Treasured community garden in Highland Park could be uprooted in land dispute

A community garden on Avalon Street in Highland Park sits next to a boarded-up house. Partially tucked under a canopy of trees, the garden supplies fresh produce for neighbors nearby and regulars from Detroit to Madison Heights.

Large planters hold cherry tomatoes, strawberries, bell peppers, string beans, cabbage and kale. During the summer, the space is a classroom where children learn how to start a garden, and identify and grow plants.

The garden, run by the nonprofit Avalon Village, has been around since the spring of 2022. Before that, the lot was overgrown with bushes and weeds, said Sandra Sanders, an Avalon Village volunteer who started the garden and maintains it today.

“It’s for everybody,” Sanders said. “It started out for the community.”

Now, that garden — a key piece of Avalon Village’s mission to turn “blight to beauty” in Highland Park — is at risk, and the center of a land dispute. The city of Highland Park owns the lot. A property developer has wanted to purchase it since 2018. Meanwhile, Avalon Village has already cultivated a community space there.

Sandra ‘Garden Diva’ Sanders, 66, of Detroit, volunteered to grow the community garden at Avalon Village in Highland Park, Mich. on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023. (Kimberly P. Mitchell/Detroit Free Press)

Premier Michigan Properties (PMP) 51 Avalon, a limited liability company that purchases homes to renovate them, wants to buy the lot where the garden grows. Rick Lopez, owner of Premier Michigan Properties, said his company has sought to purchase the lot from the city. The land sits next to a home PMP 51 Avalon bought from Wayne County’s tax foreclosure auction in 2017.

“The backyard is mostly consumed by a very large garage so the adjacent lot would provide much needed space for families to spend time outdoors,” Lopez said in an email Friday.

Though it’s not Avalon Village’s land, the nonprofit grew a community garden there because she didn’t want the lot to become blighted, said Shamayim “Mama Shu” Harris, founder and CEO of Avalon Village.

“I believe that our citizens and Highland Parkers deserve a beautiful place to live. I believe that we deserve beautiful surroundings. I believe that we deserve manicured grass, flowers,” Harris said. Avalon Village applied to purchase the lot about a month ago, she said.

Shamayim ‘Mama Shu’ Harris works from her porch at Avalon Village in Highland Park, Mich. on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023. A community garden run by Avalon Village in an empty lot is at risk. Premier Michigan Properties LLC, which has a mailing address off La Jolla, Calif., owns the home next to the garden and wants to buy the lot. So does Avalon Village. Now, neighbors are fiercely pushing back against the company. (Kimberly P. Mitchell/Detroit Free Press)

Harris and several others spoke out last month during a Highland Park City Council meeting saying the lot should go to Avalon Village because of Harris’ investment in Highland Park and efforts keeping up the lot, according to audio of the meeting recorded by Detroit Documenters. They argued that PMP 51 Avalon, LLC hasn’t kept up the adjacent home it owns.

The windows of the home, owned by PMP 51 Avalon, LLC, are boarded-up, parts of the porch stairs are missing and paint on the porch railing is chipped. Avalon Village, Harris said, has mowed that parcel’s front lawn.

Lopez said his company has made improvements to the house.

“Upon purchasing the property, new roofs were installed on the home and garage to protect the structures while we waited for approval from the city to purchase the adjacent lot,” Lopez said.

PMP 51 Avalon, LLC is a business registered in Michigan but the mailing address is in La Jolla, California, according to state business records.

“Upon purchase of a home, we immediately secure the property, meeting the city’s requirements for vacant homes. We do not have any infractions on any of our homes,” Lopez said.

One council member at the August meeting said the lot sale is complicated because it’s between a major developer in Highland Park, who is requesting land when an existing property they own sits vacant, and a longtime community activist, who is occupying a parcel that belongs to the city.

If the lot is sold to the company, Avalon Village would have to uproot the garden and find another spot for it, Harris said. During that transition, Avalon Village would not be able to offer the community fresh produce and the move could interrupt its outdoor classroom. City council must decide whether to sell the lot to PMP. A resolution to do so is on the agenda for Tuesday’s council meeting.

“When we are approved for purchase of the lot, we would request Avalon Village to relocate equipment to any of the Village’s various vacant/adjacent lots on the same street to allow for the continuance of the community garden,” Lopez said. “Once the lot is secured, we can begin planned renovations. Our goal is to enhance Avalon Street with a beautifully restored 115-year-old home and welcome two families to the community.”

Andaiye Morrow, 6, right, and a Theora, 5, from the homeschool hub walk past the abandoned home next to the community garden at Avalon Village in Highland Park, Mich. on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023. The community garden grown by volunteer Sandra Sanders serves as an outdoor classroom where children learn about agriculture and is at risk. (Kimberly P. Mitchell/Detroit Free Press)

On Thursday, two children, ages 5 and 6, strolled around the garden with paper bags of kale and bell peppers.

“The garden is our favorite part about Avalon Village,” said Terian Morrow, 41, of Detroit, who was there with the girls. Before going to the grocery store, she checks out the garden. She visits four times a week.

It would be a great injustice, Morrow said, if people no longer had access to the garden.

“If there’s a vacant lot, if there’s a blight, we are responsible for taking care of our neighborhoods,” Morrow said.

Sandra ‘Garden Diva’ Sanders, 66, of Detroit, picks green beans she grew in the community garden at Avalon Village in Highland Park, Mich. on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023. (Kimberly P. Mitchell/Detroit Free Press)

Highland Park is a municipality located within Detroit’s city limits with a population of more than 8,600. The city has gone through tumultuous times, as properties emptied and street lights dimmed. Through Avalon Village, Harris is on a mission to transform vacant and abandoned lots and structures in Highland Park into a sustainable village on Avalon Street, between Woodward and Second avenues. Avalon Village also includes a Homework House for students, a marketplace for women entrepreneurs and a basketball court.

Avalon Village came about after the death of her 2-year old son, Jakobi RA Harris, in a hit and run. Years later, two of her other sons, Chinyelu Humphrey and Pili Humphrey, died as well. Portions of the village are dedicated to her children.

Harris, who said her nonprofit has limited funding and capacity, said she tried to purchase the property that PMP currently owns to create a community space but was outbid. In the meantime, she said she has watched that property fall apart.

Lopez said he doesn’t understand why the sale of the lot next to the property his company owns has taken so long. PMP, he said, has followed up with the city each year since it submitted the application.

“With a new roof, security systems and windows boarded-up, the home is secure and the community is safe while we wait to hear back. Quite frankly, we are surprised by the length of time it has taken to hear back from the city as we meet all of the requirements to purchase the adjacent lot,” Lopez said.

City council agendas list the lot that PMP wants to purchase as a “vacant residential adjacent lot.” According to a city ordinance that details the rules for purchasing vacant lots, those who want to purchase a “vacant residential side lot” must own the adjoining home and maintain the lot. Neighboring vacant lot owners can also submit an application and split the cost and the lot.

Detroit Documenters, a program run by Outlier Media to train and pay Detroiters to attend local public meetings, contributed to this report.

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