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Friday, 18 March 2016 09:07

LINC, Rockford Construction controversy shows sensitivity of neighborhood development

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A leaked internal document outlining potential plans for development in a Grand Rapids neighborhood has created a firestorm of controversy and stoked fears of gentrification.

The 40-plus page document titled “Complete Neighborhood” lays out a plan for Rockford Construction Co. Inc. to bring new development and jobs to the Eastern Avenue corridor. The plan includes properties from Wealthy Street to south of Franklin Street and identifies the blocks between Hall and Burton Streets as key areas.

While it’s unknown how the document was leaked, it was posted on LINC Revitalization Inc.’s website last week. The document appeared on the community organization and development firm’s website just before a planned neighborhood meeting was called to discuss one proposed development project at The Hub, located at 1515 Madison Ave. SE near Cottage Grove Street.

A Rockford Construction subsidiary owns the vacant building and would serve as construction manager, sources said. Ann Arbor-based LC Companies LLC would be the project’s developer. The company also developed the Baker Lofts apartments in downtown Grand Rapids.

That meeting to discuss the 1515 Madison project was subsequently cancelled and Rockford Construction executives say that the development is now on hold indefinitely.

Given that Rockford Construction controls few parcels along the corridor and saw the document as an internal planning tool rather than a Master Plan, the company says it wouldn’t be right to start the neighborhood engagement period now.

“From a timing standpoint, we weren’t ready to have those conversations,” said Jen Boezwinkle, the Vice President of Business Development at Rockford Construction.

At this time, the company currently has no plans for any sort of development projects in the area, she added.

Based on property records analyzed by MiBiz, entities controlled by Rockford Construction appear to own five parcels in the vicinity of Madison Avenue and Cottage Grove Street, including 1515 Madison. It does not appear that the company owns any land or buildings along Eastern Avenue, where much of the document is focused.

Boezwinkle declined to answer whether Rockford Construction has any options to buy property in the area.

For community organization LINC’s part, the document showed that Rockford Construction — a firm known for its higher-end housing in neighborhoods like Grand Rapids’ west side — was at least formulating some plans for development on the southeast side, a neighborhood that has been lacking in new investment for several years.

Jeremy DeRoo, LINC’s co-executive director, said that the organization, which is a nonprofit entity with a for-profit development firm, hopes to change that.

DeRoo confirmed to MiBiz that LINC currently has an option to purchase property — 621 Eastern Ave. SE, currently home to Brother Love’s Towing LLC — within the area mentioned in Rockford’s document.

LINC’s plans at the Eastern Avenue site call for mixed-use, affordable housing, DeRoo said, adding that their application for the competitive Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) is due to the state on April 1.

Given the scope of the Rockford Construction document, DeRoo said Rockford Construction should have immediately begun informing residents of development goals.

“The best plans for neighborhoods come from neighborhoods,” DeRoo said. “I believe to understand the context, you need to have the community involved.”

DeRoo added that he doesn’t believe that it's his organization’s role to offer opinions on any new projects that might come into the area. Instead, that’s the neighborhood’s role.

However, he thought Rockford’s goals for mixed-use, mixed-income housing and new job opportunities would be consistent with the goals of residents.

But according to Boezwinkle, it would be highly unusual for a developer to approach neighborhood stakeholders without specific projects in the pipeline.

“In the development world, (Rockford’s creation of the document) is not unusual,” Boezwinkle said, adding that the company regrets the amount of concern the plans have generated. “In the early stages, it’s normal to explore whether something is a good investment. Clearly, we think it is a good investment."

For newly-elected Third Ward City Commissioner David Allen, who lives in the area identified by Rockford Construction in the Complete Neighborhood plan, the kind of “social investment” presented in the document is very appealing.

“I live there,” Allen said. “My neighborhood deserves investment.”

Allen, who is also executive director of the Kent County Land Bank, told MiBiz that it makes sense for a developer to want to formulate plans before engaging the community, due to the costs associated with assembling land.

“I’m guessing they have options (to buy land),” he said. “When those (plans) come out, they become very expensive. What I was told is (Rockford was) preparing to start the engagement process and that process was hijacked.”

When asked who “hijacked” the process, Allen said he didn’t want to assign blame.

It remains unclear whether Rockford Construction will move forward with any plans in the southeast side neighborhoods identified in the Complete Neighborhood document.

The document itself, despite its length and depth, makes no mention of specific development projects and instead compiles a number of thoughts and goals. The introduction lays out some examples of similar development in other cities.

While it doesn’t specifically mention the document or the ongoing controversy it has caused, Rockford Construction released a statement earlier this week highlighting the kind of development plans laid out in Complete Neighborhood.

“The Rockford development team is just beginning the listening and learning phase,” CEO Mike VanGessel said in the statement. “We recognize that this work is slow, thoughtful and it’s incredibly important to engage others. We are proud to work together as a community as we move forward.”

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