From Detroit Free Press:

At a recent conference on blight removal at Marygrove College, longtime Detroit activist Maggie DeSantis pressed businessman Dan Gilbert for the economic model that he and others assumed would fill up the city’s vacant land once the Gilbert-led blight removal effort has finished its work.

Gilbert told DeSantis and the other 100 or so people in attendance that removing eyesore buildings and trash would, by itself, create economic opportunities in Detroit’s empty spaces.

DeSantis asked, but how? As she told me later, “If knocking down blight and clearing property was really the answer, then you’d already be seeing it,” since the city has been razing derelict structures for years.

“Removing all blight is going to create economic value,” Gilbert told her. “You are going to have significant interest from profit-making capitalist folks.”

Glenda Price, one of Gilbert’s co-chairs of the blight removal task force, added, “Our task force is not making those kinds of decisions. Those are community decisions.”

The exchange illustrated a major issue soon to face Detroit. The blight removal task force bankrolled by the federal government under the leadership of Gilbert’s Rock Ventures has set up an amazing process for mapping the city’s condition. Teams organized by Data Driven Detroit and Loveland Technologies are right now surveying every parcel in the city, creating state-of-the-art digital maps that capture the condition of every structure in a way that’s never been done before.

But what happens after that mapping is done by March remains the big question. There are short-term concerns over how the blight removal itself will proceed, and there are long-term concerns about what happens to all that vacant land in the city, variously estimated at 20-40 square miles, or up to a third of the city’s land area.

Blight removal, long a necessity in Detroit, has risen to the top of the list of concerns lately thanks to the Gilbert-led task force and the separate efforts of businessman Bill Pulte and The short-term concerns focus on how demolition of tens of thousands of eyesore structures will take place in a short period of time. Will the debris be hauled away to landfills or dumped in the basements in a way that will create problems for future redevelopment? Will there be any attempt to salvage wood and other useful products to create a deconstruction industry in the city? Will city residents or outsiders get the jobs?

We’ll get some of those answers as soon as the Gilbert task force writes its policy recommendations for how to proceed. But the longer term questions on dealing with vacant land remain more troubling.

The notion that clearing away blight will by itself create demand — sort of a “If you demolish it, they will come” — remains a stretch. As DeSantis pointed out, some land in Detroit has been cleared and offered for sale for many years. Yet even at the annual Wayne County Treasurer’s tax auction, thousands of parcels of land in Detroit go unsold each year even at the minimum bid price of $500.

If you presume that demand will naturally follow blight removal, then we’re saying the problem will more or less take care of itself. That would mean we don’t need to come up with nontraditional solutions, such as those recommended in the Detroit Future City vision plan released a year ago this month.

Detroit Future City was filled with recommendations for innovative ways to repurpose urban land in the absence of development pressure. Among those: urban agriculture, reforestation, and “blue”infrastructure, such as the use of rainwater retention ponds and the opening up or “daylighting” of long-buried streams for environmental and recreational purposes.

We need to think about those innovative solutions only if we presume that much of this land will remain vacant for years to come, as seems more than likely in many Detroit neighborhoods. If that’s the case, then we need to get serious about these greening strategies. City Council member James Tate has even suggested setting aside some of Detroit’s vacant spaces for grazing land for livestock.

Understanding that much of this land will remain vacant also suggests that we should take a lot of it out of circulation by taking it off the market. That would require us to revamp organizations like the city’s Land Bank, which in its short life has had only a minor impact on the city’s redevelopment but could play a larger role in the future as the safeguard of vacant public land.

Ultimately, we need to understand that different strategies need to be tried in different neighborhoods. Not all districts in the city will redevelop equally. In some, urban farming should be a priority; others should focus on traditional development.

But blight removal is only the beginning. If that was enough to spark redevelopment, we’d be seeing more evidence of it already.