GRAND RAPIDS — Planners and neighborhood stakeholders believe that investing in some basic infrastructure in downtown Grand Rapids’ Heartside district could help spur equitable economic development.
That’s particularly true along the roughly half-mile stretch of South Division Avenue between Fulton Street and Wealthy Street, which is home to a mix of small businesses, offices, a growing number of residents and several social service organizations that serve the city’s homeless population.
While downtown Grand Rapids has experienced a wave of development in recent years, the track record for economic growth along South Division has been a bit spotty. It’s mostly entrepreneurs who accept the gritty nature of the avenue in exchange for cheap rent.
Whether that pair of attributes remains in future years as development continues to spread south in the city is anyone’s guess. Sources contacted for this report say that through a series of “listening sessions” with residents and other stakeholders, they’ve started to foster some ideas about how public investment in infrastructure can spur more equitable growth.
“There’s going to be some collective resources to do some of the most basic things, but with a complex look at what the needs are on all levels,” said Jenn Schaub, a neighborhood revitalization specialist with Dwelling Place, a nonprofit organization that has developed many of the low-income housing projects in the Heartside neighborhood.
“Part of the process is that residents are brought into solutions,” Schaub said.
One of the planned solutions: Installing a public restroom somewhere along the South Division Avenue corridor.
Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. (DGRI), the organization that administers the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority, and the city plan to work together on the initiative and have set aside about $150,000 for it.
The push for additional public restrooms goes beyond serving the homeless people in the area, according to city planners. They say the facilities also will help alleviate the problem of public spaces being used as bathrooms, a key complaint from office and residential users along the corridor.
“The street has wonderful bones,” said Suzanne Schulz, director of the city’s planning department. “The frustration has been you can’t have Class A office space when people are pooping in your doorstep. It doesn’t work. Let’s provide both physical infrastructure and social infrastructure that can help the neighborhood be successful and particularly without displacement.”
The amount of federally subsidized affordable housing in the area — which relies on credits that will remain in place for decades — will ensure that many residents can stay in the area without being displaced for years to come, she added.
Additionally, the city plans to allocate about $1.2 million to replace the current “hodgepodge” of street lights with enhanced LED lighting along the stretch of Division Avenue. City officials and other industry sources have described the current lighting as wholly inadequate, calling them a contributor to higher crime rates in the area.
The city’s proposed investment in lighting infrastructure comes as welcome news for Bill Wiegandt, co-owner of The Ruse Escape Rooms LLC, which opened in late November at the northwest corner of Division Avenue and Weston Street. He cited the difference in the quality of lighting just two blocks over toward Van Andel Arena.
“It’s like the wilderness out here after sunset,” Wiegandt said.
To date, the public and private investment in the area has focused on addressing aging infrastructure while also tackling a variety of social and societal problems, said Latesha Lipscomb, a community engagement project manager for the city’s Heartside neighborhood initiatives.
Lipscomb works to encourage dialogue among the diverse group of stakeholders who make up the neighborhood to create a welcoming space for a range of people.
“We wanted to create an environment in which people from multiple demographics felt comfortable coming to a designated space where they could speak with someone who they could relate to,” Lipscomb said, noting that many of these conversations have been going on for years.
“The difference this time, in my opinion, was setting it up so that people wouldn’t feel like they were talking to the system or to the regime,” she said. “There was a very targeted effort to create a different environment.”
According to multiple sources contacted for this report, the work to find solutions that fit for a range of people — from office workers to entrepreneurs to the homeless population — will come with many challenges.
Schulz with the city of Grand Rapids said the municipality’s role is to be the facilitator of community discussions about addressing homelessness and economic development in the corridor and implementing public solutions.
“This is not city-driven,” Schulz said. “If it was top down, this wouldn’t work.”
New entrants to the corridor’s business community see their role as being adaptable and working with the other businesses in the area as well as with neighborhood residents and the homeless, said Wiegandt with Ruse Escape Rooms.
“We needed a blank slate and this was a blank slate,” he said of the location, adding that some customers who don’t typically come downtown have been surprised or put off by the grittier surroundings.
Wiegandt dismisses those concerns, calling the location ideal.
“We’re two blocks from the Van Andel Arena,” he said. “We’re trying to adapt as a business. With any new business, there are challenges. With any geographic area that has been neglected for 50 years, there are challenges as well.”