Planning officials in Grand Rapids, Kentwood and Wyoming hope a nearly completed study will help spur redevelopment along South Division Avenue after a highly touted bus rapid transit project failed to deliver on its economic development promises.
Involving local residents and community leaders to share their vision for the future was a key aspect to the study known as Division United.
“What do people who live there want to see and how do they want to flourish?” asked Nick Monoyios, planning manager at the Interurban Transit Partnership, commonly known as The Rapid. “Oftentimes it’s easy to bring in a group of planners with idealistic ideas of what it should be and it’s easy to omit and keep to the side people who live there and what they want.”
For Angelica Velazquez, owner of La Casa de la Cobija clothing store at 2355 S. Division Ave., the most important corridor improvements will avoid displacing residents.
“We want this to be inclusive of the people and keep the people here who live here,” Velazquez told MiBiz. “Equal opportunity is what we want to see. We deserve a better quality of life, we deserve to live better.”
The roughly 18-month-long study is effectively complete as the process moves into the implementation stage. The study was funded by a $686,000 grant from the Federal Transit Administration, a $174,000 grant from the Michigan Department of Transportation, and $25,000 grants each from the cities of Grand Rapids, Wyoming and Kentwood.
Local officials say the study was driven by the lack of economic development that was promised along the corridor after The Rapid’s Silver Line bus rapid transit route launched in 2014.
“(The Silver Line) was touted as a spark to spur redevelopment along that corridor,” said Terry Schweitzer, community development director for the city of Kentwood. “What we had found subsequent to the introduction of that service is ridership has gone up but we have seen little to no redevelopment along that corridor.”
The Rapid and other community leaders say they were naive to believe economic growth along the Silver Line route would occur without intentional coordination, Monoyios said.
“Right now there are more cars on Division than there are people,” Monoyios said. “That, by the nature of economics, doesn’t stimulate economic growth. We want to see if we can fill those asphalt parking lots with commerce, a sense of community, and public space.”
Seeking density, equitable outcomes
The Division United study seeks ways to activate and add density to the areas around Silver Line stations from Wealthy Street in Grand Rapids to 60th Street at the border of Kentwood and Wyoming. The initiative focuses on transit-oriented development that provides people with a choice of housing and employment around stations.
“The Rapid sees this as an opportunity to showcase the reason why we build and provide transit, which is for the benefit of what is outside of the street,” Monoyios said. “That’s kind of the big vision here, and our North Star was to ensure equitable outcomes.”
The study made specific suggestions for 11 of the 34 stations along the Silver Line, including a set of zoning recommendations for each area, site plans for the immediate station area, and one to three recommended special projects. Many recommendations focus on enhancing non-motorized travel and moving away from the “drive through” mentality that characterizes the corridor today.
The community sees Velazquez’s store on Division as more than just a place to buy formal wear — it is also an unofficial community gathering place. But people need more opportunities to gather along the corridor, Velazquez said.
“Everything is centralized downtown,” Velazquez said. “I want to see a historical place where we can sit down, see our kids play, and we want to feel confident walking around and enjoy concerts and have dinner in the place we live.”
Velazquez also hopes to see a community youth center developed in the area, as well as affordable housing options that give residents opportunities to own their own homes and build wealth. Velazquez, who is also on the Garfield Park Neighborhood Association board, is encouraged by the inclusive nature that the Division United planning effort has had, but she wants to see action and results.
“It can be little by little, but I want to see the progress and say, ‘We did that,’” she said. “Sometimes we’re working in circles. The city and people with the money know what we need. I’m hungry to pull many people in to come and start some opportunities in this community.”
The three municipalities along the Division Avenue corridor are now left to largely implement the study’s recommendations, including focusing on “incremental development” along the Silver Line. This involves small-scale projects that are locally owned and maintained.
IncDev Alliance, a nonprofit that trains small developers on projects nationwide, was contracted to lead workshops last fall on how to achieve such developments. The process involved more than 100 local community members participating in education sessions.
“The benefit of having smaller sites and having them redeveloped is you’ll see some localized involvement from people who already live or work in that corridor,” Schweitzer said. “If you have an economic downturn, franchises might be more apt to move elsewhere, whereas local developments are seen as being stronger.”
Division United study leaders reached out to small business owners and people who were interested in doing small-scale development projects to attend the workshop. Incremental developments could include small housing projects or a live-work space with a local retail component.
“This doesn’t have to be something that happens to you, it’s something that you can be calling the shots on,” said Hank Kelley, transportation and planning supervisor with the city of Grand Rapids. “In a way, that was the big conversation in this whole project.”
Residents want to continue living in the area but also want to see some improvements and access to better amenities and jobs without being displaced, Kelley said. Additional workshops may also occur based on local interest.
“I was surprised by the number of people that participated in the incremental development workshops and the interest in doing something along Division Avenue, not just in Kentwood but in Wyoming and Grand Rapids, and ideas were brought up that I don’t think we have ever considered,” said Lisa Golder, economic development planner with the city of Kentwood. “There is a whole economic development toolkit to incorporate and recommend tools for financing incremental development and how to get people involved.”
The study also recommends removing barriers to economic development by streamlining zoning codes to promote more density, including changes to setback requirements, increasing building heights, and increasing lot coverage. The study also recommends zoning that supports accessory dwelling units and multiplexes.
Officials from The Rapid, Grand Rapids, Kentwood and Wyoming are all hoping to use the template of the Division United plan in the future when it comes to collaborative planning.
“This is a little bit of a unique process with three partner cities,” said Wyoming City Planner Nicole Hofert. “The Rapid did some neat things throughout the process like actually connecting with people who live and work along the corridor. I think that shows a real desire to understand what the community needs are across all three communities.”