Special report: Many interests merge on S. Division
Business, poverty, arts and nonprofits: Can one neighborhood have it all?
Last in a series of stories examining the South Division Avenue corridor.
The vision for South Division Avenue in Andy DeBraber’s eyes is clear.
Shortly after DeBraber started as executive director at Heartside Ministry, he saw a glimpse of the perfect South Division future, Art:Downtown.
“It was one of those beautiful 70-degree April days with the streets packed with people of all walks of life,” DeBraber said. “People were running between the galleries and museums, dancing on the sidewalk. That’s the kind of community and corridor we can have. Now, getting there for more than a night or weekend will take a lot of work.”
The people who frequent the area — whether long-term residents, shoppers or workers — need to understand where each party is coming from, DeBraber said.
Many of the businesses and organizations now are working on a shared vision of a safer and more vibrant neighborhood. In a draft of a letter to the city of Grand Rapids and city commissioners obtained by the Business Journal, dozens of area business employees and owners, residents and nonprofit representatives signed onto an outline of improvements they’d like to see on South Division Avenue.
The letter calls for:
- Increased pedestrian-scaled street lighting — lower to the ground and more closely spaced — on Division Avenue and side streets.
- Versatile parking options, including for bikes.
- Better signage for car parking.
- Increased visible police presence, including foot patrols during evening, night and weekend hours.
In “the GR Forward Plan, Goal 3.1 is to create a more walkable South Division Avenue,” the letter reads.
Ensuring a safe, walkable corridor is the main wish for many businesses on the street, including Bold Socks, which opened a retail store, 17 S. Division Ave., at the end of last year.
Bold Socks partner Ryan Roff said he views South Division as the natural extension of the retail corridor on Monroe Center, which is blocked by Rosa Parks Circle on the other end. Roff said Bold Socks fits in well as a retailer in the traditionally eclectic arts neighborhood and nonprofit corridor, as it displays its multicolor and design-centric socks in the form of an art gallery.
“My guess is there are 25 socks stores in the U.S., and to give Grand Rapids that cool, enticing place is how we can help expand the artistic district,” Roff said. “We want to be an extension of Monroe Center and carry forward the personality of Division Avenue.”
One of the reasons Bold Socks opened on Division was to help bring in customers from all over the region, and Roff said there will be issues of loitering and socioeconomic differences no matter where a retailer locates.
“To be a one-stop destination just for socks, it’s not what I want it to be. I want it to be part of the entire South Division experience, whether they stop in for socks or not,” he said. “Activity breeds activity. The more you fill out spaces and walk one place to the next, it just enhances the experience.
“You never want to see a storefront close. What was once an invitation for someone to come downtown is no longer an invitation.”
DeBraber said a 14,000-square-foot space that Heartside Ministry has proposed to move into — a former Goodwill Store at 200 S. Division Ave. — is too large and lacks off-street parking to attract a large-footprint retailer. While the organization saw some pushback from local businesses, he said in reality the move would help create more commercial opportunities.
If it moves, Heartside will vacate buildings at 54 and 78 S. Division Ave. that could possibly become five separate storefronts ideal for retail uses, DeBraber said.
One business Roff mentioned that has left a vacant storefront is Local Epicurean, which moved from Division Avenue back to Eastown, near its original Wealthy Street location. Local Epicurean owner Steve Boyer said he had the opportunity to buy three buildings in Eastown, otherwise it likely would not have moved.
Boyer said while on Division he tried to partner with as many organizations as possible — by donating thousands of pounds of leftover pasta — and befriend as many neighbors as he could.
Boyer said the problems run deeper than the drug dealers, prostitutes and pimps many point at.
He said he’d watch drug deals on a daily basis, and more often than not the customers were college students and suburban adults.
“A lot of people are not from that area and go there because they know they can get drugs and sex,” he said. “That’s what is keeping people out of the area and keeping it blighted.
“I guarantee if the drugs and prostitution weren’t there and it were just homeless people down on their luck, there would be an entirely different movie down there.”
That’s a different take from the one Propaganda Doughnuts temporarily left on its Facebook page following its closure, blaming the homeless population congregating around the entrance.
Brothers Leather Supply owner Adam Kail said it’s amusing that a business could blame the area’s population for not having enough customers when on a sunny summer day Rockwell Republic, 45 S. Division Ave., can be jam-packed. Brothers Leather recently moved its operations team to its 15 S. Division Ave. storefront from Hall Street, to make a larger commitment to the corridor, Kail said.
Boyer said a large majority of the struggling population on Division Avenue are good people who have just hit a “sharp left turn” in life and face real needs in order to get back on their feet.
Roff said it’s important to see that the neighbors who call Division Avenue home have a face and name, and ultimately it would help customers feel comfortable and safe, rather than hinder business.
“Creating a safe space for everyone is the ultimate goal, but moving people isn’t the solution,” Roff said. “They do need a safe place, too, but they need to respect the stores as much as we respect them. You have to co-exist.”
DeBraber said for the most part, businesses and organizations are working together well to help push the neighborhood toward being a vibrant, mixed-use corridor.
“That doesn’t mean that we agree on how things should happen, but whether we agree or disagree, we can sit over a cup of coffee and talk and come to a common ground,” he said.
There is plenty of potential for a bustling retail corridor in the same area as a variety of nonprofits serving a population in need, Boyer said.
“I don’t think because you want to open a business and you have more money than a homeless person, that that guy needs to pick up and move,” Boyer said. “They’re not doing anything illegal, and it’s a well-established corridor for that purpose, and everyone can live in harmony. Look at larger cities where this happens. There’s no reason it can’t here.”
Read parts one and two of this series at grbj.com.