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More affordable housing, living-wage jobs among things residents want in developed Division Avenue corridor

GRAND RAPIDS, MI — Greater access to healthy food, more living-wage jobs, affordable housing, community events and safer pedestrian travel are a few things some residents want brought to the Division Avenue corridor.

The feedback, collected during a recent online survey, will help shape a $945,000 effort by The Rapid public transportation system and three cities to plan and later incentivize economic development and quality of life improvements along 7 miles of Division Avenue, from Wealthy Street at the north end to 60th Street at the south.

The undertaking, led by The Rapid in partnership with Grand Rapids, Kentwood and Wyoming, is called “Division United,” and its intent is to produce a coordinated plan to jumpstart development in the corridor that never really materialized when The Rapid launched its Silver Line bus route in 2014.

“The transit investment was made in the corridor with the Silver Line, but what we haven’t seen is the development around the Silver Line that we would like to see, which led us to where we are today, which is a more concerted effort between the municipalities around development that can really harness the enhanced transit mode that is in the corridor,” said Bill Kirk, The Rapid’s business affairs specialist.

The 7-mile stretch of Division Avenue cutting through Grand Rapids, Wyoming and Kentwood has a “fair amount” of vacant and boarded up buildings and empty properties, Kirk said. Development of these spaces was something the Silver Line was intended to spark.

The character of the corridor varies from densely packed and aging buildings to interspersed used car and auto repair shops, liquor stores, old factories, chain general merchandise stores and ethnic cuisine and markets.

The online survey, which got 272 responses and wrapped up in late October, is one of the latest efforts by Division United to gauge residents, community groups, businesses and economic developers on what they envision for the corridor.

The study to lay out a vision for Division Avenue, as well as how to achieve it, began in early 2019 with the award of $870,000 in federal and state transportation grant money, as well as $25,000 from each of the cities involved.

Related: $1M grant aims to jump-start economic development along Silver Line bus route

A final report on what stakeholders want and recommendations on how cities can achieve this is expected in early 2021, Kirk said. After that, he said, it’s largely up to the cities to implement the policies and programs sparking development.

The strategy to boost economic development will build on other plans in the corridor, such as Grand Rapids’ South Division Corridor Plan.

The majority of the 272 people that responded to the online survey, around 67 percent, said they live near Division Avenue. Only 18.5 percent said they worked or owned a business along the corridor.

The survey asked people to select their top choices on categories like mobility, economic development, neighborhoods, quality of life, community and identity. Participants could also provide write-in answers.

Some of the selections that received the most votes across the categories were:

  • Improved access to fresh and healthy food (135)
  • Protection of current businesses and more programs for them to expand in place (122)
  • More community events celebrating the history and culture of Division Avenue (115)
  • Public land or underutilized areas converted to parks and plazas (103)
  • Affordable housing programs that encourage low-income units in every development (125)
  • Funding resources or incentive programs for home repairs and renovations (123)
  • More living wage jobs brought to major undeveloped sites along Division Avenue (155)
  • Funding resources available for repair and renovations of existing businesses (162)
  • More safe and comfortable walking and biking options connecting to neighborhoods and schools (136)
  • More safe and comfortable street crossings of Division Avenue (100)

Some of the write-ins from community members included desires for rent reduction, greater police presence, small business assistance, resources for homeless people, earlier bus hours and better weekend service, more lighting, cleaner streets, reopening a food bank at 43rd Street and more.

“One of the things that the project sought to do is really get input from the stakeholders in the corridor to ask what kind of development they would like to see. We wanted to avoid any kind of top-down recommendations,” Kirk said. “But what we’ve heard in our public feedback and outreach is very similar to what the project team thought would be needed, which is more affordable housing opportunities, more employment opportunities, more local businesses.”

The Division United team has also heard community consensus around wanting a more cohesive identity and better connections between areas along the 7-mile stretch.

“The people in the corridor that we hear from, they love that unique character that each of those areas provides, but what they’d like to see is more connectivity so that you don’t have these nodes and then you go a mile or two without much connecting it,” he said.

Kirk has no illusions that the Division United plan will immediately spark development in the corridor. He called it a “long game.”

But part of the project work is also to identify “catalytic” sites along the corridor, be they vacant properties or empty lots, that cities should target first for investment.

“There’s going to be long-term implementation items, but we do hope that some of the sites that are identified as catalytic sites might see investment sooner,” he said. “I do think it’s not going to be instant results, you’re not going to see a huge increase in development immediately, but the hope is as some of their more opportune, catalytic sites get developed that it starts to spread throughout the corridor.”

Kirk said the project team is aiming to have the final report and recommendations completed by February 2021.

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