City success will hinge on strategies addressing homelessness, gentrification

July 15, 2016
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The Grand Rapids Business Journal begins a series of in-depth reports on the South Division Avenue corridor and its comparatively quick development in the time since Van Andel Arena spurred one of the largest economic impacts in city history. Development of an entertainment district surrounding the arena was a fervent hope when arena doors swung open in 1996, and even then much discussion and consideration was given to “gentrification” of the Heartside neighborhood, literally in its backyard. Then-city commissioner and longtime Heartside Ministry Director George Heartwell saw the potential conflict early, and one of his tonics was city-arena agreements to give preference to hiring arena employees who lived in the Heartside district.

When a doughnut shop closed its doors on Division Avenue earlier this month, citing panderers and homeless people as its reason, an issue — not a problem — 20 years in the making was quickly seized upon for discussion. The issue then and now is tolerance for a diverse community.

“Let’s have a mixed downtown neighborhood where everyone is accepted and the traditional kind of displacement when this type of gentrification unfolds doesn’t take place,” said William Holmes, co-president of the Heartside Neighborhood Association — in June 2004.

Dwelling Place, a neighborhood nonprofit serving the homeless among others, teamed with the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts in 2003, helping to coordinate arts groups and art-related businesses along what was becoming the Avenue of the Arts. Holmes and his neighbors responded to a developer at the time who suggested nothing existed in Heartside, “a wasteland open for development.”

Holmes told the Business Journal then, “We responded formally, saying ‘Excuse me, there are 1,500 people who’ve lived here a long time.’” Holmes also worried aloud that development even then didn’t cater to the lower-income component of the neighborhood, that gentrification of the area would spur departure of longtime residents, creating greater concern for increasing homelessness and housing affordability.

It was assumed then as now that those moving to “cool city” urban areas expected and anticipated living in a diverse community. In 2004, Holmes said, “We’re hoping that people paying a thousand bucks a month for a loft apartment can live next door to a homeless shelter.”

To date, the city and Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. used the Band-Aid of funding downtown ambassadors to boost comfort levels. They upped spending for downtown beautification projects even while displacement continues to increase.

The multiple issues of homelessness require more than one prescription, long overdue. Or else the issue of affordable housing will continue to be the thread that unravels city successes.

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