GRAND RAPIDS — After getting the first step in the approval process from the city, nonprofit developer Amplify GR still has more steps to take before beginning a large-scale development proposed in the Boston Square neighborhood.
The Grand Rapids Planning Commission approved rezoning 12 parcels into a planned redevelopment district, which must go before the City Commission for final approval.
“This is a small but significant step toward implementing pieces of this vision called Boston Square Together,” said Jon Ippel, executive director of Amplify GR.
The Boston Square Together plan includes 18 townhomes within three buildings along Adams Street; 168 apartments within four buildings along Kalamazoo Avenue and Evergreen Street; 59 senior apartments in buildings off of Fuller Avenue, and 24,493 square feet of retail and commercial space on the ground floor of the three apartment buildings on Kalamazoo.
The Planning Commission’s approval came after a lengthy public hearing in which some residents supported the plans, while others questioned Amplify’s motives and expressed concerns about gentrification. Amplify has been met with skepticism since it moved into the neighborhood about three years ago, underscoring the sensitivity of neighborhood development and community engagement.
“As we work towards shaping a project that people in the neighborhood are really proud of, it’s really about navigating these pretty significant concerns,” Ippel said. “On one hand, we really want to ensure we’re creating more economic opportunities in the neighborhoods, while simultaneously ensuring a wide path of affordability, so people regardless of income can still live within the neighborhood. That’s really the work we’re about as a nonprofit organization.”
The work Amplify is doing builds off of the Boston Square Area Specific Plan that was completed more than a decade ago, Ippel said. The plan included a “significant” amount of outreach to the neighborhood on what they would like to see in Boston Square.
Amplify has built on that outreach in its latest proposal, holding open houses that engaged about 250 residents as it tries to cultivate relationships with the neighborhood in other ways, including by hosting events in partnership with local organizations.
“As a long-term partner in this neighborhood, it’s really looking at ways we can all foster our relationships with each other,” Ippel said.
The fostering of relationships is key to making neighborhood developments work, said Jeremy DeRoo, executive director of LINC Up, another nonprofit housing developer in Grand Rapids. LINC Up has worked in the area for nearly two decades, and has evolved when it comes to best practices for community engagement.
“One thing is just being present. This is where I think larger developers or out-of-town developers have a harder time building trust in communities, because it does take time,” DeRoo said. “The consistency and presence is a big piece of doing engagement. If you’re just doing outreach on a project or looking to get some community input, which I would say is different than engagement, the best practice is to be up front about what’s on the table and what’s not.”
Another key element, DeRoo said, is being open about everyone’s agenda and relying on residents for valuable input.
“I do believe residents in neighborhoods are context experts,” DeRoo said. “Developers tend to be content experts.”
Ippel said Amplify chose the Boston Square neighborhood because of its underutilized commercial areas, and the opportunity to create “what the community has been calling for.”
“This is an attempt to begin to equalize the investment disparities (between the wards in Grand Rapids), but really making sure what’s done is aligned and intended to be a benefit for the neighborhoods we serve,” Ippel said. “We’re really trying to take feedback from local neighbors and facilitate the necessary types of community investments in a way that’s widening pathways for opportunity.”
A date has not yet been set for the City Commission to consider Amplify’s plans.
Amplify’s project partners include Northbrook, Ill.-based Brinshore Development LLC, Grand Rapids-based Rockford Construction Co. Inc., Chicago-based architecture firm UrbanWorks Ltd., Grand Rapids-based Isaac V. Norris & Associates P.C., Kalamazoo- and Grand Rapids-based landscape architecture firm Viridis Design Group, Grand Rapids-based Integrated Architecture Inc. and Grand Rapids-based engineering firm Nederveld Inc.
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