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How to keep the West Side the best side -- for everyone

Kurt Reppart

Is Bridge St. the new Wealthy St.? As West Side development heats up, Stephanie Doublestein takes a look at how to keep the West Side the best side for both new businesses and longtime residents. With housing costs rising, find out how some community stakeholders think the neighborhood can embrace revitalization while making sure the changes are good for Challenge Scholars, college students, and the proud people who call the West Side home.
New breweries opening, a new distillery going in, coffee shops and clothing stores popping up in storefronts seemingly every week, and more market-rate condos than you can count: It's the West Side, and it's booming. Along Bridge St. and inside previously empty buildings, the pace of development in this Grand Rapids neighborhood is staggering. In some circles, it's being compared to the rapid changes that took place along the Wealthy St. corridor a decade ago, with the comparison evoking a mix of positive or negative connotations, depending on who you're talking to. Is Bridge St. the new Wealthy St.? Is the West Side development boom good for the long-time residents and families who call the area home? And how can community stakeholders keep the West Side the "best side" while embracing revitalization and renewal?
 
Kurt Reppart, executive director of The Other Way Ministries, a West Side nonprofit in the neighborhood since 1967, has been with the organization for 15 years. He chose to live here because he liked the mix of ages, ethnicities and incomes. He goes to church in the area and has watched his family's local pharmacy and grocery store close because there wasn't enough capital in the neighborhood to keep them in business. So he welcomes the new investment – with some caveats.
 
"On one hand I'm thrilled that people want to invest in our community. I was ecstatic when the Grand Rapids Community Foundation wanted to invest in education, when Kent School Services Network moved into the schools, with the mixed-use development and market-rate housing," he says. "Some of that is really important for the vitality of the neighborhood."
 
The Grand Rapids Community Foundation enrolled its first class in the Challenge Scholars program, a pilot, last-dollar scholarship promised to students who graduate from Union High and attend college or a trade school, in 2014. Kent School Services Network (KSSN) came to Grand Rapids eight years ago, with a goal of using its community school model to bring the community into the school and turn it into a neighborhood hub where residents are engaged to participate in creating solutions for students and families.
 
"There are two things I'm concerned about," says Reppart. "The first is with housing. There's been a gradual shift in the neighborhood . . . it hasn't hit the tipping point yet but people are realizing that they can rent apartments out for $400 per bedroom to college students."
 
Sergio Cira-ReyesIt's something Sergio Cira-Reyes, KSSN community school coordinator at Sibley Elementary, worries about too. "Housing prices have doubled from when I first started," he says, largely due to increased investment potential seen by landlords, investors, and Grand Valley State University students. "A house that might have cost $800/month to rent to a family, they can rent to four students at $400-500 per bedroom. That's a sweet deal, and you know that house is going to increase in value as new businesses start opening."
 
The trouble, says Cira-Reyes, is that one requirement of the Challenge Scholars program, which enrolls students beginning in 6th grade and provides wraparound support services throughout middle school and high school, is that students remain enrolled in either Harrison Park or Westwood Middle School, then Union High School. (Sibley Elementary is a feeder school into those middle schools.)
 
"The concern for Challenge Scholar students is that their family won't be able to afford the rent and they'll be forced out," says Cira-Reyes. "Every time someone renews their lease they think about whether their rent will go up. If they move out, transportation becomes an issue. If they move to Kentwood or an apartment on Alpine or they become a high-mobility family, what that does to a child who is always moving . . . they lose so much school time and the instability really affects their feeling of safety." Students who move out of the district would also lose their eligibility with the Challenge Scholars program.
 
Cira-Reyes and Reppart agree on some possible steps forward: measuring the impact large institutions like GVSU have on the area; working with developers and new businesses on ways they can protect their bottom line while curbing negative impacts on the established community; elevating the voices of long-time residents; and taking steps to ensure that economic opportunity will be shared among the community by encouraging local hiring.
 
Reppart's organization is trying to be a convener on several of these issues. Last month, The Other Way invited 25 people from nonprofit, housing, development, philanthropy, and city government sectors to a West Side housing summit – and 60 people showed up representing 34 different organizations. The group looked at data, surveyed the community about their capacity for rent, had conversations about policy tools to encourage homeownership, and talked about the need for a higher-density project for affordable housing.
 
"We just want our neighbors to be able to stay," says Reppart. "I don't think what happened on Wealthy and Cherry was bad, it's just not what we're hoping for. It exploded, and that's why we feel a sense of urgency. We know it will likely explode in a similar way, so how can we create balance in the midst of that explosion? The Other Way is after balance. We want thoughtful development."
 
Rachel LeeRachel Lee, director of East Hills Council of Neighbors, has already been through this kind of explosion. She's lived in East Hills on and off since 1999 and has guided the southeast-side neighborhood through a transformation that included an increase in home ownership, a larger and younger renter population, and dozens of new businesses popping up. She credits the historic district for the uptick in neighborhood investment over the last decade.
 
"What the historic district did initially is it helped give tax credits for people to fix up these houses. It was a tool we had that neighbors worked really hard to get," says Lee. She also says the transformation was guided by Habitat for Humanity, long-term landlords interested in long-term tenants, and an intentional public space strategy on the EHCN website which specifically spells out ten questions every developer should ask before they bring a project before the council.
 
If she could go back in time and wave a magic wand that allowed her to change the way the development boom played out along Wealthy St. and the surrounding neighborhoods, Lee says she wishes they had utilized "inclusionary housing. How can we start looking at policies to get developers to have incentives to build more middle-income housing? It's something larger cities are doing and you definitely have to provide that incentive, because a lot of developers are looking at demand for market-rate housing but you also have to understand the context of the neighborhood. What we think is the best neighborhood is one that has diversity and mixed income."
 
One large West Side developer, Rockford Construction, thinks it's just that increase in market-rate housing that's going to preserve affordable housing stock around Bridge St.
 
"One of the things with a neighborhood like Wealthy, there was not a lot of multi-family development in the neighborhood – it was mostly restaurant and bar activity, so you increased jobs but not housing opportunity," says Kurt Hassberger, chairman and president of development at Rockford Construction. "Whereas on the West Side a significant amount of activity is market-rate housing. So you may not be as likely to have that concerning spillover effect. I'm no expert on what happened there, but I really do believe you could have virtually the opposite effect on rental rates of housing stock in the existing neighborhoods."
 
Hassberger points to a market-rate project Rockford Construction has underway at the corner of Fulton and Seward, which he thinks will be a natural fit for GVSU students in time for the 2016 school year. And he encourages West Side residents concerned about the pace of development to be involved with their local neighborhood associations and business associations.
 
In the meantime, Sergio Cira-Reyes will continue to connect West Side families with the best educational opportunities for their children, including the Challenge Scholars program. "What I see from Challenge Scholars is it's such a promising program and I think the biggest way we benefit is the hope that something like that promise gives to our students."
 
As far as whether, as the old rhyme goes, the West Side is the best side, Cira-Reyes says he sees tenacity, a strong sense of belonging, pride, passion, and commitment in the families he works with. And he says West Siders have a lot to offer; "They just need an invitation to the table."

Stephanie Doublestein is the managing editor of Rapid Growth Media.
 
Photography by Adam Bird
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