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To love Grand Rapids into greatness means authentic community engagement

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Residents of Grandville Avenue

Abdoul Havugimana, resident and leader of Grandville Avenue

Residents, community organizers and leaders on Grandville Avenue are experiencing their neighborhood change as development comes in. Here we discuss how interdependent relationships are most effective when power is shared. 

On the southwest side of Grandville Avenue, past Cesar Chavez Elementary School and Supermercado Rodriguez is Naylor Street. The street not only serves as a connection between Grandville Avenue and Century Avenue, but it is now home for Abdul Havugimana. Havugimana is only twenty-two years old, but has already made one transatlantic move. A native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the young professional has endured several relocations before finally ending up in Grand Rapids. For him, finding a place to belong and to serve his community took precedence after he turned nineteen and graduated from high school.


Having attended school at Potter’s House, a private Christian School in the Grandville community, Havugimana had first-hand experience of the kind of relationships and community that were happening in the area—and he wanted to be a part of it and give back.

Havugimana plays in foosball with Jeremiah and Sinia Davidson--residents of Grandville Avenue. Long term impact in the Roosevelt Park neighborhood means Havugimana wants to be able to purchase property in the future and build the kind of community he has been a part of for the last three years from Henry and Jacque Bouwma’s home on Naylor Street.
 

The Bouwmas became part of the community on Grandville Avenue twenty-two years ago when Henry began volunteering at the Potter's house, where he would years later meet Havugimana.


After being invited into the community, Henry wanted to return to the neighborhood his father had grown up in, and be a part of the vibrant community on Grandville Avenue. Fourteen years ago, the Bouwmas left the suburbs of the city and bought two homes on Naylor Street. They live in one of the homes and the other they rent out at a reduced cost or rent free to folks in the community who are interested in developing relationships with the neighborhood and could benefit from the Bouwma’s mentorship. “I want to be the kind of role model Henry has been to me to other boys in the neighborhood and help them be a part of the change here,” shares Havugimana.
Henry and Jacque Bouma in front of one of their homes on 624 Naylor Street SW.
Havugimana is one of three other young men from the community who live in the Bouwmas' home. With a pristine basketball court on the back of the home and a fully equipped basement with comfortable couches and arcade and video games, the space operates like an open home for the neighborhood residents. Not every resident on Grandville Avenue has the ability to purchase property on the avenue, in the same way Bouwma was able to fourteen years ago. Bouwma explains that there are many residents in the community who either lack the necessary credit to be able to obtain a loan, don’t know where to begin the process of building credit, or are living paycheck to paycheck.
Grandville Avenue
In spite of the barriers residents of the area are faced with, the vibrant community with its diverse retail, grocery stores, and eclectic residents are evidence to the kinds of investment they have driven forward. Residents want to be able to stay in the neighborhood long term.


Development on Grandville Avenue

Steffanie Rosalez, who has been working on Grandville Avenue for ten plus years, explains that as changes and development comes in the area, those in power need to prepare for outsiders who will be coming in to develop in the area. For her, it is important to set the standard of community engagement for these outside developers through the lens of relationship building.

Steffanie Rosalez. Courtesy of Steffanie Rosalez.There has to be a connection between decision makers and the communities they are serving. It is crucial for decision makers to have the relationships with the people they serve,” says Rosalez.

Before the development of the Area Specific Plan for the Roosevelt Park Neighborhood, neighbors and community leaders came together to help form a committee to address the future development of the area.
 

Lynee Wells. Courtesy of Lynee Wells. “The neighborhood was looking for direction in terms of being able to weigh in about development decisions happening at the planning commission.” shares Lynee Wells, Principal and Urban Planner at Williams & Works.
 

Wells explains that it was important for the neighborhood to be able to capture the voices of its residents. Williams & Works was the primary consultant in charge of helping the neighborhood committee with Nederveld, and the Roosevelt Park Neighborhood Association put a plan in place driven by the community’s voice.
 

“The engagement was largely driven by the committee. They told us what worked and what didn’t with residents of the neighborhood. They said door-to-door worked best and that we needed to do the work to go to them,” says Wells.
 

From this process, the Area Specific Plan was born. A plan driven by the neighborhood and for the neighborhood. According to Wells, the residents of the area were most concerned with the potential displacement that occurs when development happens.


“When we are dealing with displacement what you want to do is find strategies that keep the housing that is available at a price level where people from the neighborhood can afford to buy in, or at an affordable rent,” says Wells.

To mitigate the potential displacement that could occur as development comes into the area, a fear expressed by residents, the plan suggested the removal of multi-family zoning in the low-density parts of the neighborhood. In other words, the plan asked to keep the single-family housing as the primary use in low density, and removing multi-family as a special use in that zoning district.
 

“In this way, someone is not able to come in and purchase and two or three homes, seek a special land use, and redevelop for multifamily,” adds Wells. The plan also includes allowing residential and commercial space on the ground floors near the bus stops and busy intersections.


The worry with an outsider coming in and purchasing multiple properties near each other for the Roosevelt Park Neighborhood Association is that these would turn into multi-family and inflate the property values the area and drive residents out.

Upon bringing the plan with the amendments of removing the multi-family special land use zoning in a low density zoning district to the planning commission, there were concerns that other neighborhoods might want the same kind changes.

The planning department is currently considering allowing multi-family zoning in low density residential areas a permitted use according to the November 14, 2017 City Commission Committee notes.
 

With these proposed zoning changes, if a property is set up for low density residential on a particular property, a developer would not need to hold a public hearing or seek planning commission approval to develop multi-family projects. The current proposal would allow this within 100 feet of a traditional business district zoned area.
 

Grandville Avenue towards the southeast side. “Neighborhoods ought to find potential areas for redevelopment like Roosevelt Park did. It is important to consider where missing middle housing is appropriate which involves several factors including the neighborhood’s vision, housing mix and ownership patterns, transit amenities, community facilities and desired building form," shares Wells.


Plaza Roosevelt is a development project driven by Habitat for Humanity of Kent County. The project began in 2013, before the Area Specific Plan was in place, when Habitat for Humanity started acquiring more than five acres of land along Grandville Avenue. Today, the project has attracted partners from all over the city to enhance health, housing, education, and economic opportunities for the Roosevelt Park neighborhood.

Authentic community engagement


Because development and changes to an area impact the quality of life of the area’s residents—an authentic engagement process can help ensure the development reflects the needs of the community.
 

If truly people want to do better, they should do their best to build relationships. Don’t hire someone else to do it, but do it yourself regardless of how much power you have,” says Rosalez.
 

Rosalez calls authentic community engagement a relationship of shared power and a willingness to experience discomfort. As community leaders, she says it’s crucial that we self-reflect and take responsibility when we make mistakes.

Current municipal requirements don’t guarantee or require that developers have long term contact with neighbors. It is up to the organization or the developer to take ownership of the engagement.


In the summer of 2016, The Urban Core Collective, on behalf of community organizations, local stakeholders, concerned neighbors, and committed residents, sent out a letter to the City of Grand Rapids with the purpose of beginning a conversation on the ways the city supports and endorses development and what the requirements are from developers when developing property in the city. From Grandville Avenue, the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan was one of the area’s organizations to sign the letter.

Kyle Lim. Courtesy of Kyle Lim.
“In an idealistic sense, what the hope for us was that we’d begin to find better ways to authentically engage communities of color in Grand Rapids in the process of development,” shares Kyle Lim, student of the Masters Program in the School of Education at U.C. Berkley, who helped draft the letter to the city. Lim now calls Grand Rapids home, and says, “here I learned the way in which race and class informs the American experience.”


The letter goes on to further explain that residents of disinvested neighborhoods possess valuable information and wisdom that city governments and developers need when considering how our city grows.


“People that live in these neighborhoods have hopes and desires and dreams of what they want their physical and community space to look and feel and be like. These are not often the same as to what a profit driven model of development looks like. We want to be able to say how can we develop in a way that engages the community voice,” emphasizes Lim.


Rosalez echoes Lim's sentiments, in that she believes community engagement doesn’t just have to look like several focus groups with the community—but that it can start with listening first and honoring the voices of the community.
 

“Honoring the resident’s voices means that people of the neighborhood get to make the decisions and if that means investing the funds in a different way—we do it because their voice comes first,” says Rosalez.
 

The $40 million project that is Plaza Roosevelt involves Mercy Health of St. Mary’s, Grand Rapids Public Schools, and Ferris State University in the development plan and points to the strength of investment happening in this community.


To continue the work of engaging community members authentically, the Urban Core collective is hosting meetings with residents, including those on Grandville Avenue. The next meeting will be held this Thursday, November 16 at Linc located on 1167 Madison Avenue from 6-7:30pm.
 

Havugimana, like his neighbors, wants to be able to remain on Grandville Avenue long term and be a part of the solution to ensure everyone in the community has access to mobility, affordable housing and good education. For him and Bouwma, authentic community engagement involves loving our city to greater things.

Residents of Grandville Avenue Front row: Jeremiah Davidson and Sinia Davidson. Middle row: Jacque Bouma, Kerrah Pyper.  Back row: Henry Bouma, Abdoul Havigumana, Walter Caballero and Assoumani Iyakaremye.


“To love our city into greatness is one that takes into consideration the most important needs of the community and its’ residents,” shares Bouwma, resident of Grandville Avenue.

On The Ground GR

On The Ground GR is a Rapid Growth series. This series will highlight and celebrate the communities found touching along the Grandville Avenue of Grand Rapids.

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.

You can follow On The Ground GR's work via Twitter (#OnTheGroundGR@rapidgrowthmedia), Facebook 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 the Steelcase Foundation organizations working to guarantee all communities thrive.

Photography by Dreams by Bella.

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