Economic Development and Real Estate

How do you build a neighborhood community?

April 30, 2018
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Bradley Hartwell
Bradley Hartwell. Courtesy North Town Real Estate

Is it the people or the bricks and mortar that first define a particular neighborhood community?

As a real estate professional, I am very often asked: “What’s next for the overall development of Grand Rapids?” To answer, let’s ignore the financial and economic aspects that so often bog us down when considering what a community “should” consist of and examine what is truly most important. I’m not convinced a successful community is a Field of Dreams whereby when we build it, they will come. I believe the future development of Grand Rapids as a community will be the emergence of highly defined areas, districts, pockets, boroughs, or neighborhoods, with their own identity and culture. To some extent, this already is the case with previously defined specific neighborhood groups and boundaries. However, the fabric of a neighborhood community is so much more than lines on a map and neighbors meeting in the local church basement once per month.

The West Side of Grand Rapids is a fantastic example of an area that seemingly was built; and then they came. The reality is, neighbors were already there for many years. Even with the presence and growth of Grand Valley State University, local industries like Ferris Coffee & Nut and others, and the location of facilities like the YMCA; new neighbors move into an area needing additional places to live, work and play. This is the organic matter that synthesizes demand for new products, services and, eventually, real estate space in a given community. We agreed not to get stuck on the economics lesson, so let’s focus on the organic neighborhood synthesis part. To support healthy neighborhoods, we need diversity in the social, cultural, racial, economic and income aspects. (There have been countless studies supporting these ideas that I don’t have to cite here for you to believe me.)

We need to figure out how to take all these great studies and apply them to a real-life strategy and plan of action in a particular neighborhood to develop it in the most healthy and equitable way. There is a lot of dialogue surrounding gentrification and lack of affordable housing in our community, which is absolutely an important area of discussion. However, if we focus on the non-economic, purely organic components of a community, we should be able to build the office, retail, and of course brewery spaces that employ new and existing neighbors who then live and play in that local borough or neighborhood. I’m not so sure if it’s the bricks or the people that come first, but either way, we need the people inside the bricks.

We truly need neighbors represented by all socioeconomic backgrounds, because different people need and want different products and services. The more diverse we are as a community, the more successful our community can be because we appeal to so many various demographic profiles. This leads to population growth, and then Grand Rapids can be on another Buzz Feed list. It seems to me that the most important ingredient is the collective human impact to a community. We can achieve much more together than any one person can on their own. Meaning, we don’t build it so that they will come. We’re already here, so build some stuff to support us! If we, as a real estate community, do a good job of interacting with the community around us, we can discover the organic demand that already is around us because it actually comes from us. By tapping into what folks in our community need and want, we keep properties occupied, which creates jobs and income for neighbors to spend in their communities.

I would like to know what the best forum would be for this collective discovery. In my opinion, there is too much social media, news article commenting, and armchair blogging that hasn’t been too successful, historically speaking. Perhaps it’s time for more town hall-style discussions about potential land and space utilization that new and existing neighbors would actually patronize and enjoy. The fact is, from a strictly real estate-focused perspective, our investment returns depend on this. We all need our local businesses to experience success to hire our neighbors who pay their rent or mortgages, participate in all that our local pockets, districts, boroughs, or neighborhoods have to offer, and the circle of life continues. What an exciting time to be in the West Michigan community to experience our evolution!

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