The dedication of the Lafayette Greens community garden Wednesday was more than an opportunity to celebrate downtown Detroit’s newest attraction.
It also gave Mayor Dave Bing an occasion to endorse the controversial notion of larger commercial farming on the city’s vast tracts of vacant land.
“As I drive around the city and see how many people are farming, it’s amazing,” Bing told about 300 people at the dedication ceremony. “But we haven’t done anything on a true big scale. … I think we’ve got to think bigger and longer term in terms of what our city can be.”
Asked by a reporter whether he was philosophically in favor of larger commercial farming in the city, Bing replied, “I’m surely not opposed to it. I’m in favor of it. I’m there.”
Bing said that he and his staff were still examining proposals put forward by businessman John Hantz and a nonprofit drug rehabilitation agency called SHAR to create big commercial farms in the city.
“We are really trying to get a well-defined proposal with some financial proposals attached to it so we know what kind ofinvestment is going to be necessary,” Bing said.
But the mayor said that Detroit’s huge volume of vacant land — estimated by some experts at roughly a third of the city’s land area — calls for big thinking.
“We have the most valuable asset of any urban city in the country — vacant land,” Bing told the audience. “And our job from a leadership standpoint is to figure out how to maximize the utilization of the land so that we can get the kind of returns we need in this city.”
With Bing as he spoke was Peter Karmanos Jr., founder and executive chairman of Compuware, which created Lafayette Greens. Noting that he has been a lifelong gardener, Karmanos thanked Meg Heeres, his project director for the garden, and said, “What an incredible space this really is.”
Created on the site of the demolished Lafayette Building near the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel, the garden covers about three-quarters of an acre and includes rows of raised beds, which are metallic boxes into which fruits, vegetables and herbs have been transplanted for growing.
With its tool sheds and picnic benches and other amenities, Lafayette Greens cost about $500,000 to create.
Heeres said the public is welcome to visit the garden daily for strolling and picnicking.
“It’s like Campus Martius with vegetables,” she said.
But the public should not pick the vegetables, she added. Compuware volunteers will harvest the plants and donate the food to Gleaners Community Food Bank in Detroit.
Among the plants grown at Lafayette Greens are peppers, eggplant, onions, tomatoes, cabbage, beets, basil and lavender. All the food is being grown organically, that is, without the use of pesticides or chemical fertilizer.
The idea of commercially farming Detroit’s vacant spaces has proven controversial since first proposed a few years ago. Many residents of Detroit have expressed a desire to see their half-empty neighborhoods redeveloped with new housing and retail. But Bing and other civic leaders say that may be unrealistic in a city with too much vacant land and too little demand for housing.
Gary Wozniak, director of SHAR’s proposed RecoveryPark project, said at the Lafayette Greens dedication that he hopes to create a series of 30-acre farms to be built on the city’s east side, with new jobs and tax base coming from the processing and distribution of food.
By John Gallagher, Detroit Free Press