Southtown eyes plan to boost business
District representatives express concerns about racism, lending practices, affordability.
Residents and business owners in Grand Rapids’ five Southtown business corridors are looking to the future.
Stakeholders convened last week to offer ideas on an Area Specific Plan for district improvement.
Following two days of community workshops held at local businesses, members of the Southtown Corridor Improvement District and other business owners met to discuss the results of a previous round of community engagement held in April.
The objective for the Southtown CID is to “improve the health and success of business areas in southern Grand Rapids” by first putting together a Southtown Area Specific Plan that would be incorporated into the Grand Rapids City Master Plan.
“That enables all kinds of things like funding to be brought in. It provides a roadmap for the kinds of investments that the CID would want to make back into the business areas,” said Oliver Kiley, landscaping architect with SmithGroupJJR, a consultant on the Southtown ASP.
The key parties involved in the process include the Southtown CID board, made of seven members directly appointed by the Grand Rapids City Commission and an ASP steering committee formed last year and comprised of 12 Southtown business owners, community leaders and residents.
When complete, the ASP will provide guidance for how the CID manages and distributes funds toward corridor improvement when it becomes adopted into the City Master Plan.
Bill DeJong, CID board member and co-chair of the ASP steering committee, said Southtown has been a long-neglected part of Grand Rapids.
“Some areas are OK,” said DeJong, who also owns Alger Hardware and Rental. “Right now, we’re at zero retail vacancy in Alger Heights.”
The Southtown Corridor Improvement District was established in 2016 and includes the Alger Heights, Boston Square, Franklin and Eastern, Madison Square and Seymour Square business corridors.
Kiley said the April engagement effort had just over 100 participants and 160 responses to surveys.
“It was reasonably good results,” Kiley said. “We got a lot of good input on the survey side that we can use.”
Based on the data collected, 74 percent of respondents said they lived in Southtown, 38 percent said they work in the area and 10 percent said they own a business.
Kiley added some repeated concerns heard during engagement sessions involved access to the economic resources needed to improve homes and businesses, institutional racism in lending practices and affordability in housing and commercial renting, drug addiction and recovery, and community/police relations.
“Our planning process is really set up looking at the business corridors, but we need to recognize that the condition and what’s going on in the business corridors has a very close relationship to what’s going on in the adjacent neighborhoods,” Kiley said.
Citing an article from Forbes in 2015, Kiley said Grand Rapids was ranked second to last in equity and economic opportunity for African-Americans among the top 52 biggest cities in the country.
One of the major goals for the plan was developing strategies to support local and minority-owned business efforts. Kiley said several of the recommended programs already exist at the city level or have been implemented by other cities.
“There are a lot of different programs and tools that exist,” Kiley said, “things like a legacy business owner program, things to encourage local businesses to be able to own the buildings that they’re in instead of having to rent, better access to capital.”
One possible strategy to strengthen businesses involved identifying strong retail nodes based on population density, inventory of space, demand for space, success of local businesses and infill opportunities in a given area.
Kiley said one obstacle exists on the city level. Several business corridors throughout Grand Rapids are zoned as Traditional Business Areas, which requires any new building to have a retail use on the ground floor.
“If you’re already oversupplied in retail, it doesn’t make sense to require anything new that’s getting built to make more retail space that might just sit vacant or pull businesses out of an area,” Kiley said.
He recommended instead identifying a “priority area” within a given TBA that would be the major retail hub while relaxing zoning requirements outside of the priority area, making room for other uses like office space or residential units.
The ASP is intended to complement existing community improvement efforts on the city level. Kyama Kitavi, administrative analyst for the Grand Rapids Economic Development office, said the Southtown CID captures tax increment financing from the state that it can use to promote economic development activity within Southtown.
“For (the CID), they have a TIF development plan, but this (ASP) kind of helps them get even more engagement from the community for how the CID should be talking about development, as well,” Kitavi said.
Kitavi said the ASP also would give officials in the Grand Rapids Planning Department important information about land-use issues like aesthetics (sidewalk width, green space, building height, etc.), mobility and other goals that fit into the city’s Master Plan.
Because the CID serves as an extension of the city, it has more outreach than a neighborhood association, even with its narrowed focus on Southtown, Kitavi said.