Special report: Seeking unity on Division


South Division Avenue is one of the city’s major thoroughfares and a traditional retail corridor that also is home to many of the city’s nonprofits catering to the less fortunate. Photo by Michael Buck

First in a series of stories examining the South Division Avenue corridor.

Propaganda Doughnuts’ decision to close — and in part to blame the area’s homeless population for its troubles — is prompting discussion about the future of the South Division Avenue retail corridor.

Propaganda owners recently made their decision known on a Facebook post, since deleted, that detailed issues with panhandling, public drunkenness, aggressive behavior and public indecency.

A home to many nonprofits catering to the less fortunate, South Division also is one of city’s major thoroughfares and a traditional retail corridor. With Propaganda’s closing, the divide between the nonprofits and businesses is growing.

Bob Dykstra, landlord of the building where Propaganda was located, 117 S. Division Ave., said he’s seeking another tenant for the storefront, but finding tenants is far from the issue. He also said the problem of the area’s inhabitants and frequent visitors has increased during the 10 years he’s owned property in the neighborhood, citing issues from gang-related threats and drug issues to prostitution.

According to the city’s Crime Mapping website, in the area within 1,000 feet of 111 S. Division Ave. — Dykstra’s office — 63 crimes were committed from June 14 to July 12, including 19 simple assaults, 14 drug-related charges, two pocket pickings, two street robberies, theft from a vehicle and criminal damage to property.

While the crime numbers are not pretty, Adam Bird, who lives and operates his business, Adam Bird Photographer, out of 62 S. Division Ave., said retail and commercial tenants should understand the dynamics of the neighborhood when moving in.

He said many of the nonprofits catering to the homeless have been there for 30-plus years.

Most of those nonprofits own their space and aren’t going anywhere, Bird said, and even if they did, the situation would be similar in their new neighborhoods.

“That’s the lay of the land,” Bird said. “Someone has to say ‘It’s OK in our backyard.’ People have to say they’re part of the solution or push it away. It’s a balance of any urban area.”

City officials are cognizant of the situation, as well, but believe the corridor has plenty of potential.

Commissioner Jon O’Connor, whose First Ward encompasses the corridor, said as Grand Rapids continues to develop and emerge out of the Great Recession, city officials and stakeholders are still fighting the effects of years of substandard economic activity.

With Grand Rapids attracting more investment for development, the community continues to expand retail and housing — including down Division Avenue, encroaching on nonprofits that call the neighborhood home.

“There are challenges that face South Division, and lot of those problems — and other problems the city faces — are problems related to our success,” O’Connor said. “We’re dealing with public budget cuts, reduction of city services, the bottom falling out of the housing market, and it’s all created a situation where we’re all reacting to failures.

“As a city we’ve done a great job navigating those difficult times, but because of those successes there are challenges we face. There are some results that are growing pains.”

The issue has caught the attention of the nonprofit community, which sent city officials an open letter last week signed by more than 30 nonprofits and accompanied by a document of strategic recommendations.

“We, along with many others, have watched Grand Rapids transform,” the letter reads. “Our story is often presented as one of resilience in the face of hardship. It is presented as a story of strong and steady growth.” But there’s a question that needs to be asked, the letter states. Whom has this growth benefited?

“For many communities of color, the growth we have in Grand Rapids has largely served to further alienate, isolate or even displace neighbors who already bear the brunt of marginalization.”

The letter said the organizations share blame in overlooking various neighborhoods and citizens but now ask for input into community development.

While nonprofits combine efforts to ask for a voice in development, something similar is happening on the commercial side.

In April, Heartside Ministry obtained a special land-use permit to move to the former Goodwill Store at the corner of Cherry Street and South Division Avenue. Two South Division property owners appealed the planning commission’s approval, and the ministry will go in front of the board of zoning appeals on July 21, said Andy DeBraber, director of Heartside Ministry.

“They say this is supposed to be a retail-only district and that’s what the city has promised them, so for us to even be on the street, to them, is a problem, even though we’ve been here 33 years,” DeBraber said. “There is something about the density of [all the nonprofits being this close together on Division] that is an issue for them.”

The property owners who are beginning to stand up to the nonprofits might be reacting to seeing development choosing adjacent downtown neighborhoods instead of South Division, including Bridge, Leonard and Michigan streets, Bird said.

Bird said if Heartside Ministry moves to the former Goodwill site, it would be better for the neighborhood, as it would occupy a hard-to-fill retail space and offer more community space to keep the homeless population off the street during the times Degage Ministries is closed during the day. Meanwhile, the space Heartside Ministry would vacate would be better suited for commercial retail options, he said.

Following a day of walking around the corridor talking with business owners, organizational leaders and residents, O’Connor said one thing is certain: People come in and prey on those in need in the corridor. He said it doesn’t happen only in the South Division corridor but might be most prevalent there.

“People come into that neighborhood and prey on the less fortunate with things like drugs, and it’s a sad cycle that’s difficult to break,” he said.

O’Connor also said certain infrastructure improvements in the area would help, such as public restrooms — which coincides with Dykstra’s concern about people using retail entranceways as restrooms. O’Connor said the city also needs to focus on housing solutions, diversity and inclusion, and services for those who need help.

“The city is cognizant of the importance of the neighborhood and corridor,” O’Connor said. “We all understand the nonprofit community, arts community and business owners all have their own wants and desires. The challenge we face is how to address them and how to make sure the neighborhood continues to move forward.”

With a variety of organizations, businesses, community leaders and residents dedicated to South Division Avenue and the entire Heartside Neighborhood, O’Connor said there are a lot of visions for the area. But it can continue to move toward being an even more vibrant neighborhood as long as the various visionaries continue to work together, he said.

“It’s everybody’s city. We all have a right to be in whatever neighborhood we choose,” O’Connor said. “There are no easy solutions, but I’m hopeful we can come to solutions that allow a lot of different communities to function harmoniously together on that corridor.”

Staff reporter Mike Nichols contributed to this report.

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