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Imagine your city clearing a huge swath of homes and then replacing them with a forest. Well, that's happening in Detroit. An entrepreneur is buying up acre after acre of city lots and planting thousands of trees. People who like the plan say it solves the problem faced by many declining cities, managing property that's in disrepair. These blighted or empty lots no longer generate tax revenue and they still need upkeep. But where backers of the plan see a visionary proposal, critics see a land grab. Here's Sarah Hulett of Michigan Radio.

SARAH HULETT, BYLINE: Mike Score gets out of his car at the corner of Saint Paul and Crane streets on Detroit's lower east side.

MIKE SCORE: I've lived in a lot of places, and this part of the city feels like a very small town in a rural area.

HULETT: Score is the president of Hantz Farms, and what he is surveying now looks more rural than town. There are no houses on any of these four corners or for long stretches down any of the blocks. The guy Score works for wants to change that with a project called Hantz Woodlands, named for entrepreneur and Detroiter John Hantz. Score drives a few miles north to a demonstration area, basically a small-scale version of what Hantz Woodlands will look like.

SCORE: The brush is gone from alongside of the road. You can see there are still some houses, but the vacant space that used to be covered with tall vegetation and brush and garbage is cleaned.

HULETT: Cleaned up and - you have to look closely, they're pretty small - planted with neat rows of hardwood trees, oaks and sugar maples.

SCORE: This is the concept, and we'd like to do this on a larger scale.

HULETT: The company will plant at least 15,000 trees on about 140 acres. It promises to clear out all the trash and keep the grass cut, things the city now cannot afford to do. The company is paying $300 for each lot, and that price tag has raised some eyebrows. Some residents can only see a speculator getting a sweetheart deal from a city desperate for money and development ideas.

MATTHEW GREENIA: If the city is going to give away land at bake sale prices, give it to the people first.


HULETT: Matthew Greenia was one of dozens of people who spoke out against the project at a public hearing earlier this month. He and others say the city should have put the land into a public trust instead.

MARGARET DEWAR: Right now, there is so much land that it's possible to do that too.

HULETT: That's Margaret Dewar, an urban planning professor at the University of Michigan. Dewar says, sure, some of Detroit's vacant land can be put into public trust for residents or community groups. But she says there aren't enough groups to handle the massive amount of vacant land here. Mike Score of Hantz Farms says while thousands of trees won't reverse the fortunes of this hardscrabble neighborhood, he hopes it will stabilize things.

SCORE: And if nothing gets done, if everything in the city looks like the area across the street where the blighted houses are still located, the people who live here will want to leave, but nobody will buy their houses and they'll feel trapped.

HULETT: The project will purchase 1,500 city lots. That still leaves more than 58,000 parcels the city owns but can't afford to manage. That means plenty more opportunities for unorthodox ideas about what to do with Detroit's most abundant resource. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Hullet.

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