DETROIT — Detroit resident Ron Shelton knows it’s a gamble to sink his scant finances that include earnings from carpentry work into a small apple orchard and cider mill in a neighborhood with vacant land and aging homes.
“A profit would be nice. I’d have to see where that goes,” Shelton, 51, said after hauling a rusting apple grinder from a pickup truck’s bed into his backyard.
He and others are using a do-it-yourself approach to start businesses amid Detroit’s overabundance of vacant land and wide open spaces. The city’s population loss of about 1.1 million people since the 1950s and subsequent bulldozing of empty and dilapidated houses have left it with about 120,000 vacant lots. Spread across Detroit, the lots are part of about 24 square miles of empty real estate — enough to fit nearly all of Newark, N.J., and about half of Miami.
Other former manufacturing hubs are dealing with what to do with empty lots once houses are torn down. Chicago has sold more than 400 vacant parcels since 2014. In Milwaukee, homeowners next to a vacant lot can buy it for $1. Detroit’s Land Bank charges homeowners $100 for city-owned side lots next to their homes.
Shelton, who began planting apple trees last year on two borrowed lots near the house he bought from a friend for $1,500, said there’s plenty of room to grow and build things cheaply in Detroit. Besides the 55 trees he has on the two lots, he has two more trees growing elsewhere in the neighborhood. He’s still collecting machinery for the mill he’s assembling in a garage-like building he constructed behind his home.
Others are turning cheap, vacant Detroit land into projects, too. A theater collective is holding plays and other programs on side lots near two homes it owns. A nonprofit has created a flowering prairie amid urban blight.
Jeff Adams has started Artesian Farms with a 7,000-square-foot building he bought in 2014 for $35,000.
“You have to pick and choose what you are capable of and what can make money,” said the 61-year-old Adams, who used to sell tech applications to the auto industry and now grows and harvests kale, lettuce and basil in the building formerly used by an auto supplier.
He admits the space that sat vacant for years is an odd place for an indoor farm, but said good business principles can be applied almost anywhere.
Edward Lynch, a planner for Detroit Future City, said the amount of vacant land in Detroit is “larger than what we can use for potential development.” Thousands of derelict houses are razed each year or await demolition, and little new housing is coming to neighborhoods outside the greater downtown area.
“The market demand to do a lot of things isn’t there,” Lynch said.
Detroit Future City, announced in early 2013, is proposing ideas for how to best use land in the city over 50 years.
“With 120,000 vacant lots throughout the city, that essentially means every single street, every single block ends up being impacted,” said Anika Goss Foster, executive director of the Detroit Future City Implementation Office. “Because most of these lots are undevelopable, they become an economic detriment to neighborhoods.”
She said finding ways to transform property into something productive “strengthens the economic capacity” of those areas.
City officials are being deliberate in how they identify vacant land for development. Detroit planning director Maurice Cox said they want projects that can become long-lasting examples of neighborhood revitalization and “not simply an interim solution or land use of last resort.”
The city has identified 10 acres in northwest Detroit for ecological, agricultural, energy, crop or other uses.
“What hasn’t been proven yet is if these kinds of productive, land-based businesses can be a generator for neighborhood revitalization as we try to repopulate,” Cox said.