Coit Square: A Study in Class Transformation

Belknap Plans

Writing about every new development, restaurant, or boutique in Grand Rapids that is contributing to the gentrification of the city would be an onerous project. There are simply so many—from new yoga studios to multi-story residential developments—it would get redundant to highlight every example. It’s an exercise we’ll leave to the cheerleaders of development in Grand Rapids. Read with a critical lens, the loud chorus of excitement on “The Salon”, in the Business Journal, and on other such sites can also serve as a chronicle of what’s wrong with the current path.

However, every once in a while, there is a project that comes along that is particularly egregious or that can be used as an example of larger trends happening in the gentrification of Grand Rapids and consequently, needs exploration in more detail. One such project is the recently announced “Coit Square” in Grand Rapids’ Belknap neighborhood. Coit Square, if approved, will demolish 11 homes on the 600 block of Coit Ave NE and replace them with condos and townhomes. With the exception of one, the existing homes are rentals that are currently occupied. The developer either has purchased the homes or has an option to do so pending City approval. In their place, they would build condos ranging in price from the low-$200,000s to the mid-$300,000s.

This would be yet another entire block of homes demolished in the Belknap neighborhood. The demolition of whole blocks has been characteristic of development in the neighborhood. Projects such the Clancy Lofts, the Gateway, and Grand Valley State University’s (GVSU) new academic building are taking out entire stretches of housing. The developer behind Coit Square, the Artesian Group, is teaming up with Orion Construction on the project. Both have other projects in the neighborhood, with Orion Construction working on the Gateway project and the Artesian Group being a longtime landlord and investor in the area.

Rendering 2

The Artesian Group has been buying up homes in the Belknap neighborhood since the mid-2000s (purchasing 38 properties in the neighborhood in total). The development company has taken an active role in the redevelopment of Belknap, participating in various organizations and entities at work in the neighborhood. This is not unusual as new interests often take an active role in the political organizations in gentrifying neighborhoods, but it’s something we have not discussed before. After encountering opposition to earlier plans, the Artesian Group facilitated the drafting of an Area Specific Plan (ASP) for the neighborhood. The resulting Belknap Area Specific Plan was produced. It had the backing of the Artesian Group and many of the primary participants in the process were other landlords and investors in the neighborhood (see the appendix summarizing the meeting in the ASP and a summary of the process presented to the City Commission). ASPs have been held up by the City as a solution to gentrification, yet in most cases they seem to provide the framework for it to occur.

Beyond the ASP, the Artesian Group’s founder, Angel Gonzalez, is on the board of the neighborhood association, Neighbors of Belknap Lookout. It’s worth noting that a letter from Neighbors of Belknap Lookout and adherence to the Area Specific Plan (ASP) were both touted by the Artesian Group when they presented the request for re-zoning the properties in question. According to minutes from the Planning Commission, at least one Commissioner appreciated the support the Artesian Group had garnered from the neighborhood association. As one would expect, the request to rezone the land and demolish the homes was approved unanimously by the Planning Commission (it still needs to go before the City Commission).

Rendering 1

Rendering of Coit Square, complete with what appears to be a Porsche 918 parked outside.

The Coit Square project would replace existing and accessible rental homes with condos that would be out of reach for many of the current residents. This should come as no surprise, after all, the Artesian Group was also behind the “Belknap Brownstones” which were profiled in Mlive’s “High End Home Series”. Coit Square will usher in a similar class transformation, inviting new and wealthier residents while ultimately displacing the existing residents. Gonzalez’s wife, Tara, spoke before the Planning Commission in 2008 saying that her and her husband have “worked hard in changing the class of tenants in the area.” It’s the same meeting from which Mlive quoted this gem:

“When you take your kids to Coit Park and you walk over dirty diapers, used condoms and 40 ouncers … you become proactive and want to see change for your kids,” Gonzalez said.

That’s why the couple purchased former crack homes that were “filthy and disgusting” and worked hard to bring them up to code, she said. They also worked to get responsible renters who will take pride in the neighborhood and “take out the trash,” she said.

Their development projects have consistently been presented as if they were saving the neighborhood. Some of this has been couched in an anti-renter sentiment, with the Artesian Group saying that this brings much needed “homeowners” into the neighborhood. However, as Angel Gonzalez stated in a recent Mlive article, this isn’t about bring in homeowners in general, but rather a specific type – those “who are going to be active and want good stuff to happen in the neighborhood.” In the context of Belknap, this likely will mean wealthier residents who will appreciate the new amenities that have been proposed for the neighborhood. As is the case in so much of U.S. media and culture, working class people are criminalized and pathologized, while the behaviors of middle and upper middle class people are unquestioningly valorized.

Houses along Coit Ave Photo

Existing homes on Coit Square.

There has been at least some discussion of 2 of the 39 units being designated as “affordable” but it doesn’t seem to be a major component of the project. As presented to the Planning Commission, the discussion seemed speculative and there was no further information requested by the Planning Commission. There was of course no talk of the prospect of current residents moving into the new homes that would be built in place of their current residences, because after all, they are simply people to be shuffled around and cleared out as the neighborhood “improves.”

Finally, this latest project is yet another example of how good old fashioned gentrification – complete with demolition and displacement – does indeed happen in Grand Rapids. It isn’t a matter that is up for debate, it is something that is happening. Why is it then, that city leaders like Planning Director Suzanne Schulz, have been able to get away with saying things like “The City isn’t removing single-family housing; new construction on multi-family housing is happening where it doesn’t exist now,” when it’s clearly a lie (quoted in “Big Shift: The Booming Demand for Downtown Housing”, Grand Rapids Magazine, March 2015)? From other projects in Belknap, to the Fulton Place development on the westside, and the 33 Carlton project in Eastown, the demolition of existing homes is a regular feature of development in the city, and not an anomaly.

From the southeast side to others the westside, developers are constantly crafting visions for the gentrification of entire neighborhoods – and doing so without neighborhood involvement. By the time they come to the neighborhood, or indeed by the time many of those affected are able to figure out what is happening, the work has already been done and the neighborhood has already been bought. From there it’s just watching the slow and painful process of displacement, either directly or culturally, unfold – with the city’s rubber stamp.

Don’t Believe the Hype

Mlive News Coverage

Over the past few years, hardly a month has passed without an announcement of some new apartment building or development project in Grand Rapids. Each announcement is accompanied by a barrage of news articles, often portraying the development as inevitable. This coverage is colored by triumphalism, with the media clearly taking sides in favor of the developments. Depending on the particular project, there will be a story announcing the project, one outlining the history of the building, a story or several giving construction updates, and a story announcing open houses and/or leasing opportunities. The local news media functions as a hype machine, providing uncritical cheerleading and free advertising for developers.

In order to explore in more detail how this works, it is necessary to focus on both a specific project and a specific media outlet. For this article, we’ll focus on 616 Lofts on Monroe and the coverage of the project in The Grand Rapids Press / This development is representative of many taking place in Grand Rapids. Located at 820 Monroe Ave NW, it is a conversion of an existing building into market rate apartments aimed primarily at young professionals. The loft-style apartments are available in configurations ranging from studios to two-bedroom apartments, with rents between $1,000 (studio) to $2,000 (two-bedroom) per month.

616 Lofts Rendering from MliveIn January of 2014, The Grand Rapids Press published its first article on the project, titled “$21 million makeover will put loft apartments into former Sackner Products factory.” The article—like so many covering projects of this nature—was a simple announcement stating that 616 Development would be spending $21.8 million to construct 86 loft-style apartments. The article was essentially a press release for 616 Development, including language describing the company as “one of downtown’s most aggressive housing developers.”

In the fall of 2014, The Grand Rapids Press reported on the project again. The first article, “Downtown lofts project on North Monroe Avenue gets $1.3 million state loan participation”, announced that the project received a $1.3 million loan from the Michigan Community Revitalization Program before listing a number of other projects undertaken by 616 Lofts. A second article was published in November covering a media event staged by 616 Lofts. The article, “See the old North Monroe factory that will become 616 Development’s new apartment project” featured a gallery of pictures from the under construction building. The reporter who wrote the story, Jim Harger, referred to the tour as offering “…the public a first-hand look at the old posts and beams and the generations of paint that are being sandblasted in the 96-year-old factory”. However, the tour was less about offering the public a first look than it was about creating buzz for the apartments. The majority of the article focused on the amenities and the allure of downtown living and read like advertising copy.

616 Lofts Illustration from Mlive

In June of 2015, an article (“Bistro Bella Vita owners building new restaurant in North Monroe district”) announced that a restaurant tenant had been found for the ground floor of the development. The story was short, but allowed the project to remain in the media and again gave developers a chance to talk up the development, with Monica Steimle of 616 Development stating, “With the community focus on increasing access to the Grand River as well as improving connectivity from Belknap to the Grand River, this development and restaurant will be an asset for the corridor.”

616 Lofts Photo from Mlive

A month later, The Grand Rapids Press published another article (“New loft-style apartments on North Monroe are opening up”) giving an update on the status of construction. The article covered an open house organized by 616 Lofts to encourage people to pre-lease apartments. Once again, the Press article was essentially an advertisement for 616 Lofts on Monroe featuring numerous photos of sample units and a list of amenities. The article’s language read like advertising copy, stating:

“The loft-style apartments feature 11-foot ceilings with exposed rafters, open floor plans that combine kitchen, dining and living areas and original brick walls that have been sandblasted and sealed. Each unit also includes granite countertops, hardwood flooring and laundry facilities.

Common areas will include a rooftop deck overlooking Canal Street Park and the Grand River and a community room.”

The article ended with a brief history of the building and the closing declaration that 616 Development is “one of downtown’s most active housing developers.” It read just like a press release.

616 Lofts Facebook Photo

In November, 616 Lofts on Monroe was once again the subject of an article in The Grand Rapids Press which covered the announcement that a brewery will also be part of the development. The article, “City Built Brewing Company to bring unusual beer, Puerto Rican food to Grand Rapids” announced that a brewery would be opening in May or June 2016. Again, it offered the opportunity to plug the apartments and the project as a whole, positioning it as a critical part of the revival of the neighborhood.

Looking at the coverage of the 616 Lofts on Monroe project in The Grand Rapids Press, there are a few immediate takeaways. First, these stories are entirely positive and draw heavily from what the developers tell them. Second, the stories are primarily advertisements. They function more as sales pitches than news stories. This is particularly true with the repeated updates covering staged media events and updates on leasing availability. Third, developments are presented as a given – public meetings are either not mentioned or approval by various City of Grand Rapids boards is presented as a mere formality. Finally, this coverage of development is easy for news companies to produce. Heavily relying on copy from press releases, attending staged media events, and using architectural renderings takes the difficulty out of news reporting. Moreover, the pattern of repeated coverage – announcement, update, history, leasing update – generates more online ad revenue with little investment.

616 Lofts Instagram

The news media not only offers space to developers to “sell” their product (in the form of apartments), but they also play a critical role in “selling” development as a whole. News coverage almost always portrays developments as a “public good”, creating a sense of “community” pride in development. This is done by way of stories that speak of returning a building to “its former glory” or a project transforming “a long vacant area.” They are selling the idea that in some way, all residents of the city benefit from the project. The truth is likely more complicated, but when the news media relies only on official sources – such as the developers or city officials – one gets the sense that all of this development is “good”. It would be considerably more difficult – and a lot more interesting – if reporters talked to those affected or potentially affected by the developments. The popular narrative would likely change if reporters asked the opinion of folks living nearby, those who are losing their homes due to development (as is happening around the city), or non-profit agencies.

But of course, that is not how things work. The dominant media in the United States (including here in Grand Rapids) exists to support the status quo. Its job is arguably to foster allegiance to the system and encourage people to be content with the way things are. As such, it makes sense that the news media plays an important role in promoting the ongoing gentrification of Grand Rapids. Scholars have noted that the media plays a critical role in promoting development. Writing in “The City as a Growth Machine”, academics John R. Logan and Harvey L. Molotch state:

“One local business takes a broad responsibility for general growth machine goals—the metropolitan newspaper. Most newspapers (small, suburban papers are occasionally an exception) profit primarily from increasing their circulation and therefore have a direct interest in growth.”

As a result, there will rarely be critical coverage—because more apartments means more residents, more subscribers, and more profit. The news media functions as a mouthpiece for developers, uncritically covering developments and ignoring concerns regarding gentrification and displacement. This is seen over and over and the pattern repeats – regardless of the particular development being discussed.

Empty Lots & Demolished Blocks: The Ongoing Decimation of the Belknap Neighborhood

Sometimes gentrification is an adventurous entrepreneur opening a ramen noodle shop in a “gritty” neighborhood, a property management company purchasing working class homes and converting them to rentals for college students, or a hipster business opening a new cafe. It’s often a slow process that ebbs and flows, usually playing out over the course of several years.

In other cases, it seems like a blindingly fast process with almost immediate consequences. Entire blocks of property are purchased, existing businesses and homes are demolished, and the transformation takes on an almost totalizing feel. Multiple streets and communities are changed seemingly overnight in a process that tears apart the social bonds and connections that had developed in them over time

In Grand Rapids, this is happening in the Belknap Neighborhood, a traditionally working-class area north of I-96 and roughly bounded by Fairview Avenue NE overlooking the Grand River to the west, College Avenue NE to the east, and Coldbrook Street to the north. In recent months, the process has become increasingly visible, with entire blocks of homes demolished and plans announced for additional demolitions. The neighborhood mirrors a construction site.

Map of Houses Demolished or Waiting to be Demolished
A map of homes in the Belknap neighborhood that either have been demolished or will be in the future.

While city leaders, developers, and urbanites are practically salivating at the sound of each blow of the wrecking ball, the development is displacing large numbers of people and dramatically changing the culture of the neighborhood. In the rare cases when this is talked about, it’s usually portrayed as a good thing, yet we can be sure that there are many untold stories of displacement, frustration, anger, and loss. For example, one twenty-year resident of the neighborhood told WOOD TV:

“This sucks … They took my neighborhood away. They took friends away, all to quote ‘better themselves’ or ‘better the community.’ You can’t better friendship that you’ve lost. …This whole thing is just hard to take.”

They went on to say:

“I am definitely stressed due to this, and yeah, I got pills for it, but pills don’t mend a broken heart and this breaks my heart because like I said, the people that I knew around here, they either were bought out or they died, and once they died, they’ve got to be rolling over in their grave, they didn’t want to see anything like this.”

What follows is a series of before and after photos documenting what is happening in the neighborhood.

Belknap Brownstones

Ad for the Belknap Brownstones

One of the first projects in the Belknap Neighborhood was the Belknap Brownstones. The Artesian Group demolished two homes to build them. It’s a project that is typical of the class transformation that is and will be happening to the neighborhood.

The $300,000 dollar condos were profiled in Mlive’s “High End Homes Series” with reporter Jim Harger describing the brownstones and the neighborhood with an offensive fairytale analogy:

“Belknap Lookout has long been the Cinderella of Grand Rapids neighborhoods – waiting to shed its ash bucket image and become the belle of the ball as the neighborhood of choice for medical professionals working across the freeway on the Medical Mile.

Despite its lofty locale overlooking downtown and history as one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, Belknap Lookout has struggled to overcome its image as an enclave of working class rental houses.

But with several new housing projects on the drawing boards and Grand Valley State University spending millions to buy up old houses for future development, Belknap Lookout’s enchanted future may soon be here. ”

Jim Harger’s contempt for the neighborhood’s existing residents is unmatched, with the exception of the developers, the Artesian Group. In 2008, the wife of Artesian Group developer Angel Gonzalez told Mlive that they wanted to “take out the trash” by purchasing “filthy and disgusting homes,” claiming that, “When you take your kids to Coit Park and you walk over dirty diapers, used condoms and 40 ouncers … you become proactive and want to see change for your kids.”

The site of the Belknap Brownstones in 2007.
The site of the Belknap Brownstones in 2007.
The site of the Belknap Brownstones in 2015.
The site of the Belknap Brownstones in 2015.

This attitude – while perhaps particularly crass – is on the same plane as that of all developers in the area, whose plans treat existing residents and homes as obstacles to be overcome.

Gateway at Belknap

Another project that has received considerable attention is “The Gateway at Belknap”. It’s a project that demolished 14 homes and is replacing them with 88 market-rate apartments, a restaurant, and retail space.

Developer Orion Construction has been quoted in the media stating that it “understands the importance of preserving the culture, character and integrity of a neighborhood,” yet it’s hard to believe this is the case when the project demolished an entire block.

A home before demolition:

Photo of House in Belknap Neighborhood

Houses being demolished:

06-gateway-before 07-gateway-before 08-gateway-after

Eventually, the project will look like this:

Belknap Gateway Rendering

Clancy Lofts

An earlier large-scale demolition took place in the neighborhood back in 2014, when developers demolished 12 homes along Clancy Avenue between Trowbridge and Fairbanks Street. The project – which has been stalled while the demolished block remains an overgrown field – will consist of three apartment buildings and five rowhouses. The apartments will be market-rate.

This photo from Google Maps shows what the street looked like in 2007:

Clancy Street in the Belknap Neighborhood

After the homes were demolished, the street has sat empty:

Clancy Demolition in Belknap Neighborhood


The final project is projected to look like this:

Clancy Sreet Apartment Rendering

Grand Valley State University

An entity that looms large in the Belknap neighborhood is Grand Valley State University (GVSU). Like the expansion of Butterworth Hospital/Spectrum Health, GVSU’s expansion along Michigan Street has been fueling development in the neighborhood.

This process has intensified dramatically in recent years, with GVSU acquiring 83 homes for $18.9 million. Some neighborhood residents have been critical of the project, saying that GVSU has not been forthcoming with its plans. Construction is supposed to begin in 2016 with the building being between 70,000 and 80,000 square feet.

Other Projects

As investors and landlords buy up properties in the neighborhood, there have been several other projects announced. One is an Artesian Group project that would replace homes on the 600 block of Coit Avenue. Tentatively called “Coit Square Condos, Cottages, and Town Homes”, units like the following would replace the currently standing homes:

Drawing of Project on Coit

In 2008, another project that was built – albeit somewhat atypical – was the Newberry Place Cohousing Community. A condo was listed for $250,000 in 2014. Newberry Place has also been involved in the demolition of homes in the neighborhood.

Photo of Newberry Place


In In the Belknap neighborhood, gentrification has a decidedly different feel than in other neighborhoods of Grand Rapids. With the hospitals, Grand Valley State University, and downtown looming to the south, to walk through the neighborhood is to experience a foreboding sense of impending change. While developers, city leaders, and the media largely downplay or ignore what is happening, the destruction of entire blocks of homes and their planned replacement with rentals and developments aimed at a new class of residents make this an extremely clear example of gentrification.

Along with houses being physically demolished to make way for shiny new structures, homes are being destroyed as people are forced to move, with years of memories buried in rubble and ground into dust. While some may talk about “willing sellers” and the fact that the owners of these homes were paid – in some cases quite well – it’s important to remember that most of those selling houses were landlords and property owners, not those who actually lived there. In a gentrifying neighborhood, existing residents are often manipulated and shuffled around with little regard for their lives and are seen simply as anonymous bodies or numbers on a spreadsheet, useful only in terms of the maximum rent they can afford to pay and easily replaceable – by the block if necessary.

The Rowe: A Fitting Conclusion

The Rowe Rooftop Deck

When thinking of the quintessential new downtown development, a few things come immediately to mind: young (primarily white) professionals, market rate apartments, condos, ground floor retail, and the all important brewery. A development will either be in a prime location, situated in an up-and-coming area, or adjacent to a large public infrastructure project. Oftentimes, it will be “walkable” to to “farm-to-table” award-winning restaurants and coffee shops.

The Rowe's Former Life

The Rowe fits the bill. Once a hotel built in the 1920s to house visitors attending Grand Rapids’ semi-annual Furniture Market, converted into a retirement home in the 1960s. At the end of December 2014, it was announced that after over a decade of standing vacant the building would be transformed into “The Rowe”. The development is entirely what one would expect. There will be market rate apartments (one-bedroom for $1,100/month and two-bedrooms for $1,600/month) and condos (ranging from $239,000 to more than $1 million). The project will be anchored by Atwater Brewery which is opening a beer garden and taproom on the ground floor. A perfectly safe, predictable project—a fitting capstone for the last standing vacant building downtown.

Atwater in the Park
Interior of Atwater in the Park in Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan


But there are a few things we can learn from this project taking hold. First, The Rowe occupies a critical location on the northwest corner of Monroe Ave and Michigan St. It is directly across from a planned Michigan State University (MSU) building and will be the first residential construction in the area. MSU has also indicated that they are willing to sell part of their land to private developers, so it likely won’t be the last. The Rowe is located at the gateways of the Westside and Monroe North and will provide an enticement into areas which are traditionally considered outside of downtown. Already on Monroe, there are condos, lofts, and a variety of new developments transforming the area. A similar process is happening across the river on the Westside. Moreover, as the last empty building in downtown proper, the gentrification in the city must spread outside of the city center. This will increase pressure on the edges of downtown to gentrify as well. The Rowe functions as the perfect segue to that transformation — a keystone critically connecting and upholding two rapidly gentrifying areas.

When the retirement home that formerly occupied the building was closed in 2001, Peter Secchia bought the property and quickly sold it to the DeVos family. CWD (Cummings, Wierda, DeVos) is facilitating the project for OMH LLC, a subdivision of RDV Corp (a real estate investment company owned by the family of Richard DeVos). What’s notable is that the DeVos family sat on the property for over a decade until other development around the area began. They and other millionaires treat the city is as if they are playing chess. Sometimes they keep buildings empty, sometimes they make condos for the rich, and sometimes they create spectacles like ArtPrize to drum up interest for their vision of downtown – but its all at the whim of a very small group of people. Even Atwater Brewery came at the behest of Sam Cummings of CWD. It’s a good reminder of how gentrification encompasses people beyond simply hipsters and makers. It often needs the backing of millionaires. At this point gentrification in Grand Rapids has moved beyond the pioneering phase which utilizes adventurous risk-takers to start up a craft business or boutique. It’s now “safe” for large investors to cash in and will likely rely on them as more projects are built new.

Gentrification is often tied to and/or facilitated by investments in public infrastructure. This is obviously true with The Rowe given that it’s largely tied to the construction of MSU’s facility across the street. The developers are taking advantage of that ready-made audience. We can see this happening with GVSU on the Westside and in the Belknap neighborhood. This happens in smaller ways as well. For example, The Rowe project was given a $120,000 grant by the Downtown Development Authority for outdoor features including streetscaping. Generally, these are all about facilitating private profit. In this case, according to Kris Larson of Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., the grant will “… create a more generous sidewalk environment for dining… Really an embellished public realm, a better space for people.” But these features aren’t really about better spaces for “people”, rather better spaces for commerce. Similar to the reconstruction on Bridge St., where “bulb outs”, outdoor dining areas, and bike lanes were recently installed, the investments in infrastructure are often designed to encourage gentrification. The GR Forward plan is an example of this on a massive scale. The Rowe, located near the river and a proposed park, would undoubtedly benefit from such a plan.

The Rowe
Rendering of “The Rowe”

So on the one hand, The Rowe represents a familiar story. One that we’ve touched on before, one that is a blueprint of rendered predictions in gentrification. There are patterns here that can’t be denied. On the other hand, it’s a story about what is valued in the “new” Grand Rapids. Though it was closed years ago, a retirement home in downtown no longer fits—the elderly, like low- and no- income residents, are not valued. Their stories are erased and that legacy must be forgotten, hence the rebranding as “The Rowe” (a similar strategy was seen with “The Morton”). All new developments cater to their tastes and dispositions, and increasingly Grand Rapids is staking its future on this demographic. Everything must be made shiny, new, and upscale for young professionals and the tourists. The development emboldens those who would imagine away the post office, a building they see as obsolete because they have become permanently attached to their phones and because they personally are not working class. Perhaps there is a market for the million dollar condos and upscale apartments at The Rowe, but it doesn’t mean that anyone deserves to live in them. Nor should we see them as the saviors of Grand Rapids.

GR Forward Strikes Back

Recently, the final draft of the GR Forward plan was released. We wrote an extensive article critiquing many aspects of GR Forward back in August, but after a barrage of news articles touting the plan’s allegedly strong commitment to diversity and inclusion (The Rapidian and Mlive), it’s worth looking at again. Moreover, the plan is rapidly moving through various boards toward final approval. It recently passed unanimously before the Planning Commission on November 12, after being approved by the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) and the Monroe North Tax Increment Financing Authority the previous day.

Article on The Rapidian Announcing the GR Forward Final Draft
Article on The Rapidian Announcing the GR Forward Final Draft

To hear GR Forward tell it, the new draft is substantially changed: it is a significant response to criticism around the issues of diversity and inclusion. The basis of this claim is the new preamble titled “Towards an Equity-Driven Growth Model in Downtown Grand Rapids”. It’s full of seemingly bold, self-critical statements like:

“The robust public engagement process also revealed widespread concern regarding everyone’s ability to participate in Downtown’s historic and future prosperity. Put plainly, a broad swath of our community, including many from historically marginalized areas of the City, believe they’re not welcome or don’t belong in Downtown Grand Rapids.”

Based on news articles and GR Forward representatives, it seems like a major mea culpa. After a draft document that was embarrassingly bad on the topic of diversity, it’s now seemingly front-and-center. There’s calls for an African-American Heritage Museum in downtown, an African-American festival, diverse cultural events, and more. GR Forward wants more diverse city boards as well as a “regional equity framework” to address the ways inequality manifests itself across the region. There are calls for more minority-owned businesses and more minority workers in downtown. That’s all well and good, but they hardly seem adequate to the task at hand.

The United States was built on white supremacy and it is still a white supremacist society. “Diversity” is a terribly ill-suited approach to dealing with this legacy as it ultimately relies on the goodwill of employers, developers, city boards, etc, to decide if “diversity” is something worth having. It does not address the structural or material basis of racism and glaringly absent from the discussion is the fact that large portions of the “new” Grand Rapids rely on white supremacist divisions of labor: it is largely people of color who work in kitchens, do housekeeping, clean the streets, etc.

GR Forward Photos Replaced

Even taking GR Forward’s approach on their own terms, there is nothing making sure that they will actually achieve the goals they identify, they are just targets . It’s just lip service at a greater scale: a preamble accompanied by more visible photos of minority populations. It’s something to show critics who justifiably raise questions (see their summary of public comments received on the draft [presented to the Planning Commission], they point people to this section over and over). It still reads as though it’s tacked on, a scrambling attempt to deal with the perception that GR Forward isn’t really about inclusion or diversity. And it isn’t now nor was it ever, it’s only ever been about economics.

In that sense, little has changed in the draft. It still advocates for the core project of transforming downtown and making it a more attractive destination for tourists and those who currently live outside of its confines. The same mantras are repeated about the “need” for 10,000 households to gain further investment (and what the city can do to get to that point), the necessity of “restoring the river,” the proliferation of staged events, etc. There’s no need to repeat these criticisms, they were laid out in our previous article on GR Forward. Despite the changes, it is a plan that seeks to transform downtown into a playground for the rich, or those who like to play tourist for the weekend while visiting downtown for ArtPrize.

GR Forward's Vision for the Westside
GR Forward’s Vision for the Westside

Typical of GR Forward’s approach and vision is its discussion of the Westside. The plan advocates continued construction along and near the Bridge Street corridor, including the building of 4-and-5 story buildings along Bridge and Stocking. They would be a mix of housing and commercial developments. Bridge Street—despite being home to many existing homes and businesses—is presented as prime turf to be colonized by new investments. Already in the neighborhood new housing is being built, all of which features high rents (for example, Rockford Construction’s 600 Douglas and Fulton Place projects) inaccessible to those who traditionally lived in the neighborhood. None of the proposed projects for the neighborhood include affordable housing, and the tepid suggestions for incentives GR Forward suggests won’t do anything to change that. Similarly, most neighborhood business development has been “upscale” stores (the hip and misspelled Denym) and restaurants (Black Heron). These are in many ways typical of commercial development as a whole in gentrifying neighborhoods—it’s designed to meet the demands and interests of a new class of residents.

Photo from the GR Forward Plan
Photo from the GR Forward Plan

If what is happening on the Westside is being celebrated by GR Forward, it’s cause for concern as a whole. The transformation of the Westside has been the exact opposite of inclusive and diverse. The Fulton Place development—which is held up by GR Forward as an example of affordable student housing—rents for $800 per bedroom and involved the demolition of existing homes. If this is a template, we should be very concerned when the plan advocates for increased housing for students and young professionals on the Westside and south down Division Avenue. It’s worth noting that the plan advocates for a housing mix in downtown Grand Rapids that is 30% affordable, down from 35% at present. Furthermore, even this call is very limited as seen in the excited discussion about micro-lofts (apartments under 475 square feet) to address the issue of affordable housing. That might be fine for young singles or “empty-nesters”, but isn’t a solution for families who can’t afford high rents elsewhere in downtown.

On the question of public space, the final version of GR Forward continues to call for the total commercialization of downtown. Public space, culture, nature, parks, and people are all seen as “assets” which can be commodified and/or otherwise used to generate economic activity. There’s no real talk about non-commercial space. Instead, parks and the river would be “activated” with a series of facilitated activities designed to cater to tourists and those with money to spend in downtown. Downtown will become a giant amusement park with skate parks, festivals, whitewater rafting, swimming, ice skating, public art, and a host of other activities to take in before or after visiting the hot new restaurant or brew pub du jour. As is typical of GR Forward’s discussion, this assumes that spaces aren’t already used, whether it is a commercial street or a park. For example, homeless people often spend their days in the parks, yet a park such as Heartside Park is seen by GR Forward as needing to be “activated” because it doesn’t have the right type of activity.

Downtown Transformed into an Adventure Park
Downtown Transformed into an Adventure Park

This illuminates a major tension in the GR Forward plan between activities that are deemed “good” uses of space and those that aren’t. Drinking by low- and no- income people in Heartside Park is seen as an undesirable activity that needs to be “rooted out”, but drinking craft beer at Movies in the Park is seen as a model behavior. At the same time the plan speaks of creating a welcoming downtown, this tension manifests itself in repeated advocacy of improved lighting, the expansion of the Downtown Ambassadors program, illuminated storefronts, redesigned parks, etc, all of which are designed to police a certain type of street life and activity while inviting in a different set of activities. In the downtown envisioned by GR Forward it is fine to walk drunk from bar to bar while sampling the latest in foodie trends, but to inhabit the street while intoxicated because you have nowhere else to go, means that your presence will addressed in terms of how it relates to people’s “perceptions of safety.” The Downtown Ambassadors—identified as a success and something that should be expanded by GR Forward—probably will not be offering to refer tipsy distillery patrons to services to deal with their potential alcoholism, yet they will not hesitate to refer those whom they deem to be homeless and/or “at-risk”.

GR Forward builds on the reality that downtown Grand Rapids has changed dramatically over the past decade. Those who support both the GR Forward plan and the general trajectory of these changes see this in a positive light. The frequent announcements of new housing, new businesses, and other initiatives lend themselves to the idea that there is an unstoppable forward momentum. Intertwined with this idea is the notion that the city is becoming increasingly progressive and/or otherwise changing for the better. It coincides with the concept of infinite growth in capitalism, that there is always something to be exploited, always an asset to be maximized, and a profit to be made. It goes by different names: entrepreneurship, capitalism, colonialism, but it has always meant looking at the world through an economic lens where everything—from swimming in the river, to street musicians, and diversity—is a potential means to generate more economic activity.

Everyone and everything is a potential niche to market or market to. And as for those who don’t fit into this vision? At best they might be the subject of a token mention in a preamble, but their experience is quickly buried under the forward march of progress. To raise concerns, to register objections, or otherwise critique the existing trajectory is an anachronism when everything is moving forward and everything is progressive. It’s an ahistorical triumph where the past no longer matters and legacies of exploitation can be wished away. At the same time, the tide GR Forward represents washes across the landscape, leaving in its wake a city transformed into an adventure playground built on a landscape that has been thoroughly cleansed, sanitized, and monetized.