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Stakeholders craft new plan to guide development in Grand Rapids’ Southtown

BY Sunday, December 09, 2018 04:03pm


GRAND RAPIDS — Five distinct areas of Grand Rapids’ southside likely will soon have an Area Specific Plan (ASP) to help guide development. 

In their efforts to implement the ASP, planners hope to bring together a wide variety of stakeholders from the city’s Southtown, consisting of Alger Heights, Boston Square, Franklin and Eastern, Madison Square and Seymour Square neighborhoods often described as “the center for black culture” in the city. 

While discussions about implementing an ASP for the area have been underway for much of the last year, planners are just now beginning to hold community meetings to gather specific input from residents. 

“Ultimately, this plan is about trying to identify goals for the Southtown corridor,” Oliver Kiley, a principal and landscape architect in the Ann Arbor office of architectural consulting firm The Smith Group, said during one of the community meetings last month. 

“(We want to) figure out what are the strategies and recommendations to help us meet those goals and provide a clear vision for how the community and business community wants to see their district grow and evolve in the future,” he said.

Since 2015, the Southtown neighborhood has operated a tax-assessed Corridor Improvement District (CID). 

With its history of disinvestment combined with a lack of access to capital for many residents, the Southtown neighborhood could benefit from the development of an ASP, according to longtime stakeholders. 

“Generally, with the Southtown area, you’re looking at an area that experienced systemic disinvestment,” said Ryan VerWys, president and CEO of Inner City Christian Federation (ICCF), a Grand Rapids-based nonprofit housing developer. “Anything we can do to ensure that whatever reinvestment comes to our community is done in a way that includes the voice of the community and respects that historic context, I think that’s valuable.”

Identifying need

While the specific ASP will require further community input and, ultimately, adoption by the city commission, planners have already identified four key goals they hope to meet moving forward. 

Those goals include:

  • more stable and thriving community without displacement
  • highly valued community that celebrates and promotes cultural and neighborhood assets
  • more vibrant place to work, shop, play, learn, live and do business
  • safer environment for everyone

Kiley noted that surveys sent to residents in the area yielded 260 responses that helped to inform the four main goals. 

“We wrote these goals kind of as a vision statement,” Kiley said. “In the future, Southtown will be a more stable and thriving community without displacement. There’s been a lot of concern throughout the process about not displacing either people or businesses or jobs or residents. We want to keep those here and build on that base and not be pushing people out.”

Housing needed

As part of the ASP planning process, stakeholders will conduct and eventually release an analysis of existing and new retail opportunities, Kiley said. But in the shorter term, affordable housing developers, many of whom have pursued new developments that are largely funded by federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC), also are moving forward as part of a push for greater housing affordability in the Southtown area. 

LINC Community Revitalization Inc., a Grand Rapids-based nonprofit affordable housing developer, recently broke ground on a new housing development along Burton Street SE just east of South Division Avenue. 

The organization has completed a significant number of affordable housing developments in the Madison Square area located near the intersection of Hall Street and Madison Avenue. 

Likewise, VerWys’ ICCF just broke ground on a new project along Eastern Avenue SE, just south of the burgeoning Wealthy Street corridor. The project is slated for completion by the end of next year.

VerWys notes the organization traces its roots back more than 40 years to that area when a group of volunteers from a local church fixed up one house in the Baxter neighborhood and sold it to a low-income buyer. 

In the mid-1970s, the organization was seeking to address the decades of disinvestment in the neighborhood, VerWys said. Now, he noted that housing issues persist, but many of the circumstances have changed. 

“Now it’s a response to the rapid reinvestment with the hope of preserving affordable housing there for people who have lived there a long time, especially for those on the economic margins,” VerWys said. 

Possible solutions

Along those lines, ICCF last month received a $150,000 award from the Frey Foundation to launch a land bank designed to encourage home ownership among low-income residents, as MiBiz previously reported. 

Under the Community Homes Land Trust program, ICCF aims to sell about half of its portfolio of 245 homes, while also ensuring the homes stay affordable for future generations. The organization would sell the homes at below-market prices to income-qualified households who cannot afford to buy on the open market. The sales would include only the house, not the land. 

The land trust helps homeowners build equity as they pay off the principle on their homes over time, according to VerWys. 

“The ability to own a home in particular has become more of a challenge for low-income individuals,” VerWys said. “How do we help get people in a situation where they can begin to build generational wealth, but don’t have enough cash to compete in the housing market?” 

MiBiz Staff Writer Sydney Smith contributed to this report. 

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