By Linda McIntyre
Detroit is having quite a moment in the media at a time of renewed interest in the trials and tribulations of cities, but it’s still kind of surprising to find a small, trapezoid-shaped edible garden thriving among the towers of its downtown. This is Lafayette Greens, designed by Kenneth Weikal Landscape Architecture, on a block that, until now, was best known for its homegrown fast food rivals American Coney Island and Lafayette Coney Island (“Coney Island” is Detroitspeak for chili dog). Now the Coneys are improbably sharing the neighborhood with vegetables, herbs, fruit, and flowers, all grown on a scant half-acre at a busy intersection across from the historic Book Cadillac Hotel (now part of the Westin chain) and the city’s federal office building and courthouse.
A little more than a decade ago, the notion of a neat, well-designed garden here at the paved epicenter of car culture—the General Motors headquarters is a few blocks away—would have seemed like a hallucination. The site’s previous occupant, the Lafayette Building, was a 14-story V-shaped Italian Renaissance tower built in 1923. It was demolished in late 2009, having been vacant since 1997. It had become one of the beautiful ruins for which Detroit has become ghoulishly famous, with broken windows, graffiti tags, squatting hipster artists, and weedy trees growing out of the roof.
But although abandoned buildings and vacant lots are still vexing issues in many parts of the city, this section of the downtown core has been transformed. The waterfront along the Detroit River is slowly developing into a series of linked green spaces and public plazas. Sports venues, even the home of the hard-luck Lions pro football team, draw hordes of loyal fans downtown. New cafés and pop-up retail spaces lure shoppers from suburban malls. Companies such as Compuware and Quicken Loans have opened big offices here and brought in employees from outside the city.
Compuware was one of the first companies to come back downtown, and one of its founders, Peter Karmanos Jr., has been a steady force in efforts to revitalize downtown Detroit. Karmanos, who stepped down as CEO in 2011 (he’s currently the company’s executive chairman), was one of the leaders of a group of businesspeople and philanthropists who raised $20 million to design, build, and maintain Campus Martius Park across the street from the company’s headquarters and just up Michigan Avenue from Lafayette Greens (see “Miracle on Woodward Avenue,” LAM, November 2006).
Lafayette Greens is a Compuware project too. Meg Heeres, the company’s art and community programs manager and the project director for the garden, says that Karmanos (who’s a Master Gardener) originally wanted to start an urban farm somewhere in the business district.
That’s not as weird as it might sound: Detroit is huge—almost 140 square miles—and by some estimates there are as many as 40 square miles of vacant land. There’s a long history of farming here, starting with French settlers’ early-18th-century “ribbon farms” along the Detroit River. Grassroots gardeners have started community gardens all over the low-density city, which has an abundance of single-family houses with yards. Detroit’s historic Eastern Market wholesale and retail food complex has a lot of local fruit and vegetable vendors. And in December, the city planning commission approved a new urban agriculture ordinance that updates the zoning code to allow land uses such as farms, tree farms, and orchards.
Compuware wanted the project done fast, but it also needed a design firm with the right kind of sensibility. “We knew this was not a straight-ahead landscape architecture project,” Heeres told me. “The designers had to understand the community here, how to engage a lot of different stakeholders and create a welcoming space for all, while meeting our demands for a strong aesthetic and innovation. My involvement as the client would be very, very hands on, and they had to be okay with that.”
Ken Weikal, ASLA, who started his firm in the Detroit suburbs in 1989, and Beth Hagenbuch, Associate ASLA, a partner in the firm and the project’s lead designer, were already involved in GrowTown, a nonprofit group formed to help improve derelict urban sites with easy and inexpensive design interventions and technology. They had recently worked on a community project in the north central part of the city.
The design quickly evolved from the simple kitchen garden concept that Heeres pitched to Weikal and Hagenbuch—raised planting beds divided by mulch paths—into a modern riff on the French potager. Corrugated steel clads the raised beds and plays off the concrete and high-rise buildings that surround the space, as well as the dramatic weathered brick wall of an adjacent building that serves as a backdrop to the greenery. The shiny metal and the reclaimed wood used to build a trio of wacky storage sheds were inexpensive and manufactured locally. They also give the space an industrial vibe that suits Motown quite well.
Compuware loved the design and wanted it built as soon as possible. But the city owns the site, and Mayor Dave Bing’s administration has been looking at creative ways to use vacant land, including larger-scale urban agriculture. A lot of consultation and negotiation by Heeres was required to hammer out the year-to-year lease agreement in a short time. The design was made final by January 2011, the city’s blessing was secured in time to start work in June, and most of the work was done by the end of July.
The prep work for the garden was not as hard as you might expect. Weikal says that after the Lafayette Building was demolished, the site was excavated about 15 feet down, and soil was hauled in to bring it up to grade. The team replaced the top few feet of that soil but didn’t have to deal with a huge contamination legacy.
The designers manipulated the site in subtle ways to give the garden a spatial charge. Two gravel paths radiate out from a paved terrace and gradually diverge from each other, widening for a forced perspective. This arrangement makes Shelby Street, to the west, look farther away than it is from the terrace. They integrated the site’s four-foot grade change into the design. It helps the hardscape drain into a swale edged with gabions and planted with redtwig dogwoods and other water-tolerant plants. It also varies the height of the raised beds for comfortable and accessible gardening. The tops of the planters all rise to the same flat level, but the bases follow the slope, resulting in a range of bed heights, from eight to 40 inches, and an intriguing sense of depth across the whole garden.
A small, circular children’s garden, 38 feet in diameter, sits at the southeast corner. It is edged with fruiting shrubs and sunflowers, and its planters are filled with colorful flowers, sweet-smelling herbs, fuzzy lamb’s ears, and spiky succulents. Made from recycled 55-gallon steel juice barrels, they repeat, in a smaller size, the children’s garden’s circular shape. These geometric shapes, and the strong lines of the rest of the garden, bring order to all of the lushly planted raised beds and help the small space hold its own in the tall and dense urban streetscape.
All of the planting in the 2,000 square feet of raised beds was done on one sweltering and labor-intensive day in July 2011, during which the landscape contractor, the WH Canon Landscape Company, executed what Weikal describes as a “military-style operation.” Plants were grown from seed off-site in the nearby town of Howell by Motave Meadows, a small organic grower, in 12-inch pots that could be slotted in to the raised beds without much root disturbance. “The challenge that day was to plant several thousand tender transplants into more than 30 beds according to a very detailed planting scheme,” says Hagenbuch. “Getting the plants into the right beds, the specified patterns, watered in, and drip irrigation in place and properly adjusted on a very hot day required dedicated teamwork.”
Apple and pear trees, and swaths of lawn, were installed separately. Weikal says the lawns, planted with fescue that doesn’t require a lot of irrigation, help the garden look good all winter and open up more space for programming. Along with gravel paths, they also contribute to the site’s mostly (70 percent) porous surface. As in most cities, stormwater management is a problem in Detroit: According to a 2012 report by the Alliance for the Great Lakes, in 2011 the city sent 7 billion gallons of stormwater and untreated sewage into the Detroit and Rouge Rivers. The city government is trying to use more green infrastructure, but its dire financial situation has slowed progress.
Since its official opening in late August 2011, Lafayette Greens has been a big success. In 2012, its first full growing season, the garden produced almost 1,800 pounds of fresh produce according to Gwen Meyer, who manages the garden for Compuware full-time. The food, which is grown organically, is donated to Gleaners, a local food bank, and other community groups (volunteers can take small amounts with them). Kids from Compuware’s in-house day-care center and other nearby programs come to learn and play. Volunteers from Compuware, the federal building, and other nearby offices show up regularly to pull weeds (the raised beds and overall tidiness make it easy for people in work clothes to do a bit of gardening at lunchtime) or hear talks on beekeeping, vermicomposting, and other garden topics.
And some people come just to hang out, which is fine with Meyer. “Our whole purpose is to be available for people to sit and relax, take a break,” she told me. “They can get involved if they want to.” The garden is open year-round, and so are volunteer hours, from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday. In the winter, fewer volunteers show up, but the ones who do shovel snow, keep an eye on the covered hoop houses Meyer is trying as an experiment, and plan for the next growing season.
Some concessions to the reality of urban parks had to be made. Heeres says that Compuware would have preferred to leave the site open, but the city insisted on a fence. The garden is locked up at night and on most weekends, and a camera allows Compuware security staff to monitor the site, which is well lit at night.
Vegetable theft hasn’t been a big problem, Meyer says, but it happens. “We’d rather engage people than reprimand them,” she told me. “I might ask them to pick more so I can take it to Gleaners. Honestly, I’d rather train thieves to harvest properly so the plants continue to grow. It doesn’t occupy much of my time.”
Lafayette Greens doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Urban farming has become something of a class-based flash point here. The concept was mocked by some residents in the recent documentary Detropia, and the city council’s December approval of the sale of about 1,500 city-owned lots to a local businessman, John Hantz, who wants to start a tree farm, was controversial.
Compuware has been careful not to fan any flames. Heeres and Meyer stress that Lafayette Greens is by no means the first or only edible effort in the city. “The media attention is positive, but it doesn’t always fully represent how deeply spread out growing is here,” Meyer says. At the dedication in 2011, Heeres focused on the park aspect of the project. “It’s like Campus Martius with vegetables,” she told the Detroit Free Press.
Heeres says that the ecofriendly aspect of Lafayette Greens is nice, but it wasn’t what drove the project—it was about building relationships in the community. The project offers some timely lessons. Green spaces are part of Detroit Future City, a long-awaited strategic plan released by the Bing administration in January. The product of a two-year process led by local government, business, academic, and nonprofit leaders, the plan is a broad blueprint for improving the city’s economy and making better, more efficient use of its vast amount of land over the next 50 years. Among other things, it envisions more walkable, high-density neighborhoods with inviting parks and gardens. Kind of like what Compuware has done on a smaller scale.
Other companies, whose willingness to deeply engage has the potential to make or break the strategic plan, might be paying attention to the company’s success. Heeres says she’s had “probably a half-dozen calls” about the process. “None of those have come to fruition yet, but we would love for that to happen.”
The city, and the people who live and work there, will benefit if it does. “Lafayette Greens has created a real amenity in downtown Detroit,” John Gallagher, a business and development reporter for the Free Press, told me. “The design of the park is very much advanced over the usual community garden in a neighborhood setting. The organization of the garden, with Compuware volunteers tending the plants, maintains the quality level.” Few places need that kind of amenity as urgently as this one.
Linda McIntyre, a Detroit-area native, is a former staff writer and frequent contributor to LAM.
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Image credits: (1-2) Lafayette Greens / Beth Hagenbuch, Associate ASLA