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GVSU Magazine, the Westside, and Gentrification

June 22, 2017

Developers, whether they are private or public, always have an impact on neighborhoods no matter how much they try to hide it.

This is the case with a recent Grand Valley State University Magazine article, which depicted the impact that campus was having on the westside of Grand Rapids.

The article, entitled, West Side Story: Grand Valley Strengthens Connection to Neighbors Through Collaboration, paints a very one-sided picture of what the school’s impact has had on the lower westside since they first moved to that part of town beginning in 1988, when the Eberhard Center opened. 

The first person interviewed in the article is a student who was involved in a project called Civic Studio. Civic Studio has not been shy about exploring the history and contemporary dynamics that impact the westside of Grand Rapids, with a significant emphasis on gentrification. This writer has attended many forums on this theme at Civic Studio hosted forums and there has been plenty of community and student discussion, some of which has been critical of GVSU’s role in perpetuating gentrification.

However, the article ends that section by stating that the student who was interviewed, “is just one of the estimated hundreds of students who live on the West Side, home to Grand Valley’s Pew Grand Rapids Campus, where university collaborations with residents, organizations and schools are common.”

The rest of the article includes several GVSU faculty and staff voices and just one perspective from a local non-profit, all of which support the notion that GVSU has been nothing but good for the westside.

The article even includes an image of westside map that is very cute and fun and has landmarks such as the John Ball Zoo, several schools, a park and of course the GVSU campus.

Now, there might be some people, even westsiders, that feel that the GVSU presence is a good thing, but to present this issue so one sided is not only dishonest, it ignores the complexities of how any major institution impacts neighborhoods.

This writer has attended many forums on gentrification in the past two years and there have been many people from the westside who have spoken about the negative impact that GVSU has on that part of town. The most frequent response that people give, in terms of the GVSU impact on the westside, is on student housing.

There are hundreds of students who rent on the westside of Grand Rapids, often sharing a house or an apartment with other students. What landlords and property management companies have realized is that charging 4 students (at $500 – 600 a piece) is much more profitable than it is to rent to a family of four. This dynamic has caused rental costs to increase across the board on the westside, making it difficult for working class individuals and families to afford rent.

In addition, many of these rental properties have been purchased by investors, many of which are from out of town and out of state. The Michigan Radio documentary, Pushed Out, provides important details about this dynamic. Beginning with the 2008 economic crisis, hundreds of homes in Grand Rapids were foreclosed, bought up by investors and then turned into rental properties right at the time that the most recent gentrification push took off. The map here shows (in red) where homes were foreclosed on the westside and purchased by investors.

Besides the increase in rental properties and higher cost of rent, there are more and more development projects that are located near the GVSU westside campus, development projects that primarily cater to those who can afford $1500 a month rental costs, $4 cups of coffee micro-breweries, boutique shops and all the other upscale services being offered. An article from If the River Swells, provides important analysis of how these development projects impact the westside, projects which is connected to the ongoing expansion of the GVSU campus. 

It will be interesting to see how the Grand Valley Magazine would spin the campus expansion in the Belknap neighborhood. Would they say they are practicing good community engagement or that it is another “model partnership?” Not everyone in the community is fooled by these kinds of glowing PR pieces.

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