A city in flux: Local advocate talks collaboration and development without displacement

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Made up of eight distinct neighborhoods, six Corridor Improvement Authorities, three wards, and one Business Improvement District, Grand Rapids is undergoing continuous growth and development. Last month’s Building Bridges series article provided details about the 2002 Master Plan, the increase in residents, and the importance of community input on the city planning process. Within the Master Plan, seven themes are highlighted – one of which is great neighborhoods. According to the Plan, “great neighborhoods are the foundation of a great city.”

“One of the great things that we’ve seen in Grand Rapids is development within neighborhoods. Where in some downtown [areas], like Detroit, you see a lot of revitalization taking place in the heart of downtown, while the neighborhoods are sort of being left behind [when it comes to reaping] the benefits of some of that development. We have seen some really great revitalization. You can see that with the new development taking place behind Van Andel Arena and I would even now consider the developments along parts of Bridge Street to be part of that,” says city planning commission chair Kyle VanStrien.

Paola Mendivil has seen the changes to the Bridge Street corridor first-hand. Upon moving to Grand Rapids from Mexico, Mendivil and her family settled into the West Side in 2005. The transition to Grand Rapids was initially less than ideal for Mendivil, who openly admits she didn’t like it here at first. Compared to the large cities she previously lived in, “[Grand Rapids] was too small, very boring, and [had very few] people,” she says. That has certainly changed as has the look of her neighborhood. However, this change didn’t happen overnight.

Weathering the storm

“It took some involvement and took some connection and relationships with other allies and our community members,” she says. Getting involved with organizations such as the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, BL2END, and the Latina Network helped make it "a good transition.”

In addition to her many roles within the community, Mendivil serves as the catering coordinator at El Granjero Mexican Grill, the restaurant her family owns and operates. Approaching its 12th year in operation, El Granjero has overcome more than just the standard new business struggles. Opening in 2007, the recession brought some unique challenges. “There were a lot of people unemployed and a lot of businesses going out of business. And there were some immigration concerns and ICE deportation that affected our customer base a lot,” says Mendivil. Due in part to their commitment to authenticity and perseverance, they were able to make it through.

“Through the years, as the economy got better and we got more jobs, we saw an increase [in sales],” she shares. With the economic improvement has come additional development within the neighborhood.

“When New Holland Brewery opened their location, I cried tears of happiness. It’s such an amazing building and business. That kind of triggered the rest of the investment and developments that are happening on this side of the city [like] the Bridge Street Market and all the apartments and building that’s happening now.”

Development without displacement

Regardless of the location, one common concern when it comes to development is how to balance the needs of existing residents while making changes. This does not go unnoticed during the city planning process.

“I think with all development comes concerns about [if] revitalization [is] good for all,” VanStrien says. To update, improve (or gentrify) a neighborhood requires forethought. One goal is to make sure “that people aren’t being displaced [and] that we’re making [progress for all],” he says.

Suzanne Schulz holds a degree in urban planning and has worked as a consultant. During her 20 years with the City, she has held various roles including planning director, project manager, and now managing director of design and development. “We’ve been heavily focused on development without displacement and how do you build ownership in communities of color and in neighborhoods where they’ve historically been disinvested in,” she says.

A resident of the Westside Connection neighborhood, VanStrien can personally speak to these benefits. “Being a Westsider, I know it’s been something we’ve been wanting to see for a long time – multiple new restaurant options, having a grocery store, having new retailers, there’s just so many more options for residents,” he shares.

Benefits of keeping people in place

The changes may not always come in the form of demolition or displacement. Among ongoing developments are corridor beautification projects. This may include improving home improvements and updating business facades. According to Schulz, the goal is ideally to keep people in place. Not only is this ideal for residents, but it also makes sense from an economic standpoint.

“We do know that affordable space for businesses or housing is the space that has already been created. New space is much more expensive, so how do we keep existing spaces available for people to make use of in the community?,” she says. “How do we build unity in the community? How do we build a common vision for [a] community that has been forgotten over time?” Both of these questions need to be addressed “to be successful and prosper as we have economic development,” Schulz concludes.

One example of this is can be seen within the South Division Corridor Plan. “In that plan, they have one [principle] of development without displacement. They also have another that talks about economic opportunity. Those themes both focus on residents as well as businesses and the idea of building ownership so that people can remain in place,” says Schulz. According to the South Division website, the plan was created through a “thoughtful and strategic process of meaningful resident and stakeholder engagement to ensure the final Plan [was] socially equitable and representative of the interests of the Community.”

Some takeaways from gathering the community’s input involved the lack of a bank within the neighborhood as well as the negative impact that has on the establishment of local lending relationships.

“Our retail market analysis shows that [a bank] is one of the top things that the community can support financially,” says Schulz. Another outcome of the planning process was “the examination of a conservation district. It’s not a historic district but it is an area that [would seek] to preserve some of [the] older structures in the community.”

Being transparent and making things happen

“The City is doing all they can to ensure that investors are providing a certain percentage of [new] developments to our low-income communities. To me, it also means that you have to work hard to make it happen. When people say, ‘I don’t have the possibilities or ‘I don’t have enough income,’ you have to look for ways to make it happen. If you really want to achieve something, you have to look for the resources. I am against being a victim of what the City’s doing or of segregation. I don’t care; you make it happen! I’m very passionate about it,” Mendivil says.

Mendivil served two years on the planning commission. Prior to being asked to join the commission, however, she had never attended a meeting, which she feels “was a mistake.” The invitation provided her with an opportunity to learn more and to see things from a new perspective.

Having previous experience serving as a judge for business pitch competitions, she was used to hearing business plans being presented. She quickly found out that city planning meetings were much different.

“[I] learned about zoning, the City, parcels, boundaries, and all of that. It was a great opportunity to learn more. We don’t look at the applicants. We’re actually just making sure the location, the site, the land use is appropriate. How is it going to impact neighbors or residents,” she says.

Now that she has had this experience, she encourages other residents to be proactive, too.

“We need to get involved and hear what’s happening. The City provides transparency; it’s not a closed meeting. Attend public hearings and, if you like reading, the meeting minutes [are available].” For those unable to attend in person, another option is to tune in on Facebook Live, she says.

Hopes for collaboration

Whether one chooses to become involved with city planning, their neighborhood association, or by supporting local business, there are countless opportunities for having a hand in local developments.

As Schulz prepares to transition into a position in the private sector, she is optimistic. During her tenure with the City, she has seen a lot of changes and Grand Rapids’ ability to weather the economic downturn. “The challenge for us is going to be when the next recession hits, are we able to weather that storm. I think we will be able to. Going forward there’s a lot of confidence that Grand Rapids will continue to be strong and successful,” she says.

Schulz has enjoyed her time with the City and looks forward to continued development. “[My time here] has been very rewarding. My hope would be that the kind of collaboration that has occurred and that Grand Rapids is known for, continues.”

Mendivil shares a similar hope. She looks forward to seeing “more harmony among neighborhoods. Each neighborhood has its pride but we need to make sure we’re [on] the same page as a city. We have [the] resources – whether it’s the Neighborhood Matching Fund, the Grand Rapids Champs League, Friends of Grand Rapids Parks. We need to embrace those things instead of being so segregated. We need to see more collaboration amongst neighborhoods, [to say] what can we do as a city.”

“We need to have a shared mission throughout the City and make sure that we’re involved,” says Mendivil. “It takes each of us to make sure we share that vision of the growth of the city and come to terms of what that might look like.”

Building Bridges is a series focused on the diverse entrepreneurial community within the West Michigan region. Throughout the year, the series will highlight the unique problem solvers and change makers who seek to positively impact the growth of the economy and local ecosystem. Building Bridges is supported by Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women (GROW).

About Leandra Nisbet: Leandra Nisbet, Owner of Stingray Advisory Group LLC and Co-Owner of Brightwork Marine LLC, has over 14 years of experience in leadership, sales & marketing and graphic design. Through these organizations, she assists businesses with creating strategies for growth and sustainability through: strategic planning, marketing concept development/implementation, risk management solutions and financial organization. She is actively involved in the community, sitting on several Boards and committees, and has been recognized as one of the 40 Under 40 Business Leaders in Grand Rapids.

Contact Leandra Nisbet by email at [email protected]!

Photos courtesy 
Paola Mendivil.
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