Activating Heartside: Downtown organizations implement new solutions to revitalize S. Division Ave.

Earlier this year, the City of Grand Rapids released its final report on the Heartside Quality of Life Study, a collaborative process initiated by the city’s planning department and lead by Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc. and the Dwelling Place. The study was designed to serve as a framework to revitalize the neighborhood and recommend ways those charged with doing the work can act to improve the lives of the community’s residents. With results in, the leading organizations have shifted to implementing the study’s recommendations with innovative, community-based solutions that directly address problems identified; specifically, activating vacant spaces along South Division Avenue.

As part of the study, the Areas of Improvement work group concluded that the Heartside neighborhood had too many vacant commercial spaces which have “become alcoves for loitering and places for criminal activity – creating barriers to attracting new, thriving businesses that could provide needed goods, services, and jobs to residents.” So, as a direct response to the results and recommendations from the study, on November 26, the Dwelling Place collaborated with Heartside’s commercial space owners and co-working organization Little Space Studio to host a vacant space activation tour.

“The tour was a great opportunity for individuals and organizations who play a key role in connecting with entrepreneurs in the downtown area – to come together with commercial and co-working space owners to learn more about the spaces available for new and existing businesses,” says Haley Stichman, who recently joined the Dwelling Place as the Heartside neighborhood plan organizer. The idea for the tour came out of the Heartside Economic Development work group and was intended to connect entrepreneurs to affordable retail and live/work space available along South Division Avenue.
“Many individuals that have been involved in the work group are community connectors working to cultivate opportunities for entrepreneurs,” Stichman says. “The work group aims to collaborate with community partners in order to change public perception – with the intent of increasing investment along South Division. The activation of vacant spaces aligned well with this goal.” Additionally, Stichman says, “Community partners are key to the success of activation efforts in the community. All involved bring with them support for entrepreneurs and business owners looking to come into the neighborhood.”
While activating vacant spaces with thriving businesses that will bring desired goods, services, and jobs to Heartside is the goal of its stakeholders, parallel efforts are underway that reinforce the urgent need to begin implementing recommendations from the study now. On November 5, the Dwelling Place announced that it is moving forward with an initiative to transform five vacant spaces on South Division. With financial support from Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc., two Neighborhood Information Stations will be installed outside of underutilized storefronts. These LED kiosks will feature neighborhood news, showcase images of artwork created by neighbors, and share local event updates.
Ideally, the Dwelling Place stated in its press release, “The Neighborhood Information Stations will create a visually engaging experience for pedestrians. Static photo displays will complement the information stations and expand activation into three additional storefronts along South Division.” This project also came as a direct recommendation from the Heartside Quality of Life Study.
Generating equitable outcomes for all is at the core of Heartside’s Quality of Life Study. Throughout the process, the need to activate vacant spaces along South Division was a theme among the study’s work groups – who now call on the community’s stakeholders to shift focus to implementation. While projects intended to change public perception of the heart of downtown are underway, the neighborhood’s economic development work group will continue to meet monthly to develop additional initiatives to respond to the study’s recommendation to activate Heartside.
Written by Kendra R. McNeil, Innovation News Editor
Photos courtesy Dwelling Place 

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