Beautiful city projects can happen in the most unexpected places. Abandoned lots become gardens, dilapidated buildings give way to fresh retail spaces, and even parking lots can become parks. In the South Hill neighborhood of Grand Rapids, Pleasant Park
is a surprising gem that brought community members together in its development, at the time making it the only park in the state of Michigan funded by a citizen assessment and not a city millage. This unique recreation space showcases the neighbors’ commitment to the area, and the possibilities in unused spaces.
Before it was a parking lot, the Pleasant Park site at the corner of Madison and Franklin was the track for Grand Rapids Christian High School. When the school no longer used the site, the property and former high school building became a part of Kent County’s Department of Human Services. After decades in that location, in 2009 the City agreed to a “swap” with Kent County for the property with plans to build a new facility in another park further down the road. This was also around the time that the City approached the Friends of GR Parks
Steve Faber, executive director of FGRP from 2009 to 2015, was heavily involved with every aspect of the development of Pleasant Park, ranging from design and fundraising to troubleshooting construction issues and planting trees. There were many partners that played significant roles in the project, but contributions and a strong following of support from the neighborhood residents was evident.
Following general best practices, with the recommendation for parks to fall within a quarter-of-a-mile walk of all households, the process included talks with city commissioners to discuss the feasibility of turning the parking lot into a park to meet these recommendations; one of the biggest supporters was then-Commissioner Rosalyn Bliss, now mayor of Grand Rapids. In the end, the focus of the design was met, ensuring functionality and uniqueness, along with the beauty of the space.
A major project that lasted for three years, the construction of Pleasant Park entailed a significant amount of effort in funding the project. It was partially funded by a special assessment district made up of the neighbors because there was not a designated stream of park funding available. Funding came through grants (including the Department of Natural Resources and the City’s designated Community Development Block Grant), private fundraisers organized by the neighbors, and a special tax assessment.
“Because they were so involved in the development of the park, there is also a tremendous amount of ownership over the park,” says Faber. Having lived in the City for over 20 years, Faber adds, “People fought for it, so they really care about it.”
Once the park was designed, there was still an estimated $800K required to finish the project. The City agreed to pursue a $300 thousand Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund grant in 2011, which they were eventually granted. After working to decrease the total cost through fundraising events, approximately $300 thousand was still needed. The project received federal money and private foundation cash, and the local neighborhood contributed by raising funds.
Mark Miller, a resident who also assisted with the creation of the park, says that his own three children sold lemonade in the parking lot during a Heritage Hill Home Tour event and the local neighborhood association sold donor bricks and gave neighbors the opportunity to purchase a bench, tree, or bike rack. Still short by about $200 thousand after these fundraising efforts, a special assessment district was finally pursued; the district contained about 400 properties surrounding the park, with each owner paying $500 per parcel or $50 per year for 10 years. With this step, enough monies were raised to build the park, which was finally constructed in 2014.
Miller points out that a small group of individuals brought together two neighborhoods, Heritage Hill (HH), one of the country’s largest urban historic districts near downtown Grand Rapids, and South Hill (SH), which is in Kent County and considered one of the best places to live in Michigan with its urban-suburban appeal. “It has helped bring these two neighborhoods closer together, both as a physical place and as a place to organize and rally around,” says Miller, who lives a few houses down from Pleasant Park.
Katy Tigchelaar, board member of the South Hill Neighborhood Association
(SHNA), also appreciates the unity of the neighborhoods as well as meeting people from inside and outside of the neighborhood. “We have a gem that services a lot more than just HH and SH neighbors, and personally, it makes me proud knowing neighbors work hard on making Pleasant Park such a pleasant place to be.” Tigchelaar says that many neighborhood associations do not oversee the maintenance and planning of a park, while the SHNA took a proactive role in the process of bringing together a stronger and more connected community.
The spatial and uncluttered aspects remained close to the original design concept, which matched the simple theme favored by those involved who wanted something spacious and green. In addition, the required effort and money was invested to build the park's formal entrance at the corner of Pleasant and Madison, intended to link iconic architecture to the park. Inspired by the Frank Lloyd Wright architecture down the street from the site, key touches to the park entrance include the entry piers, the brick selection, the horizontally-accentuated mortar joints, and the large planters that top them.
Safety also plays a big part in this development, according to Faber, who explains that neighbors bordering the park have paid to have gates added that allow direct access to the park. Joshlyn Litzenberg is one of those individuals who has invested in the park and neighborhood in this manner, explaining that her family has purchased the house next to their current home they have owned since 2009, partly because of wanting that direct access to the park upon learning of the project. Now the mother of one 19-month-old daughter and with twin girls on the way, Litzenberg shares that as long as their kids utilize the park, they are never moving; she adds that the openness of the space makes everyone feel safe, allowing kids to play and run around without the worry of passing cars.
The goal was accomplished, with a park that improves not only the beauty of the community, but also its draw to potential new residents. The area has become a destination for many neighborhood families, especially those with small children. According to Miller, he met a couple from Minneapolis who made the decision to purchase their home in the neighborhood mainly due to the park. Another key design feature, and big draw, is the unprogrammed green space.
"When we designed this park 10 years ago, the neighborhood residents worked diligently to create a unique, functional and beautiful space,” says Litzenberg, who coordinates the annual cleanup and communicates with the Parks Department on needed upgrades. “I believe that that effort was successful.”
To stay on top of the upkeep of Pleasant Park, local residents set up a maintenance fund. Local children even contributed to the raising of funds. Litzenberg says that the youth have also been instrumental in volunteering their time to the annual cleanup, which helped her out when there was a shortage in volunteers during the months of May through September last year. She found herself tending to the different sections as needed, but the contributions from the neighborhood and project supporters have been appreciated and inspiring.
As part of the success in the long-term support and upkeep of Pleasant Park, Miller says that each spring a group of individuals are proactive in coming out for the cleanup, preparing the flower beds for the season and maintaining the landscaping all summer long. “The neighbors made an investment in Pleasant Park, and they know that you must maintain this kind of investment if it is going to remain vital and verdant.”
Photos courtesy of Steve Faber
Southeast Strong is a series funded by the City of Grand Rapids that is focused on the multi-faceted neighborhoods of the city's southeast corridor. Through the exploration of the neighborhoods' entrepreneurs, nonprofits, and community members, the series' local storytellers will highlight the resiliency of resident voices and projects, especially during COVID-19 recovery.
Shanika P. Carter is an author, freelance writer, editor, and adjunct communications instructor. She is also the Principal Consultant of The Write Flow & Vibe, LLC (www.writeflowandvibe.com), offering writing, editing, and content development services to a variety of clientele, including fellow authors and businesses. Shanika is the author of the book To Lead or Not to Lead, which was released in 2019.