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Burton Heights/Garfield Park

Features

City sets sights on equitable development for S. Division, Burton Heights & Grandville Ave

Leonard Van Drunen

The city of Grand Rapids is aiming to develop South Division, Burton Heights, and Grandville Avenue into a Corridor Improvement District. To address gentrification and displacement, city officials are in the process of creating a plan with the community through the lens of equity. 
“We have to ask ourselves what investment means? What does quality of life look like? What are the different models for inclusive decision making?” –Suzanne Schulz, Planning Director for the City of Grand Rapids
 
In 2005, the Michigan legislature passed the Public Act 280, the Corridor Improvement Authority (CIA) Act, to help cities, commercial areas and townships create a strategic plan that guides development and promotes economic growth through the organization of community stakeholders, investors, business owners, and residents. To formalize the CIA’s process in the city of Grand Rapids, the development of Corridor Improvement Districts (CIDs) has been adopted.
 
CIDs allow stakeholders,  investors and community residents to use tax increment financing, private or corporate donations and other grants for the improvement purposes of the commercial corridor of which they are a part. Tax increment financing refers to tax revenue attained from new development occurring in a particular commercial district. When a business is located in a CID district, the city divides the property taxes into two pools, one directed to the city’s general fund and the second to the redevelopment or improvement of that specific commercial district.
 
In the city of Grand Rapids, there are five CIDs, including Southtown, Michigan Street, North Quarter, Uptown, and Westside. Grandville Avenue, Burton Heights and South Division are three areas without a CID. Despite the number of businesses in the area, there have been no formal attempts to turn these areas into CIDs until now, the city’s planning department, in partnership with the city’s Economic Development Corporation, are working to create a CID alongside the South Division corridor, in Burton Heights and on Grandville Avenue.
 
Leonard Van Drunen, an investor in the area and the property owner of 2017 S. Division, has made it his mission to do some organizing in the Burton Heights neighborhood in what he calls “activist real estate.”
 
“I want to help provide really nice retail properties in Burton Heights for retailers who want to be in Burton Heights and attract retailers who wouldn’t otherwise be in Burton Heights,” he says. “I want to ensure that my investment and those of others do not displace the Hispanic community of the area but instead provide viable retail and economic opportunities for them.”
 
Since acquiring 2017 S. Division, Van Drunen has rented out the two storefronts to Latinx business owners in the area. El Globo Restaurant occupies one of these store fronts, and owners Oswaldo and Evangelina Cordova have been renting out the space since this past summer.
 
When Van Drunen purchased 2017 S. Division, the property was foreclosed and dilapidated.
 
"I invested to renovate the façade, put in new mechanical systems, and a new roof,” Van Drunen says.
 
Alongside South Division Avenue, between Cottage Grove Street and Ken-o-Sha Drive, a total of 78 businesses have been established, with 26 of these owned by Latinx individuals, according to ReferenceUSA, a library database providing business and consumer data.
 
Corner of Burton Street and Division Avenue

“The Burton Heights has excellent fundamentals, such as a fully populated residential neighborhood, easy access to downtown through the Silver Line, and to Highway 131 and 28th street,” explains Van Drunen.
 
Beginning in January, the Planning Department for the City of Grand Rapids will begin an “equitable development plan” to strategize the formalization of one CID combining the Grandville area, South Division corridor and Burton Heights neighborhood.
 
Suzanne Schulz, Planning Director for the City of Grand Rapids, has been working to ensure plans for the corridor represent the needs of the people who live and work in the area.
 Suzanne Schulz
“There are intentional choices we can make so that the community can grow and prosper instead of displacing residents and business owners,” explains Schulz.
 
This emphasis on not displacing residents and business owners is crucial for community leaders who want to do opposite of what typically happens in gentrification: strengthen and empower an area for those who are already there and have spent much of their lives investing in their community. Often, when there is major development in an area, there are very valid fears about displacement: new businesses and an influx of new residents from outside the area means rents rise, both for shop owners and residents, translating to what can be the exodus of longtime community members who can no longer afford to live there. Critics of development have pointed to where this has happened in Grand Rapids, including on Wealthy Street — a space where, in the 1980s and 90s, the majority of the business owners and workers were African American. Now, following gentrification, it's mostly white.
 
Jamiel Robinson, the founder of Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses, expanded upon this in a previous interview with Rapid Growth.  "As a city, we need more Wealthy Streets, but we need the Wealthy Street model to be more inclusive and equitable,” he says in that interview. "We need the good that comes with reinvestment — increased neighborhood economy, employment opportunities, reduced crime and clean streets — but we should have everyone benefit from that."
 
To help in the formalization of the area’s CID, the city has begun a study of the area, called the South Division Equitable Development Plan, to avoid displacement and exclusion of the community’s voice. To help steer this plan, the city will be hiring a “cultural competency expert,” hanks to various grants from local foundations.  This position will be posted at the beginning of the new year.
 
Part of the initial stages of this project has been for Kara Wood, Director of the Economic Development Corporation of the City of Grand Rapids, to meet with business owners and stakeholders of the area, including the Burton Business Association, of which Van Drunen is  a part.  The Burton Business Association is an open group of business owners and property owners who meet every other month to discuss development plans for the area. The next Burton Business Association will be held January 3rd at 12:00pm at the Garfield Park Neighborhood Association (334 Burton Street. SE). The meeting is open to anyone who owns a business or property in Burton Heights, and will provide a chance for business owners in Burton Heights to learn more about the future Division area CID, the benefits it will bring to the district and ways they can get involved.

“We are in the very beginning stages of the plan,” Schulz says. “The area of South Division, Grandville Avenue and Burton Heights is made up of a tapestry of people. We are really trying to think who we are going to reach out, how do we communicate with them, who are the leaders in the area—so that when the development happens in the area the community has a strong voice.”

Israel Perez, business owner of The Place, a barbershop located at 1922 S. Division Ave., expresses looking forward to becoming more involved in the process. Before being informed by Rapid Growth Media of the meeting, Perez had not heard of the Burton Business Association. 

"It is very important for other businesses to attend so they can expand their clientele to be more involved in there community. I'm new to owning a business, so I really didn't know there were meetings like these. But I don't think attending should be an issue unless they see no interest. Or don't understand it," explains Perez. 
 
Before identifying the area as a CID, the district’s boundaries need to be reviewed, and the commercial and residential areas within the neighborhood must be identified. Having learned from other CIDs in Grand Rapids, Schulz wants to help guide an inclusive plan for an area that’s large enough to help maximize the community’s capacity to organize.
 
“We can’t have the CID be too small because they aren’t economically viable,” Schulz says.
 
As was the case for the Southtown CID, which originally included only the Madison Square corridor, there were not enough members to create a full board nor enough revenue brought in to make a difference, as explained by Southtown CID Board Member LaKiya Thompson-Jenkins. To address this, the Southtown CID expanded to include Alger Heights.
 
“It creates a larger footprint in which we can bring these business owners and find out what is working well for them. It allows us to create conversations to ensure that opportunities are submitted equitably,” states Thompson-Jenkins.
 
Thompson-Jenkins has been serving on the Southtown CID Board for the past nine months and believes the CID is a platform to get to know, serve and involve business owners in the area.
 
“The CID can ensure business owners have the resources and the knowledge of opportunities to develop and expand in the neighborhood without being left behind,” explains Thompson-Jenkins.

One of the ways the city plans to engage the South Division/Burton Heights/Grandville community is by hiring and training “community facilitators” from the area to help organize meetings with the area’s residents and business owners. The purpose of these facilitators is to help the steering committees and advisors of the plan. The hiring of these facilitators will begin in the summer of 2017.
 
“The advisors will be a combination of people who are familiar with the area, work in the neighborhood, live in the neighborhood, or own businesses,” Schulz explains.
 
Because the process is in its beginning stages, the plan has just a skeleton framework as of now, and Schulz wants to ensure it is flexible enough to change throughout its process.
 
“This plan process is about redefining what investment looks like and what it means for the people who live and work on South Division,” says Schulz.
 
South Division Avenue

A plan with a focus on equity for the corridor of South Division, Burton Heights and Grandville Avenue can help educate and guide business owners’ investing power to ensure the voices of those who have been living in the area are heard and actualized, community leaders stress.
 
For those who are interested in getting involved with the planning process for the South Division Equitable Development Plan attend the January 3rd meeting at 12:00pm at  Garfield Park Neighborhood Association (334 Burton Street. SE).
 
On The Ground GR
 
On The Ground GR is a Rapid Growth series that launched in October. This series highlights and celebrates 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.
 
This article is the final piece in our Burton Heights-Garfield Park-South Division series, but we will return with another On The Ground program in January.
 
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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