Planners create vision for South Division


The redevelopment will focus on South Division Avenue from Wealthy Street to 28th Street, between Buchanan and Madison avenues. Rendering courtesy city of Grand Rapids

Residents and business owners in the South Division corridor now have an official vision for the area’s future.

After months of planning, meetings and input involving dozens of residents, developers, officials and organizations, the plan by the city of Grand Rapids lays out the key priorities residents and leaders want to see in an improved South Division corridor.

The plan — focusing along South Division Avenue from Wealthy Street to 28th Street, between Buchanan and Madison avenues — intends development to focus particularly on the benefit of the area’s low- and middle-income residents, who have largely been left out of the overall city’s prosperity.

That’s why the planning process went beyond simply improving the neighborhood for economic gain, said Suzanne Schulz, former managing director of design and development for the city of Grand Rapids. The plan focuses on the people who form the South Division community and the history and values of that community.

A steering committee of residents and stakeholders worked to ensure the plans were intertwined with the concept of “development without displacement” of existing residents and business owners.

“That's why we want homegrown development — people that are from the neighborhood or from West Michigan and want to create something for the neighborhood,” said Henry Peña, steering committee member and owner of a Boost Mobile store on Division Avenue and Burton Street.

Because the corridor doesn’t have its own neighborhood or business association, which usually would spearhead such a plan, the steering committee wanted to create a comprehensive “how-to” to inform developers and leaders, Schulz said.

“They wanted to be able to be very clear on what it is they want and then also how they were going to achieve it,” Schulz said. 

The plan is set for approval by the planning commission in October and the city commission in November.

Catalyst projects

The plan outlines specific focus areas on six intersections along South Division, which go into detail on how those “gateways” could look and the businesses they would ideally contain. Many spaces in the corridor are “low-hanging fruit” for development, Schulz said. Façade grants were a big part of the Southtown improvement plans, for example. 

The entire area cannot be expected to improve overnight, she said. Instead, the idea was to outline potential catalyst projects that could kickstart development along the corridor. The steering committee’s primary job was to identify where those projects could be and what they could look like. 

“You could have lots of things happening everywhere and still not really feel a substantial difference,” Schulz said. “But if there are a couple of key locations where change occurs, that really starts to denote that something new is a happening in the neighborhood.”

That could include building a mixed-use development that provides physical space for retail, restaurants or community activities.

One of the sites identified was a city-owned parking lot on the corner of Division and Burton. Perhaps it could be used in a way that better benefits the community, Schulz said. 

“The idea of a marketplace or an event space for them at that corner could really start to create that identity and that sense of cohesion that the community is looking for,” Schulz said.

As the owner of this lot and other properties in the area, Schulz said the city could help defray costs for such a project or grants could be provided to develop the publicly owned land.

One of those potential catalyst projects is the old 4 Star Theater, at 1950 S. Division Ave. Marcus Ringnalda, who worked for Wolverine Building Group while he was a member of the South Division plan’s steering committee, purchased the theater for $160,000 about two years ago.

A self-proclaimed historic preservationist, he purchased the “incredible” building with the intent to revive it. He said he was asked to be on the steering committee specifically because he owns the building.

Once he began attending meetings, he said it became clear how much the space could mean to the community.

“The potential really became much clearer to me,” Ringnalda said.

As a Grand Rapids resident but an outsider to the South Division community, Ringnalda said being part of the steering committee gave him insight that’s allowed him to move forward confidently with plans to revive the theater as a community space.

The goal is to complete a $2 million-$4 million renovation so the theater can show films once again and act as a space for community events and gatherings, much like the Wealthy Theatre in Eastown.

“The overwhelming sentiment I came away with is if the lights are on in that building, there's a huge desire in that community to have a place to go for family-oriented entertainment or gathering places or just to have a venue,” Ringnalda said.

Through his work with the city, he has been able to connect with the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and art organizations that have outreach efforts in underserved communities. 

He said the goal is to have the space functioning in 2021. He recently left the real estate company to focus full time on the theater redevelopment, he said.

Ringnalda said he doesn’t see this project as a money-making venture but rather a “mission-driven” way to help the community. A nonprofit likely will be formed to handle the construction.

“I am not looking at this as a typical developer would,” he said.

Once the project is complete, he hopes it sparks surrounding development.

“That (project) is a big piece of making that area a nice place to live,” he said.

Besides physical spaces, the plan outlines a credit union or minority-owned community bank as a key need for residents and business owners in the area, not just for better access to small loans but also to provide education to clients on financial literacy.

“A lot of the community believes that they have to use all of their own money to be able to expand or grow or invest in their business, and they don't have the concept or the ability to leverage financing from the banks,” Schulz said.

“Relationships with the banking industry were viewed as really important both for people to be able to get mortgages or business loans — that they could start to leverage and build wealth in different ways than they've thought about in the past.”

The goal is to have renters become owners who can better manage decisions of the place where they live, she said.

Continued planning

Schulz said several developers have shown interest in the area and are likely working on how to use the plans that have been laid out.

“The goal is that they're going to be focused on relationship building — first with the community and then be able to work on the projects together to achieve those goals,” she said.

Schulz said the steering committee’s actions toward already working to create change have been impressive. One member who owns property has been looking into using it to bring a pharmacy to the community, for example.

“We’re starting to see some ownership through the process of those who were engaged, trying to figure out how to make these things work,” she said.

Ringnalda said he thinks it will be important for developers to consider the appropriate scale of projects in the various areas in the corridor. He pointed to the development of the Wealthy Street corridor as a good example of how South Division could look.

“I think we're seeing that is a desirable area to develop, and I think that will keep creeping down south,” Ringnalda said.

This plan will be paired with work by The Rapid to focus on development along the Silver Line route. The city invested in the bus line several years ago with the expectation that it would spur development, but it has not. Ringnalda said he thinks the bus route will do its part in the future, however.

“That will, I think, down the road prove to be a huge asset to developing property along the corridor,” he said.

Perceptions of safety

The issue of safety is a concern that residents have brought up and some fear prevents potential customers from visiting and keeps potential residents from moving in.

One solution the city has been working on is crime prevention through environmental design. This could include avoiding shops with covered windows, like party stores, that decrease visibility and increase perceived danger. While not directly related to the issue, it’s part of the problem, Schulz said.

Peña said he owns about 40 Boost Mobile stores throughout the state, and his best one is on Division and Burton.

“I call it the best-kept secret,” he said.

From his experience, he said a lot of the stores in the area get good business, but he worries that “inebriated people” sleeping at bus stops, for example, creates an unwelcoming atmosphere and keeps the district from being what it could be.

Still, he thinks the area has a stigma it perhaps doesn’t deserve.

“I've been in that area since 1985, so I've seen it at its worst,” Peña said. “I always tell people that it's improved quite a lot.

“I think the shopping district is tremendous, and I think if the stigma lifted, it would become a super hub of successful businesses. Because I'm successful now with just the neighborhood people.”

As development makes its way into South Division, Schulz said she thinks the safety issues should solve themselves naturally.

“The more people and investment that happens in the neighborhood, the more activity you get and the safer it will feel,” she said.

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