Taking back South Division
Community members plan restoration of once-vibrant business corridor.
Fran Dalton remembers when the South Division corridor in Grand Rapids was like a mini-downtown — full of life and economic activity.
Division Avenue once was designated part of U.S. 131, which brought traffic that created a vibrant corridor of shops, restaurants, hotels and housing.
Traffic was rerouted in the 1950s, however, soon leading to an economic downturn that city leaders thought could be solved with popular “urban renewal” redevelopment projects.
Buildings and residences downtown and along South Division Avenue were demolished to make way for newer and better, and though the rest of Grand Rapids has experienced booming growth, neighborhoods along South Division have been excluded from much of that investment.
Dalton, a longtime staff member of the Garfield Park Neighborhood Association, and other community members now are working with the city to restore the corridor’s viability, focusing along South Division Avenue from Wealthy Street to 28th Street, between Buchanan and Madison avenues.
Unlike previous efforts, the plan this time is for “development without displacement,” according to Courtney Magaluk, the city senior project manager leading planning for the project, which is one of the city’s corridor improvement districts.
Synia Jordan, owner of Samaria J's Salon Suite, 701 Grandville Ave. SW, is particularly sensitive to the issue of gentrification.
Her grandmother’s restaurant, Chicken Shack, which stood at 569 S. Division Ave., was a victim of urban renewal, or as Jordan contemptuously refers to it: “displace the Negroes.”
Jordan said she often visited her grandmother, Synia McBride, who lived above the restaurant she ran for 40 years. After a long legal battle with the city, the building and many others were condemned and demolished.
“They displaced the whole community there,” Jordan said. “They already knew what they were going to do. They knew they were going to take the whole neighborhood.”
The week she was supposed to move out, McBride died in her sleep. “Of a broken heart,” Jordan said.
To Jordan, her grandmother’s work and legacy, which could have been passed down to her children, was stolen.
“It was taken away, and we want it back,” she said.
Beginning in 2017, Magaluk said the city met for several months with an advisory group of about eight residents and stakeholders from the corridor before issuing a request for proposal for full plan work.
She said it has taken some time to form relationships and build trust with the community members, which she thinks stems in part from others bursting in and starting projects and then leaving. She said the community development nonprofit Amplify GR, for example, had a rough start and created uncertainty for people.
That’s why so much effort has been put toward learning from residents about disparities, safety and other concerns.
“You have to build trust and relationships before you start to have the hard conversations,” Magaluk said.
She said diversity within the planning committee and among facilitators has been important in initiating those relationships.
The city hired six area residents as community ambassadors to help bring people to the table. Chicago-based consultant Naomi Davis, whose business focuses on eco-friendly rebuilding of blighted, colonized and/or gentrifying black communities, has led some of the meetings.
Magaluk said Jordan and other steering committee members aren’t shy about voicing their opinions regarding racial and other issues and indicating when certain engagement styles are not working.
With initial information gathered and amid ongoing community meetings, Chicago-based urban planning firm Camiros and Grand Rapids-based Williams & Works are working on the planning project. Chicago-based SB Friedman is doing a retail market study and housing analysis on the area to help inform plans.
Planning for the plans
The goal is to implement a plan that creates new development and opportunity tailored specifically for existing residents and business owners, Magaluk said.
The area’s population is highly diverse compared to the rest of Grand Rapids: about 43 percent Hispanic and 34 percent black, the rest white and mixed.
Dalton and the other community members would like to keep it that way.
“We want to make sure that our neighborhood stays a diverse neighborhood and has a place for everybody,” she said. “This should be some place that all of our neighbors want to come, not avoid.”
The displacement issue is being taken seriously, Magaluk said, but there are ways new investment can happen safely.
There was a meeting for developers early in the process where she said some showed interest, including Orion and Rockford. Marcus Ringnalda of Wolverine Building Group is on the steering committee.
The nonprofits LINC UP and ICCF also have worked on creating affordable housing and other opportunities in the area.
There is a lot of underutilized development potential along the Silver Line bus route created several years ago, which runs on Division from downtown to 60th Street.
Residents would like some focus on areas that have seen nearly no development, such as the intersection at Division and Hall. Burton Heights has some neighborhood potential that can be developed.
Residents would like a local grocery store, for example, to allow easier access to affordable produce. They also would like to see more restaurants to perhaps create a dining destination.
The group also is working on improving wayfinding in the area, hoping it guides visitors of Garfield Park, for example, and to businesses a few blocks away.
Whether a developer will chase profits to South Division or build there simply to catalyze growth or better the community, Magaluk said she thinks it may have to be a combination of both.
She said, however, developers should feel relatively comfortable building because the community already has mapped out its vision for the area.
Just as Wealthy Street has experienced significant development and is now seen as a destination by many, Jordan believes the future of Division can look the same.
Jordan said people want to live, work and walk within their communities, just as her grandmother did in South Division’s previous life.
“My grandmother had it going on,” she said. “She was way ahead of her time.”
Taking back the community
Jordan wants residents to feel empowered to create their own businesses, become property owners and, ultimately, be the people making decisions about their community.
The city’s investment strategy plan outlines a need for more minority business incubators, but Magaluk said some residents already have utilized naturally existing incubators. She said four businesses in the Burton Heights neighborhood began at the 28th Street flea market.
Next, though, is helping them with business plans and financing to reach the next level, acknowledging the lending disparity and working to close that gap. Jordan wants to ensure black businesses are involved in every step of the development process.
Dalton said there was an active business association years ago, and although there are small businesses in the area, they do not have overarching leadership that could help propel the community to greater success.
She said she believes reactivating an association will be key to growth.
Angelica Velasquez, who owns the La Casa de la Cobija (The Blanket House) at 2355 S. Division Ave., agrees, as does Jordan.
The city’s other improvement districts have started already because work typically has been initiated by local neighborhood or business associations, Magaluk said.
Since Garfield Park is South Division’s only active neighborhood association, and the Burton Heights business association is not active, there was no strong leadership structure in place to initiate growth, she said.
“Our idea was really to go in and not only help them do an area-specific plan but, hopefully, build the leadership and capacity for them to carry it forward,” she said.
She said she thinks showing residents changes they can make and the potential that can result is an important step moving forward.
Leonard Van Drunen, co-chair of the business department at Calvin College and a steering committee member for the project, purchased and renovated a former adult novelty store — one of several in the area — at 2007-2009 S. Division Ave. for future lease.
In the meantime, it has served as a pop-up headquarters for the project.
The community ambassadors hosted an event in October that Magaluk said brought several hundred people to sample food from about 10 area restaurants.
“We're taking what used to be basically an eyesore in the community and kind of turn it into a new active space and point of engagement on the plan,” she said.
Magaluk said the group will continue trying to implement ideas rather than waiting on project approval.
Jordan said she would like to see more talk of the project within the community. Many residents are not aware of what is happening, she said, so she is working to spread the word.