Parcels of long-neglected vacant land in the city of Battle Creek continue to get new leases on life through residents who see past the emptiness to the bounty these spaces could provide.
For years, leadership with the city and county have been coming up with creative ways to market these lots. One way is to use these empty plots for urban gardening initiatives and another is to add them to land already owned by an adjacent property owner.
The city owns just over 225 vacant parcels, says Christine Zuzga, Planning Manager for the city of Battle Creek. And the Calhoun County Land Bank owns close to 600 vacant lots in Battle Creek, most of them in neighborhoods adjacent to the downtown area within Neighborhood Planning Councils 1, 2, 3, and 4, says Krista Trout Edwards, Executive Director of the Calhoun County Land Bank Authority.
“Historically, many of the lots are the result of the Land Bank’s blight elimination efforts over the past few years, though we also receive vacant lots through the tax foreclosure process as well,” Trout-Edwards says.
Zuzga says a major concern surrounding these vacant lots is the potential for “not great” activities to go on there. She says, “the city has its hands full with daily maintenance” on properties that it owns and doesn’t have time to make sure the lots are mowed and the sidewalks near them are cleared of snow.
“It’s difficult to maintain those,” she says.
Although it varies from lot to lot, Trout-Edwards says, the average amount the Land Bank spends on mowing on a per-lot basis is $200 per season. She says a group that works under the umbrella of the Urban League is the Neighborhood Mow and Maintenance Program which supports innovative community groups and organizations in fundraising efforts through mowing and maintaining vacant properties owned by the Land Bank.
The groups are assigned 20 vacant properties to be mowed every three weeks through a mowing season that lasts from April to October in exchange for a stipend of $3,000.
“In 2019, a total of 400 vacant lots in Battle Creek and Albion were maintained by nine groups working under this program,” Trout-Edwards says. “This program provides groups with an opportunity to earn funds for neighborhood organizations, youth group activities, mission or field trips, outreach programs, and other events or community efforts.”
Jackie MacCannell cleans up refuse at the Fremont Garden.
Chris Lussier, the city’s Community Development Manager, says the Land Bank’s willingness to maintain land that nobody else wanted is a positive step which aids in the process of determining the best use of that property.
“Sometimes it’s for gardening, sometimes it’s for a pocket park, and sometimes folks just want to adopt a lot for $25 a year,” he says.
In 2015 the city and the Land Bank offered a Side Lot Program to see if homeowners would be interested in purchasing lots adjacent to their property. Zuzga says between 20 and 30 lots were sold.
Normally, those lots were being sold for $200, but we cut that in half and sold them for $100 each,” she says.
The only requirements for eligibility to purchase at such cut rates were that the property had to be adjacent to land owned by the property owners making the purchases, that the property owners had no code violations, and they were up to date on their property taxes.
Lussier was among the purchasers. He says he has noticed that those houses with these adjoining lots have sold “super-fast.”
“Having that extra parcel of land is certainly a nice thing when you go to sell it,” he says.
Zuzga says the City and Land Bank may hold another Side Lot Sale this year because they want to have a more active use of these properties.
As these lots await their own transformation, there are other parcels that continue to be adopted and purchased for private use or urban gardening initiatives.
One of the most recent entrants into urban gardening is Devon Wilson, owner of Sunlight Gardens on Kendall Street in the Washington Heights neighborhood, not far from where he grew up on Cherry Street. Wilson, 23, is leasing the two-acre plot of land from Sprout Urban Farms for $1 a year for three years, and he hopes to purchase it outright by the end of this year.
The Creekside Community Garden is located on Wabash, just south of Capital Avenue Northeast on Battle Creek’s northside.
Up until last year Sprout had been operating the space as an incubator farm, says Jeremy Andrews, founder and Chief Excitement Officer with Sprout.
Wilson’s relationship with Sprout began in 2012 when he was in high school.
“I grew up in a food desert and we were surrounded by corner food and liquor stores,” Wilson says. “I never had a relationship with food, but I loved food and I loved to eat. My favorite thing was to go to the store and get hot Cheetos and honey buns. Then, me and my friend started to find out how bad some of the food was for us. It didn’t have any nutritional value and it was increasing the chances of disease for us.
“I wanted to be able to take pride in what I eat. I wanted to eat something that was delicious and good for me.”
Wilson began to research how to grow food and food systems in general, which led to his involvement with Sprout. He eventually began managing Sprout’s farms while also working for Green Gardens Community Farm in Battle Creek. There he says he learned about “intensive farming” under the guidance of Trent Thompson, founder and owner of Green Gardens.
During this time, Wilson also attended the intensive, nine-month Organic Farmer Training Program at Michigan State University on a scholarship. While his time at Green Gardens taught him to work efficiently using best practices, the MSU program taught him the more scientific and technical side of the business.
It’s not likely that customers of Wilson's Sunlight Farms will focus on the scientific and technical aspects of growing, however. It's more likely they will instead focus on the enjoyment they get out of the fruits and vegetables such as peaches, apples, kale, arugula, micro-greens and collard greens tare grown under Wilson’s green thumb.
He says he thinks it’s “super-important” to get empty parcels of land into positive use, otherwise, “the negative use starts to stack up as a place for negative activity to happen.
“For the spirit of the neighborhood, to see all of this emptiness, it has an effect in your mood,” Wilson says. “I feel like we should really be pushing vacant lots into the hands of people who will use it to do good. It’s super-important. There should be more programs connecting farmers with land and real estate developers with land.”
Sprout, which achieved nonprofit status in 2012, was among the first organizations locally to offer an organized approach to urban gardening. At its peak, Andrews says there were 35 operating gardens and likely more that no one knew about.
He says he discovered that some community gardens happen very quietly. While there’s a lot that people talk about with each other, he says there are a lot of efforts that they don’t talk about much.
There was a misperception that Sprout owned those 35 gardens people did know about, though they did not, Andrews says. “We helped people get organized to run them and we helped them find the land and the resources,” Andrews says. (Sprout is no longer involved in community gardening efforts.)
Thomas Hart cleans up refuse at the Fremont Garden.
While people have been growing food on their property for a very long time and is not a new phenomenon, Andrews says it was in 2009 during his time as a community organizer with Creating Change and a grant outreach coordinator with the Battle Creek Community Foundation that he became connected with people who were consistently talking about community gardening and food access.
As a community organizer, he says a major focus of his job was listening and understanding peoples' passions and self-interests, getting them connected to people with similar passions and connected to the power structures that could make what they wanted happen.
This was the case with his initial involvement with community gardens which began with a loosely-assembled group of gardeners who came together to find a vacant lot where they could begin their work. For a year and a half, the group relied on sweat equity and donated tools to make their gardens a reality.
“Then we sent out an invitation and gathered about 120 people together interested in gardening or anything to do with local food for a meeting,” Andrews says. “Together, all of these goals were created to build community gardens, improve healthy food access, and involve youth.”
Planning Manager Zuzga, who has worked for the city for 10 years, says in 2015 city officials began researching different options for urban agriculture based on the interest they were seeing from residents.
“We started a community engagement effort to determine what the community wanted to see,” she says. “Community members told us that they were OK with people gardening on vacant property as long as it was maintained.”
The program was slow growing, however, as the approval process was costly and lengthy. Would-be community gardeners needed to obtain special use permits that were subject to approval from the Planning Commission and the City Commission, Zuzga says. The city received only a handful of requests to use vacant properties as gardens. That process was streamlined in 2017 to make the approval process easier.
The Real and Perceived Value
Zuzga says she thinks there has been an uptick in Battle Creek and elsewhere in urban gardening because people want fresh, locally-grown food and they want to know where their food is coming from.
“It’s becoming more popular and acceptable among neighbors,” she says.
The Land Bank currently has three of its lots in the Garden Lease program. Trout-Edwards says her organization offers lots for adoptions by neighbors or businesses and offers leases for gardens.
“Most of the requests that come to the Land Bank fall into the Adoption category, but we do offer leases to those who are interested,” she says. “Garden Leases are designed for more communal than individual efforts and are typically used by groups who want to share space. Gardening is an excellent reuse strategy for vacant lots.
“Urban gardens or farms can benefit communities by increasing food security, creating a social gathering place in a neighborhood, and providing a place for learning. It is also often an efficient use of land when there is a significant supply of vacant parcels.”
There are no downsides as far as Zuzga is concerned.
“There are protections in the zoning ordinance to make sure people are staying on their property and if they stop gardening they have to have something that will replace it,” she says. “I think we’ll see more of it. There are areas of cities with food deserts and this allows them to grow fresh food without government intervention.”
She says she also considers this to be an economic development tool that prospective residents may find attractive.
Andrews says he thinks such gardening is also about creating community and giving residents opportunities to interact with each other.
“People need each other and they need space to be in community with each other and community gardens are one way to do that. You’re taking real estate that has a perceived value and saying, ‘Make some beautiful space with it.’ You’re not only getting something beautiful out of it, you’re also getting some beautiful relationships out of it.”