Berman: Land everywhere but nary a city lot to buy

Laura Berman
The Detroit News

Sarah Rose "Rosie" Sharp landed in Detroit after a whimsical, observational tour through the 50 states of America: She likes to say she sampled the nation's geographical banquet and chose the best — the singular — place.

In her quest to make Detroit even better, she got involved in an effort to buy two plots of city-owned land for a community garden. It was a daunting task: "I figured I had resources, high-speed internet access and no children, so I had time to devote to the process," she says.

It took her three years. "We invested thousands of dollars," she says, of the process that resulted in Shipherd Greens LLC., a community garden in the West Village established in 2006.

The triumph followed frustration and, even, tears. And Sharp, who works for the nonprofit Greening of Detroit, founded a series of Detroit Land Forums, a collaboration of nonprofit groups and government that provides free, hands-on advice and resources every other month to residents who want to get a piece of the city, but don't have the money to hire lawyers or consultants.

At the forum I attended last Tuesday, more than 120 people showed up on the east side, many of them clutching sheaves of paper and city records documenting efforts that have failed. There was Patricia Walker, who mows eight lots on Beaconsfield, and hopes to buy at least some of them. And Toyia Watts, the president of the Charlevoix Village Association, contemplating a community garden.

The process for buying side lots has gotten easier in the last 10 months, since Mayor Mike Duggan created a simplified process for buying adjacent lots for $100. A "side lot fair" last Saturday drew more than 500 people and resulted in 270 sales, according to Craig Fahle, director of public affairs for the Detroit Land Bank.

But the number of lots sold is dwarfed by the city's vacant acreage, which includes about 25,000 vacant houses in city hands, and about 40,000 parcels of land. Most of the vacant land isn't for sale yet, as the Duggan administration tries to grapple with what the city owns and how to imagine its use. And most of the vacant land parcels are in the process of being transferred from one city department (planning and development) to another (Detroit Land Bank Authority).

Yes, you may be able to buy the lot next to you — but anything else will be a long, long slog.

Sharp and her allies from 10 organizations who participate in the forums aim to give residents tools to get started in what's bound to be a long process. At the Tuesday forum, residents lined up outside a Loveland Technologies booth, gained perspective from the Damon Keith Center for Civil Rights, asked legal questions to Michigan Community Resources, and showed their paperwork to Detroit land bank officials.

But this event, the fourth — posed a conundrum for the "experts": How do you show people how to do something that is still, practically speaking, difficult if not impossible?

Molly Cunningham, a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Chicago, is working on her dissertation in Detroit. After six months here, she's still trying to sort out the web of entities, agencies, and partnerships. "Trying to get a handle on the mechanisms," she explained, speaking for all of us.

To Sharp, the event was a success — a sizeable group of real people who want to buy property are showing up. That's one way to combat the idea that "there's all this land nobody wants."

The next Detroit Land Forum is March 24 from 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Focus: HOPE, 1200 Oakman Blvd.