Southtown plan goes public


Small business districts like the one near Burton Street and Eastern Avenue are part of the Southtown revitalization plan. Courtesy city of Grand Rapids

A draft of the Southtown Business Area Specific Plan is out for review and public comment until early November.

The plan identifies positive changes and creates a roadmap that will lead to an improved commercial core and public spaces that support existing and new businesses, appeal to neighborhood residents, encourage pride in places and attract visitors in southeast Grand Rapids.

The BASP is the product of over a year of planning, community engagement and outreach. A steering committee of over a dozen members was assembled prior to the start of the formal planning process. The committee was comprised of business owners, residents, organizational representatives and members from the Southtown Corridor Improvement District Board.

The Southtown Corridor Improvement District encompasses six separate business districts, including Alger Heights, Boston Square, Franklin and Eastern, Madison Square, and Seymour Square, as well as the properties that connect between them along the major road corridors from Wealthy Street in the north to Mulford Street in the south and Jefferson Avenue to the west to Kalamazoo Avenue in the east. 

The sixth district, Division South, is within the Southtown CID district but is addressed as part of a separate, parallel planning process focused on.

“The driving force behind the South Division plan was the Silver Line, whereas Southtown, we felt the needs from a land use perspective would be different, and we felt the tailored needs would be separate,” said Kristin Turkelson, Grand Rapids planning director. “The promise behind having an area-specific plan is to take a more nuanced approach versus a master plan, which is at a much broader scale.”

The steering committee was charged with providing regular input to the project team through monthly meetings and was responsible for leading community engagement at the local level.

Seven focus group meetings and four public workshops were held over the course of the project to solicit input and directly engage local business owners, community organizations, resident groups and other entities active within the Southtown area.

The plan has four main goals: 

1. Be a more stable and thriving business community without displacement. 

2. Be a highly valued business community promoting cultural and neighborhood assets.

3. Be a more vibrant place to work, shop, play, learn, live and do business.

4. Be a safer environment for everyone.

For each goal, multiple objectives were listed that address a broad range of challenges identified in the series of outreach programs.

One strategy for Goal 1 is to establish investment priority nodes. Priority investment areas are zones that currently contain or have the opportunity for a concentration of businesses in retail-appropriate space. Consequently, investments like infrastructure made into a priority area can benefit a greater number of businesses due to their close proximity to such investments.

Retail priority areas can be formalized through a zoning process or through an economic development program.

Layla Aslani, community engagement facilitator for the city of Grand Rapids, said the Madison Square area as an example would be a priority node where the Southtown CID could grant incentives for incoming businesses to set up in the area.

“They (CID) could say, ‘Well we’re going to give more money to businesses in these priority areas,” Aslani said.

Achieving Goal 2 involves expanding access to healthful and cultural foods. For many people, access to such foods is either too expensive, too far away or otherwise too challenging to acquire. Programs to make healthy food more affordable and accessible for people play an important role in supporting community health.

Continuing to support urban pop-up farmers markets that reflect the traditions, foods and health practices of a multicultural community is one way to implement this strategy.

Local governmental departments also can play a role in supporting healthy, sustainable local food systems. Specific activities for implementation include education and events to promote healthy food choices, facilitating the creation of farmers markets and facilitating the reduction or recycling of food waste.

One of the strategies in Goal 3 is the assessment of green space needs. The plan identified parks and open spaces as critical to the quality of life for city residents.

The Grand Rapids Park & Recreation Strategic Master Plan identified a broad range of projects, new programs and needs for the park system. Neighborhood associations and local nonprofits can utilize the citywide park plan to advocate for improvements to parks and open space.

According to the BASP, many areas of Southtown do not meet the 10 acres of open space per 1,000 residents expected in the master plan. Neighborhood associations can identify vacant or underutilized property where new pocket parks or other open spaces can be created.

A relatively simple strategy to raise public safety in Goal 4 is improvements to street lighting. According to the plan, too little lighting can create unsafe conditions, while too much lighting may become a nuisance and detract from the character of a district. Lighting also contributes to real and perceived safety by providing visibility and deterring crime. Lighting, as an aesthetic feature, also contributes to making a place more vibrant.

The city of Grand Rapids has a standard decorative light pole typically used in business districts and commercial districts. Using this same fixture within the Southtown CID may provide greater cost savings, according to the plan.

The Southtown area contains approximately 13,000 households, 56% of which are owner-occupied and 15% are vacant. Overall, homeownership rates in Southtown exceed those of Grand Rapids as a whole, which is at 54.3% owner-occupied.

The median household income of Southtown residents is approximately $34,300. ESRI data on median household income across the Southtown area also showed a rise from $34,693 in 2018 to $38,539 in 2023.

The Grand Valley Metropolitan Council’s 2040 Transportation Plan, published in 2015, indicates an increase in 21,787 jobs across the city of Grand Rapids from 2010-40. The vast majority of job gains are in the service sector. Total population is anticipated to rise by 9,800 people.

As the economy grows and more jobs are added to Southtown and beyond, making sure that Southtown residents have access to new job opportunities is an important objective of the plan.

The Southtown CID contains approximately 42,000 residents, and nearly 8,500 residents live within census blocks directly touching the CID boundary.

It also is one of the most racially and culturally diverse communities within the greater Grand Rapids area, according to the plan. Overall, the Southtown area is 46% African American and 22% Hispanic. Most of the residential areas north of Burton Street and south of Franklin Street are over 80% African American or Hispanic.

The city of Grand Rapids created the Southtown Corridor Improvement District in 2016, as an expansion of the previously formed Madison Square CID.

The Southtown CID was formed to empower the community to guide positive changes regarding health and success of business districts in southeast Grand Rapids. Ultimately, the CID will direct investment and physical improvements to the commercial corridors and business districts where it can provide the most benefit to business owners and residents.

The full Southtown Business Area Specific Plan can be viewed at Feedback can be sent to until Nov. 6

Aslani said, after public feedback is collected, the draft plan will go to the city planning commission for a public hearing Nov. 14. The planning commission will then choose whether to recommend the city commission adopt the BASP into the city’s master plan.

“Ideally, if the planning commission is comfortable, they would advance it to the city commission,” Aslani said. “We speculate, because it’s up to the planning commission, whether they want more feedback or more time.”

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