The transition of America’s economy away from its industrial foundation is a challenge that has plagued economists, politicians, and citizens for many years. Amidst these concerns, the physical evidence of this shift—the abandoned streets, empty buildings, and dilapidated homes of many American cities’ once thriving downtown neighborhoods—has been largely overlooked.
In recent years, however, new initiatives, new visions, for reviving downtown districts have sprung up across the country with the help of innovative leaders, government backing, and most importantly, community support. In Grand Rapids, a prime example of this cooperation can be found in the Heartside district on the Avenue for the Arts.
This new term for South Division Avenue is more than just a label; it is reality for the artists who live and work in the rehabilitated lofts and commercial spaces in the rebounding neighborhood. But the redevelopment of this area is not simply about supporting artistic endeavors. It’s providing affordable housing, developing jobs, and fostering economic growth that the city so desperately needs.
By targeting the arts as a focal point for urban revitalization in Heartside, Grand Rapids is following a similar plan that has proven highly successful in reenergizing other cities across the nation.
A Model For Success
For decades, downtown Division Avenue wallowed in a slump of building vacancy, high unemployment rates, and low economic activity. A few businesses and artistic projects were able to survive, but the area was in desperate need of reinvestment and renovation if it was to become a viable neighborhood once again.
In 1999, local leaders kicked off the Heartside Mainstreet Program to revitalize South Division Avenue from Fulton to Wealthy Street. The area was rundown at the time. But there were also considerable assets to build on, including a storied history as a thriving commercial business district, unique historic architecture, and the presence of committed community development organizations like Dwelling Place, a group established by a coalition of churches in 1980 to promote quality housing for low-income residents and spur urban revitalization. The missing ingredient was a new idea to drive people and money toward a new vision for success in the neighborhood.
That's where art comes in. Led by Denny Sturtevant, the director of Dwelling Place since 1989, community leaders established the Division-Oakes Arts Initiative, a collaborative venture between developers and property owners to transform vacant and dilapidated buildings along South Division into living and working spaces geared specifically to artists.
“As the neighborhood began changing, we knew that Division still had a bad perception in the community,” Sturtevant said. “So we began talking about using art as a way to change the public perception, while at the same time, providing space to live. We wanted to find ways to make art attract growth.”
Dwelling Place brought in a consultant from Artspace, a Minneapolis-based development firm that has become the nation’s leading nonprofit real estate developer for the arts, to help evaluate the potential and feasibility for turning the neighborhood around. Artspace, established in 1979, has completed projects from Seattle to Houston to Connecticut that focus on creating aesthetically pleasing and sustainable spaces for artists in order to catalyze neighborhood redevelopment.
According to Artspace's research, local communities can see as much as an eight dollar return for every dollar invested in projects such as the Division-Oakes Initiative. Philadelphia, for example, launched its Avenue of the Arts initiative in 1983 with an initial investment of $8 million. Today, the project has leveraged a total investment of approximately $650 million and created 4,000 full and part-time jobs. Businesses there annually generate some $200 million in revenues. Seattle, Reno, and Minneapolis have experienced similar results.
Rallying in South Division
Taking a similar approach to revive South Division quickly became a no-brainer.
“We didn’t want to be too presumptuous that his was the only place where arts were happening,” Sturtevant said. “But this is a place where things can happen, where arts take place.”
During this same time, Michigan launched the Cool Cities program to target public spending in central cities in an effort to develop vibrant urban hubs, attract and retain young talent, and strengthen the economy. Dwelling Place received a $100,000 grant from the program based largely on the vast amount of support already in place from private and nonprofit investors and the high feasibility of success.
The grant became more of a leveraging tool to draw attention and get people involved, according to Sturtevant, as well as giving Dwelling Place the ability to get access to other state departments and tax credits. The result was a return of over $12.5 million in support, including funding for façade improvement, public murals, and $2 million from the city to improve the street and sidewalks.
These changes now are helping to attract the growing number of new tenants, private and commercial, who are moving into area to plug into the up-and-coming arts scene. Galleries and retail shops now cater to the new students and artists; Calvin College recently opened a gallery on the first floor of the Martineau apartments at 104 S. Division.
And Dwelling Place’s leadership now is leading to numerous spin-off arts-related projects and development in the area.
Mark Rumsey, a former main street manager at Dwelling Place, started in 2003 the Free Radical Gallery in response to the lack of access to exhibition space for young artists. The project, which essentially has turned into an event that resembles an art walk, now enjoys growing popularity and notoriety as more students and artists participate in the Gallery, which takes place a couple times a year.
“The Free Radical is a framework in which artists, building owners, business owners, and community members create a living gallery, re-contextualizing the role of art and artists in our community,” Rumsey said.
A more recent development, the Avenue for the Arts Market, was created to showcase the businesses located in the district through monthly outdoor events. Jenn Schaub, one of the market’s organizers, is a staff member at Dwelling Place.
“Our intention was to bring together local artists, musicians, businesses, residents, and introduce the Avenue for the Arts to greater Grand Rapids residents,” Schaub said.
A Lasting Reality
With all of the new vitality on the Avenue for the Arts, the vision behind Dwelling Place’s work seems to provide a foundation that will support lasting growth in the area.
Sturtevant said that Dwelling Place is dedicated to addressing the need for affordable housing, revitalizing neighborhoods, and providing support services to tenants who are in situations in which affordable housing by itself isn’t enough to get by.
“When we look at the need for affordable housing, we need to understand the context of where it is,” Sturtevant said. “The goal is to find ways for people to have sustainable housing and improve their quality of life.”
Currently, Dwelling Place owns 80-90 percent of the affordable housing stock in the neighborhood and has developed over $100 million in real estate. With any urban redevelopment of this scale, there is always concerns about the increase in property value running out current residents.
Sturtevant says that while there are many sides to the argument, people have said that Dwelling Place’s model for development is the cure for these problems, not the cause of them.
“The income diversity in the neighborhood has been improving, and it’s important to make sure that current tenants don’t get run out by other developments,” Sturtevant said. “We’re not moving out.”
For Sturtevant, satisfaction for a project of this size will arrive when the renovation of the area translates into a rebirth of the city’s vivacity and life.
“When every building is occupied, when there are high, middle, and low-income households in the same neighborhood, when we get to the point that it does look and feel like a thriving, urban downtown filled with all different kinds of people, and when the kind of amenities that you find in a big city—sustainability, accessibility, walkability—exist, they we’ll know that we’ve arrived to a point that we can be satisfied.”
If there were to be a summary of the completed and continuing process on the Avenue for the Arts, the comments in the Cool Cities grant might be a good starting point: “truly a stellar example of a community gathering together to make a dream a reality.”
Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved
Denny Sturtevant at the corner of Cherry St. and Division Avenue
A new mural near The Martineau Building - an artist lofts residence
Avenue of the Arts (photograph by A J Paschka)
Jenn Schaub of Dwelling Place
The Kelsey Apartment Building will be occupied once again in October