Detroit Future City awarding $20K grants to build rain gardens, green space

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Three boys help plant trees in a plot of land.

Sometimes when it rains, it really does pour - at least in downtown Detroit.

Business owners in southwest Detroit, who are no strangers to flood events, found themselves with ensuing high costs for standing water after a heavy rain event.

“Really, it's a two-fold problem,” said Greg Mangan, a real estate advocate with the Southwest Detroit Business Association (SDBA). “There's lots of flooding in southwest Detroit. But then the drainage fees a lot of people were incurring were pretty exorbitant.”

Mangan said several business owners were “shell-shocked” by the drainage fees they were getting. But with a two-fold problem sprouted a two-fold solution. The SDBA applied for and received a grant to construct a 1,100 square foot rain garden near their property, where several of the businesses they represent were located.

“We wanted to find a solution that was replicable for business owners, but also cost efficient for them,” Mangan said.

The rain garden, which was completed in October 2018, soaks up the water that falls on or near the soil. It also gives business owners the opportunity to receive credits for their drainage fees.

While this success story is unique to the SDBA, it's hardly the only example of green infrastructure saving the day. The SDBA was a recipient of the “Working with Lots” program, a green infrastructure initiative put forth by a local nonprofit to reclaim much of the abandoned land left vacant by the population decline in Detroit that's taken place over the years.

Since 1950, the city's population has declined more than 61 percent, leaving thousands of vacant lots dotting the cityscape. While the presence of empty houses isn't news in Detroit, remedying the problem continues to be. One of the solutions that's been taking effect has been converting vacant lots into green space, like rain gardens

Spearheading that effort is Detroit Future City (DFC), the nonprofit that's implemented the “Working with Lots” program. The nonprofit has acted as a bridge for residents and public and private groups advancing a sustainable agenda for the city. Each year, the “Working with Lots” program awards grants between $5,000 and $19,000 to individuals or groups interested in converting abandoned properties into stormwater sinks and rain gardens.

Recipients selected will have met a variety of requirements, ranging from expressed interest in improving neighborhoods and engaging stakeholders, as well as outlining the positive impacts of an installation of a site. Each awardee chooses a design from the DFC website. The catalog offers dozens of templates for how the vacant lot can be designed. Some options work to beautify lots with fields of tulips and maple tree mixes, while others offer a more dramatic conversion by transforming basements into raingardens.

“When communities come together to develop new skills and promote equitable land reutilization, economic growth and neighborhood development, it helps improve the quality of life for all Detroiters,” said Shari Williams, manager of the Working with Lots program in a press release.

“I really like they already have the designs on their website,” said Lisa Johanon, executive director of Central Detroit Christian. “It's intriguing to me and I think with the program, we could see some great synergy in the city.”

The Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corporation works to restore communities and develop businesses, similar goals to that of DFC. Johanon said the group plans on applying for the Working with Lots program.

“We've done a lot of lot reclamation. It's an important thing that volunteers can be engaged in,” said Johanon.

While DFC offers dozens of designs, the Working with Lots program limits that selection to only nine templates. Anjelica Dudek, the media contact for Detroit Future City said these specific options are offered because they satisfy the needs of neighborhoods for flood mitigation and beautification, but don't cost too much that award grants can't pay for them.

“In the past, there were lots of different lots being implemented for different reasons,” Dudek said. “These were not tackled because they were too expensive and a little too complex. The grant money should be able to cover what's offered. Not only to install them, but to maintain them long term.”

Programs like DFC's are important to old cities like Detroit. The Motor City has aging infrastructure that impedes natural processes like rainwater from soaking into the ground. Because Detroit is blanketed in impermeable surfaces like cement, be it roads or buildings, rain has nowhere to go after it falls to the ground. So much standing water creates problems for property owners fearing damage to their homes or businesses. By introducing more greenspace, it not only removes impermeable space, but provides a buffer for where floodwater can go.

“These designs offer a range of green stormwater infrastructure techniques that create the added benefit of reducing runoff into Detroit's sewer system,” said Pier Davis, land use and sustainability program manager. “ increasing the abundance of native plants and other perennials, they also help to manage stormwater where it falls, addressing a critical problem in Detroit today...”

Detroit Future City has granted more than $230,000 in award money for the Working with Lots program. So far, 14 designs have been implemented.

The Working with Lots application opened Wednesday, Jan. 16, and will close Feb 18. Anyone interested in learning more about the program can attend an information session Thursday at 3 p.m. at the DFC office located at 2990 West Grand Boulevard, Detroit. Eligible applicants will be community groups, businesses, faith-based institutions or nonprofits that own vacant lots and must attend Detroit Future City office hours.