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Burton Heights/Garfield Park

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The future of GR's southside: What will a land sale mean for Urban Roots and affordable housing?



The sale of the land where Urban Roots has been making its home on the city's southside is prompting concerns about the future of the farm that has been welcomed with open arms by neighbors, as well as fears of future development and displacement. For others, however, including the landowner, Linc Up, the sale is about ensuring there is affordable housing in the Madison Square area.
Did you hear about the rose that grew
from a crack in the concrete?
Proving nature's law is wrong it
learned to walk without having feet.
Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams,
it learned to breathe fresh air.
Long live the rose that grew from concrete
when no one else ever cared.”
-Tupac Shakur, The Rose That Grew From Concrete”.
 
Winding through the rows of vegetables, passing the raised beds into the area with rotting trees, you can still find large chunks of concrete from the sidewalks and foundations of fallen infrastructure on the large parcel of land that Urban Roots has tilled and seeded. Evidence that, despite the nonprofit’s constant laboring, there is still much work to be done on the land at 1316 Madison Ave SE.
 
Urban Roots Executive Director Levi Gardner recently spoke at the “This Place Matters” event about all the hard work that staff, interns, volunteers, and community members have put into the farm, reaffirming that what they had all done here was important and valued. On a somber note, Gardner let the large gathering know that he had been informed that the land that Urban Roots is on, which is owned by the nonprofit LINC UP, was being sold to Rockford Construction and that the future of Urban Roots in the Madison Square neighborhood was unclear. Gardner conveyed furthermore that this sale may be a marker of further development to come to the greater area of the Southside, and not just Madison Square.

LINC UP has confirmed the sale of the urban farm's land to Rockford Construction is in the process. A Rockford spokesman told us that a partnership with Rockford, the Cheri DeVos Foundation and the Doug & Maria DeVos Foundation is purchasing property from LINC in the Madison Square neighborhood, though they did not specify whether it was the Urban Roots land.
Levi Gardner

Away from the bustle of the gathering, Gardner takes a chance to speak more about the news. “I was informed that morning” Gardner says, referring to Oct. 21, when he was notified of the sale by the land owners, the nonprofit community development organization LINC UP. Visibly frustrated, Gardner says he'd like to see a radically different approach to ownership of the urban farm in which community members would own the farm.

“Ideally it would be put into a Community Land Trust,” Gardner says, referring to the land usage designation other urban farm models across the country have adopted. A Community Land Trust is a non-profit organization that develops and stewards a designated parcel of land on behalf of a community. The internal makeup of this kind of non-profit is usually one part residents of the Community Land Trust, part community members, and finally part expert and stakeholders. Such a model would ensure the land would be held by the community in perpetuity, an approach that Gardner feels would be best for a community that may find itself at risk of displacement because of development.
 
Urban Roots had settled in just earlier this year into the plot of land owned by local community development organization LINC UP and had hopes of growing and improving there yearly. For a full story on Urban Roots’ mission, please refer to a recent article from Rapid Growth here.
 
Admittedly, Gardner says anything could happen with the land. He believes that anyone, landowner or not, would see the benefits the farm is bringing to the neighborhood and believes in the farm’s mission to bring sustainable change to the community. Still, the lack of assurance that the farm would stay active hangs in the balance.
 
Reaching out to LINC UP’s Co-Executive Directors, Jeremy DeRoo and Darel Ross, for comment on a busy weekday afternoon sheds further light on the change of events. “Gardner is passionate and amazing at urban agriculture,” says Ross, but both state that the land was never intended for farming. LINC UP’s outreach and development work within the Madison Square neighborhood has always surfaced a housing first priority for the community. “It was not always the best fit for the land...We made sure to be transparent from the start; this land would be for development,” DeRoo says in regards to LINC UP’s relationship with Urban Roots. “That’s not to say we don’t like his mission,” both chime in about the decision to sell the land. “We just can’t justify subsidizing the land any further” states Ross about LINC UP’s assistance of Urban Roots usage of the land, which the farm has been permitted to use without paying rent.
Urban Roots located at 1316 Madison Avenue SE.
DeRoo says the sale is not yet official but would be with Rockford Construction. Further, DeRoo states that the purchaser is committing to community engagement, but how that will take form is still unknown. Rapid Growth reached out to Rockford Construction’s Community Development Director Brad Mathis for further comment. Mathis states that a forming partnership between the Cheri DeVos Foundation, Doug & Maria DeVos Foundation, and Rockford Construction is currently in the process of purchasing property from LINC UP in the Madison Square neighborhood. The team has no immediate plans for the building or vacant parcels. The partnership is still in the formation stages, but, Mathis says, was created to develop strategic community collaborations to reinvigorate neighborhood-based economies, increase access to quality mixed-income housing, and achieve cradle-to-career educational excellence.

“We greatly respect the work that LINC UP, Urban Roots, and many others are contributing to the Madison Square community,” stated Mathis. “We look forward to partnering with Urban Roots in support of their mission to provide affordable food and education to current residents.”
 
“I’m a developer,” says Ross, as both continue to speak on how their commitment to the community they serve supersedes their ability to help out another non-profit. It is important to note that LINC UP absorbed the costs of rent and taxes, on the condition that Urban Roots would pay utilities on a month to month basis for their stay on the land. “I think the urban-agriculture model of Urban Roots is going to be difficult to flesh out here,” DeRoo says about an already crowded real estate market. As development, both commercial and private, increases in Grand Rapids, the availability of land dwindles and prices grow. Both DeRoo and Ross speak about the importance of affordable housing in the area, and how we must prioritize solution efforts and listen to the community first.
 
The sale of land is still worrisome to Gardner and his team because of the uncertainty of the use designation for the land. Once it changes hands to a private organization, there is no going back in the mind of Gardner.
Community member helps other signs to help indicate on the ground what is planted.
It should be noted that LINC UP led a community event in March at which neighbors, community leaders and local organizations voiced their concerns over a private developer coming into the neighborhood after LINC UP was the first to post leaked documents from Rockford Construction in regards to possible development along Eastern Avenue and Cottage Grove. Neighbors present in the community expressed fear that the displacement they saw on Grand Rapids' Westside, which has a heavy presence from Rockford Construction, would bring a similar fate to the Southside. At the same event, residents expressed they would see the same kind of gentrification happen in their area as has occurred along Wealthy Street. In Rapid Growth’s initial article in March Rev. W. Paul Mayhue, a former Kent County Commissioner then said “We do not want to see another Wealthy Street. Was there a plan laid out on Wealthy Street? How can we learn from Wealthy Street?”.
 
The Southside of the city, defined by south of Wealthy Street and west of as far as Kalamazoo Avenue, has seen little to no major commercial development from large companies such as Rockford Construction.  For the communities found along South Division Avenue in the Burton Heights and Garfield Park neighborhoods accessibility to housing is a concern. 
According to census data obtained from the
Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University, 16 percent of the housing available is vacant and 38.5 percent of it is renter occupied. In the area, those most experiencing the forefront of housing barriers are Latinx and African American residents, who make up 82 percent of the area's population. To begin addressing some of these issues, LINC UP has purchased 100 Burton Street SE in hopes of developing low-income units for people in the neighborhood.

“The purpose for 100 Burton Street is affordable housing -- 32 low income units of housing alongside the Division corridor," states Ross.

Request for funding has been submitted to MSHDA for low income tax credit housing and more information is expected to be received by December or January to begin development.  Ross explains wanting to be strategic when developing in this area, "The neighborhood is a melting pot of strong business owners, nice integration between first and second generation of immigrants. It is also on the transit line, and the area has a lot of opportunities." 
 
Ross and DeRoo are still confident that urban agriculture can be accomplished in Grand Rapids, and point to the many smaller community garden plots, and initiatives such as those brought forth by Well House. With such a tough challenge in the real estate market for them and their team at LINC, Ross and DeRoo must remain focused on their mission statement. Both are confident in Gardner’s resourcefulness, and say that Urban Roots will likely be able to pivot into a smaller land plot model, perhaps a connected network that spans the city.
 
A land move will add on more infrastructure work to this small non-profit. Ultimately, both organizations are here to serve the community. LINC UP has found their mission in a strong and widely accepted model of affordable housing to serve the community, while Urban Roots is finding its place in the the field of urban agriculture. Where accessibility to healthy, affordable, and freshly grown food is relegated to a lower priority status over housing, it can be a difficult road in convincing people of the long term benefits and importance of secured access to healthy food. Especially when at-risk communities are facing down a lack of affordable housing.
 
As the sun began to lower on the event, I said farewell to Gardner. With a wave and a smile, he nodded. With all that he and his team were able to accomplish in such a short amount of time, I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Urban Roots.

On The Ground GR
 
On The Ground GR is a new Rapid Growth series. This series will highlight and celebrate the communities found along South Division Avenue that touch the Garfield Park and Burton Heights neighborhoods. You can read all the On The Ground articles published to date here
 
Over the next few months, On The Ground GR journalists will be knocking on doors and getting to know the neighbors and community members. We will dive deeper into topics concerning this neighborhood's residents and stakeholders while celebrating the diversity and strength found in this area. We are on the ground listening and want to celebrate the community's unifying spirit of positivity and vibrancy.
 
Follow On The Ground GR's work via Twitter using the hashtag #OnTheGroundGRFacebook and Instagram. To connect with On The Ground GR's editor, Michelle Jokisch Polo (read more about Michelle here), you can email her at michellejokisch@gmail.com and follow her on Facebook and Instagram.
 
On The Ground GR is made possible by the Frey Foundation, the Grand Rapids Community Foundation and Steelcase, organizations that believe democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. 
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