uses that create beauty, generate jobs and produce tax revenue from private investment as well as clean air, land and water.

A Vacant Land Transformation Guide is being developed by Detroit Future City to encourage informed decisions across the city’s neighborhoods.

Due in late spring, the user-friendly guide will offer 20-30 typologies of land use in a print and Web-based interactive tool that will specify the type of landscape materials, installation techniques and maintenance strategies for residential and commercial land in Detroit.

The idea is to help Detroit residents and contractors transform vacant land into an asset, DFC projects director Dan Kinkead said.

The DFC Implementation Office will host community events to promote the initiative. The guide is being funded by the Erb Family Foundation.

“There is an increasing opportunity for Detroit to utilize its vacant land to build an inherent resilience to be more flexible to natural disasters and support food production in a way that Detroit could become the first secure food city globally. That’s revolutionary,” Kinkead said.

Stabilizing Detroit’s neighborhoods and finding uses for Detroit’s vast tracts of vacant land is a top priority for Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration.

An associate dean from Tulane University’s School of Architecture will lead the city’s planning efforts. In his State of the City speech, Duggan stressed residents will have a say in the process, whether they want parks, gardens or parking.

Duggan said Maurice Cox will be charged with developing strategies to strengthen neighborhoods in Detroit and land reuse in largely vacant areas.

Maggie DeSantis, president/CEO of Eastside Community Network, which is facilitating the Lower Eastside Action Plan that encourages alternative land uses, said Detroit must continue to look for creative and environmentally sustainable ways to use vacant land as a way to stabilize all neighborhoods.

Residents know best what can and should be done in their own neighborhoods, she said.

LEAP provides a blueprint for future land use that was put together with input from more than 6,000 Detroit residents and others from 2010-12. The LEAP area includes land south of Interstate 94, west of Alter Road, north of the Detroit River and east of Mount Elliott.

Land uses range from “traditional” and “spacious” residential to “green thoroughfare” and “village hub” commercial areas to “green venture zones” to “naturescapes.”

DeSantis said the LEAP District has the largest aggregate of vacant land in the city, with about 60 percent being either vacant land or unoccupied structures, both commercial and residential.

According to Detroit’s Blight Removal Task Force, which began collecting data in 2013, there are approximately 380,000 land parcels in the city. That includes a total of 84,641 blighted structures and vacant lots in the city.

The DFC guide could be highly valuable if its combined with other tools like the Vacant Land Rapid Assessment Tool and LEAP’s open space benefit calculator, both of which are now in the development stages, DeSantis said.

“When and if combined with hands-on support to show people how to use these tools, they could provide good, solid decision making for vacant land reuse and repurposing,” she said.

The Detroit Land Bank Authority has created partnerships with nonprofit, faith-based and community development organizations to speed the reuse of abandoned property in the city.

They operate a program to get vacant side lots into the hands of homeowners in Detroit under which the City Council approves the transfer of city-owned parcels to the land bank. Nearly 770 side lots have been sold to residents who are turning the land into gardens, open spaces and even a basketball court, said Craig Fahle, the land bank’s director of public affairs.

The Greening of Detroit has been at all the side-lot fairs and many LEAP land use forums to help answer residents’ questions.

Greening of Detroit has its own land use guide.

“Residents are very eager for the projects to be shovel ready. They want to get in there and get started, activating these once blighted spaces into new spaces,” Greening’s Wade Rose said.

“It’s the whole visioning piece. It’s a paradigm shift. They were in this dead neighborhood and now it’s all about rethinking what this urban style will look like in the future, and how green space and trees can be used,” he said.

This month, the Kresge Foundation will announce recipients for its $5 million three-year program to fund Detroit-based nonprofits’ efforts to strengthen neighborhoods, including the transformation of vacant land.

The program will provide between $50,000 and $150,000 each for as many as 10 shovel-ready projects that can be completed in 18 months. Planning grants will also be awarded to organizations with promising ideas.

Reclaiming Vacant Properties Conference

The 16th national Reclaiming Vacant Properties Conference will come to Detroit May 19-21. The conference will be held at the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center and is expected to draw 700-1,000 professionals to the city.

Themed “Beyond Blight: Building a Bold Movement,” the conference will explore the latest tools to combat vacancy and move beyond neighborhood blight, as well as how government officials, community leaders, and others in the field can join forces across departments, cities, and even states to achieve wide-scale positive change.

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