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The DeVos Family now wants to remake part of a southeast Grand Rapids neighborhood

May 29, 2017

Over the past several years, we have seen the impact that developers and investors are having on the gentrification of neighborhoods throughout Grand Rapids.

The Wealthy Street corridor, Michigan Street, the Belknap neighborhood, Bridge Street and West Fulton are just a few examples of neighborhoods that have seen the cost of rent rise dramatically, houses being torn down, families being displaced and the new development projects primarily benefiting the business/professional class.

There are now plans under way in the Southtown area of Grand Rapids, specifically the area that is bordered by Hall St. to the North, Burton St. to the South, Division St. to the West and Fuller/Kalamazoo to the East. Some people also refer to this area as the Boston Square neighborhood and the Cottage Grove business district.

One of the entities that is pushing for the re-development of this area is the Rockford Construction Company. Last year it was revealed that the major Grand Rapids development company had already drafted a blueprint for the area without the knowledge of those who actually live in that neighborhood

The other major player to surface with an interest in the Boston Square neighborhood/Cottage Grove business district is a lesser-known organization called AmplifyGR. AmplifyGR is a non-profit organization recently created by the DeVos entity known as RDV Corporation.

AmplifyGR has a website, but there is very little content found at the site. However, there is more information about what AmplifyGR has been up to, based on city documents, mostly from the Southtown Corridor Improvement District minutes. Those minutes (1/18/2017) include the following information about AmplifyGR:

Jon Ippel and Brad Mathis shared that over the last nine months, Rockford Construction, in partnership with the Doug and Maria DeVos Foundation, has been developing Amplify GR. Their focus area, which overlaps the Southtown CID, is from Burton St SE to 28th St SE and S Division Ave to Kalamazoo/Fuller Ave SE. Amplify GR will be opening an office in the community and partnering with existing organizations to address issues faced by the community. They developed this model based on the Purposeful Communities model in Atlanta. They plan to begin community engagement in February, 2017. This is anticipated to long term work (15+ years). (Full presentation added to the agenda packet.)

Commissioner Senita Lenear talked about the long-term, community benefit of ownership, both of homes and businesses. Commissioner Lenear asked Mr. Mathis to speak to the property acquisitions that they have made in the focus area. Mr. Mathis shared that Rockford Construction has purchased roughly 12 buildings, the most visible being the former Dexter Lock factory at 1601 Madison Ave SE.

It should be noted that the Doug Maria DeVos Foundation have also been the primary funders of LINC.

This new partnership between Rockford Construction and the DeVos family should raise lots of red flags to anyone who has seen what Rockford has done on Bridge St and the near westside of Grand Rapids in recent years. Such a partnership should also raise red flags for those who are aware of the pro-capitalist, anti-worker, anti-LGBTQ, anti-public schools history of the DeVos family. 

What follows is the AmplifyGR presentation that was mentioned in the minutes of the 1/18/2017 meeting:

What is most alarming about the AmplifyGR presentation information is the neo-liberal capitalist language such as entrepreneurship, “defined neighborhood” and “cradle to career educational excellence.” The cradle to career educational excellent is code for charter schools, schools of choice and privatized education and the rest of the language reflects a certain form of paternalism, which suggests that those who currently live in the neighborhood just can’t improve their situation on their own.

In the March 15, 2017, Southtown Corridor Improvement District meeting minutes it states:

Jon Ippel gave the update of Amplify GR hiring of Willie Patterson, formerly of LINC, to continue the work of identifying key areas of partnership. Amplify is focused primarily in the Boston Square and Cottage Grove areas. They are working on partnering with communities on developing and repositioning underutilized properties, working with the local schools, and increasing affordable housing. J. Ippel emphasized that they want to respect the work that has been and being done by others. They are looking to partner with orgs and people such as LINC, Seeds of Promise and Oakdale Neighbors already doing this work.

First phase of community engagement led by W. Patterson is a survey in partnership with Seeds of Promise and Oakdale Neighbors. In spring larger meetings looking to identify the opportunities and assets available to see out the vision.

Longer term they are asking how do they reposition the properties in Boston Square and Cottage grove in a way that provides employment to people living in Southeast Grand Rapids.

Helen Harp asked about a timeline of when things start. J. Ippel stated that the survey begins in April. They will move into office space in Boston Square in 2 weeks. They hope to have a better sense of when community meeting can be set within the coming few weeks.

H. Harp asked about joining the Area Specific Plan (ASP) surveys with Amplify GR’s survey. Com. Senita Lenear noted that it may to be done at the district level.

Pat Pulliam voiced the concern of the ongoing planning process with the ASPs while at the same time developers are going forward with their projects and their own visions. Without the ASP vision being laid out and developers already moving ahead, particularly on parcels that are being built by right, there is potential for conflict.

It was suggested that it would be good to have Amplify work closely with Planning Dept. to get the concerns and vision of the communities as well as sync up the different timelines.

P. Pulliam noted that given that they are beginning the process again this was an opportunity to get the communication, planning and engagement right. Concern of development getting ahead of the actual planning and solidifying the vision, particularly given that the CID is large and each Business district is unique. Com. S. Lenear recommended that Amplify be sure to work closely with the CID and get the timeline together in order to give Amplify more credibility when engaging the community as a new organization.

J. Ippel spoke on the urgency given the needs of housing and employment but was willing to work in partnership. Com. S. Lenear noted that it may be necessary to do the project well and correctly since there will always be urgency and the ramifications of getting it wrong will be felt for a long time.

It seems clear from these minutes that AmplifyGR wants to move forward quickly and not have to be bothered by the tedious process of public and resident input, because there is an “urgency.”

All of these developments are taking place somewhat under the radar and should concern all of us who care about justice and equity. The group Grand Rapids Homes for All is hosting a meeting with AmplifyGR on Thursday, June 8, from 6 – 8pm at the Baxter Community Center. Come with questions, come with concerns and lets not allow the DeVos family to dictate the future of yet another part of the city of Grand Rapids.

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