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Revitalization vs Gentrification in the Heartside area

April 21, 2010

Yesterday I attended a forum to discuss the issue of whether or not the revitalization of the Heartside district of downtown Grand Rapids has led to any gentrification.

The forum was hosted by the Grand Rapids Community Foundation and was attended by a variety of people in the community, including business owners, downtown property owners, politicians, political candidates, non-profit directors, representatives from the faith community and a few residents from the downtown area.

The event was promoted as Knotty Cocktails, which was meant to reflect the tension that such a topic might lend itself to. However, there were also cocktails, so people had the opportunity to have a drink and enjoy some of the finger foods provided.

Laurie Craft, with the Grand Rapids Community Foundation (GRCF), moderated the discussion. However, the GRCF decided upfront to have two people from Dwelling Place provide some background and analysis of the evolution of Heartside before any dialogue could take place. Jen Schaub, a staff member of Dwelling Place and a resident of Heartside, joined Denny Sturtevant, the CEO of Dwelling Place.

Both Schaub and Sturtevant addressed some of the history of the area, tensions between new development and long-term residents, and how land is used in the Heartside area. In fact, Dwelling Place was founded 30 years ago with the intent of trying to provide basic housing services to people who were poor, homeless or recently de-institutionalized.

Eventually a few questions were asked around issues of defining a healthy neighborhood, diversity, affordable housing and why there wasn’t a viable grocery store in the Heartside area. Sturtevant said that Dwelling Place did open and operate a grocery store in the 1990s, but was not able to make it work due to limited income diversity and the easy access to large grocery chains like Meijer, at least for those who own a car.

The issue of crime and loitering at the new Heartside Park on the corner of Division and Cherry St. was also brought up, especially since it was recently in the news. This became an issue as the weather warmed up and people in large numbers were congregating in the area. Representatives from Heartside Ministries and Degage said after the form that the GRPD was upset with their agencies for not doing more to monitor this activity.

Someone also asked the question about whether or not homelessness will ever stabilize or decrease over time. A representative of the Coalition to End Homelessness said that this was a goal, but considering the current economic trend and high levels of unemployment homelessness and access to affordable housing will continue to a major concern.

Near the end of the forum Rev. Charlotte with Heartside Ministries asked if there was a tipping point, where with all the new development people might be forced out of the neighborhood. Sturtevant responded by saying that he didn’t think that would happen and that he is not aware of anyone ever being forced out of the Heartside area due to new business or housing developments.

This writer stated that the problem with the conversation was that it was framed as reinvestment vs gentrification, when in fact both can happen. Gentrification can take forms, such as people feeling threatened, intimidated and marginalized and people need to recognize that these are real outcomes of “economic development.”

I also said that I was not directly invited, but was told about the forum by someone who was. I was grateful to be included in the discussion, but it seemed that most of those in attendance did not live in the Heartside area and that many of the long-term residents are often excluded from these kinds of discussions. I asked what criteria the foundation used to determine whom they would invite, but the question was never really addressed.

This last point is an important one, especially as new development projects are in process, as well as proposed projects like the “farmers market” are likely to happen. People who live in areas like Heartside need to be included in these kinds of conversations, especially when public funds are used, otherwise we should expect there to be ongoing tensions between developers and residents.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Nick Manes permalink
    April 21, 2010 3:19 pm

    Having been at this event as well last night, I think Jeff summed things up very well in this piece. I completely agree that there needs to be more attempts made to get actual residents of the neighborhood involved. It’s kind of a superficial point, but almost everyone there was in business suits. For those who have spent time in Heartside, you know that it is not much of a “business suit” place. The only point I wanted to add was to try to back up some of what Dennis Sturtevant said about people not being displaced. As he said Dwelling Place is locked in to long term leases that will allow for their low income housing to stay no matter what other kinds of development happens. But as Jeff pointed out, “gentrification” can take on many different forms. Hence the reason for more diverse viewpoints.

  2. Kate Wheeler permalink
    April 21, 2010 7:06 pm

    Was there any discussion about what would happen to property taxes and rent amounts in the area with the addition of places like the urban market? Even that plan includes some type of housing, and I’m guessing it’s not going to be made affordable to lower-income residents.

    It’s one thing to improve an area for existing residents. It’s another for businesses and developers to co-opt an area and make it quickly unaffordable for long-time renters and homeowners. A rising tide does not lift all boats. I’m curious to learn if there was any extended discussion about that, and if so, what the people in suits said.

  3. Jeff Smith permalink*
    April 21, 2010 7:11 pm

    Kate, there wasn’t any real discussion about the increase in property taxes or rent, but as Nick mentioned in his comments the Dwelling Place representative did say that they are committed to providing affordable housing for low income people. Having said that it stands to reason that increased rent costs and property taxes will be an outcome of all this new development, which could potentially have the effect that Rev. Charlotte spoke to, which was a tipping point where this type of gentrification could very well overwhelm low income and poor people who currently reside in the Heartside district.

  4. Kate Wheeler permalink
    April 21, 2010 7:54 pm

    So it sounds like there was very little concern about that issue from the business side of the audience?

    Whenever this scenario is played out, it seems like there’s always some lip service paid to that issue, but the agendas of everyone involved are so completely different that it always seemed to get mowed down unless there’s a strong response or coalition of people from the neighborhood to try to block it.

    The Dwelling Place people can continue to be committed to their ongoing work, but if the housing isn’t there to be had, there’s not a lot that they would be able to do.


  1. Protest Against Gentrification Dismissed as Prank « Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy

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