The Affordable Housing Smoke Screen

Recently, amidst the increasingly clichéd announcements of upscale housing, breweries, coffee shops, and yoga studios coming to the rapidly gentrifying Westside, something different was unveiled. Many of the larger news outlets in the city (WOOD TV, WZZM 13, Mlive, and MiBiz) all reported that Rockford Construction – who is playing a major role in the gentrification of the Westside – was building an “affordable housing” project.

Rockford Construction Affordable Housing Facebook Post

To read the news articles, one would get the sense that this project was an act of benevolent charity. The reporting focused on how Rockford Construction was responding to the westside community’s wishes. Mlive quoted CEO Mike Van Gessel, “We know that for us as a neighborhood, more affordable and quality housing is a need and an important part of healthy growth.” The affordable housing project, combined with the recent announcement that Rockford is hoping to build a grocery store on Bridge Street, gives the impression of a developer who “cares” about the neighborhood. The articles also play up the idea that Rockford Construction is looking for feedback from the community, in the sense that “we are all in this together.”

Digging Deeper

It makes a great story, but the reality is of course much more complex. Beyond the headlines and celebratory articles, the application Rockford Construction filed with the Planning Commission gives much more detail.

In order to build the development, Rockford Construction requested a zoning change for the area bounded by Stocking Ave NW, Bridge Street NW, Seward Ave NW, and 1st Street NW. The change would allow a building of five stories in height, as opposed to the current four-story limit. Technical details aside, the “affordable housing” component is just one small part of a much larger project. There would be a second building along Bridge Street constructed that would include four stories of housing atop a grocery store, none of which would be affordable.

The requests – while one is for “final” approval and the other for “conceptual” approval – were presented together in a single package. If funding from the State of Michigan falls through for the affordable housing, Rockford Construction will still build the housing – it just won’t be affordable. While they state that their “preference is for affordable housing units” in the first of the three buildings, affordable housing it gets scant mention and ultimately there is nothing holding them to that. Most of their application focuses on how they will be eliminating blight and increasing density and economic vibrancy.

Furthermore, the building containing the affordable units would be a “mixed income” building. This means that while the majority of the units would be “affordable” by state standards, others would be rented at “market-rate”. Most of the units would also be studios and one-bedroom units, making it a less feasible option for families, who are facing some of the worst housing insecurity. Instead, it would likely appeal to single people and couples – an acceptable demographic for the type of gentrification happening in the area. While the notion of “mixed income” is a mantra of New Urbanism and is taken as gospel, in this case, it means that there will be simply less total affordable units.

Academics studying urban development and gentrification have consistently questioned the idea that mixed income housing is a benefit to low-income and working-class residents. In the anthology, Mixed Communities: Gentrification by Stealth?, the various contributors discuss how despite New Urbanist fantasies, mixed-income neighborhoods don’t encourage mixing as people largely don’t interact outside of their class. Instead, they discuss how “mixed income” housing is often used as a way to “test the waters” for gentrification and introduce a new class of residents into traditionally low-income areas while avoiding criticism. It is almost always a one way move of wealthier residents into working-class areas – nobody speaks of creating “mixed income” housing in middle-class neighborhoods. In the worst cases, it can be motivated by a classist assumption that somehow by living in proximity, upper class residents will model good behavior to poorer residents or that the wealth will somehow “trickle down”.

The Missing Context

Also missing from the news reporting is the fact that Rockford Construction is a major player in the gentrification of the Westside. Its projects – Fulton Place, 600 Douglas, and its partnership with 616 Lofts on Alabama – are bringing in a new class of residents, with “market-rate” rents that are synonymous with the rising unaffordability of Grand Rapids. For example, rental rates for a one bedroom apartments built by Rockford Construction in the area are $1,325 at Fulton Place and $1,150 at 616 Lofts on Alabama. Sixty units of affordable housing is an incredibly small portion of the housing they are building on the Westside.

With Rockford Construction buying up properties, boarding up houses, and developing plans over the past several years, the gentrification of the Westside has been a deliberate process. This is typical behavior for any developer.

Rockford Presentation Photo
Rockford Construction presenting their vision for the neighborhood back in 2015. (Photo from Facebook)

Rockford Construction has been drafting plans, particularly in the neighborhood north of Bridge Street and south of I-196, Of course, people still live in some of these homes, but those are mere obstacles to address – likely through demolition and the declaration that the homes are “obsolete”. Nobody would say that the residents are obsolete, but they will be made so as the area is transformed into an upper class haven. Proponents will no doubt say it isn’t an example of gentrification because it doesn’t follow some set formula they’ve decided must be present, but the neighborhood will be rebuilt in the image of the upper class. Perhaps a French word used instead of gentrification – embourgeiosment – does a better job of capturing what is planned for the Westside. It will be the creation of a place where bourgeois dispositions will be dominant, as opposed to its traditionally working-class character.

Rockford Construction Planning Commmission
A graphic from a recent request by Rockford Construction to demolish housing in the neighborhood, which would be replaced by grass lots. The previous graphic shows longterm plans for the elimination of even more housing in the area.

It’s similar to what Rockford Construction is doing on the southeast side, where a leaked planning document back in March showed detailed plans being considered for a large portion of the southeast side. Most strikingly, it spoke of “carrying excitement and activity from the Wealthy Street corridor” down Eastern Avenue and states that Rockford Construction should begin to “purchase parcels under various entity names”. Not surprisingly, many people were upset about the plans and sometimes contentious meetings were held. The charge that Rockford Construction was doing this without neighborhood consultation was frequently made and criticisms of the one-sided nature of development along Wealthy were also raised.

Rockford Construction Southeast Side Plan

In this context of gentrification and outrage, it’s worth considering why the “affordable housing” angle took the lead on this story. It helps to deflect criticism of Rockford Construction’s overall actions on the Westside and gives a positive impression after the uproar over their plans on the southeast side. Few people will oppose affordable housing and a grocery store, while at the same time, Rockford Construction develops the rest of the block in a manner consistent with all of its other projects. It has the feel of a deliberate PR move, an escalation in an ongoing effort to silence criticism through the process of making donations to neighborhood entities and the hiring of a “Community Engagement Director”.

What Development Wants, Development Gets

This project – aside from the difference of using affordable housing as a hook to gain approval for a larger project of gentrification – played out similarly to how all developments do. As we explained in the article “Participation, Engagement, and other Illusions”, the City of Grand Rapids and developers don’t seek meaningful engagement, instead they consistently do the absolute minimum. This is as true with this project, as it is with any other. The final approval for the project happened at a 1:40pm meeting on Thursday July 14, which few people will likely attend. For proof of engagement with “the community”, Rockford Construction’s application to the Planning Commission includes a sign-in sheet from a board meeting on June 20, 2016 with the West Grand Neighborhood Organization. Of the sixteen people on the sign-in sheet, seven were board members, three were GRPD officers, and two were from Rockford Construction. Clearly, there was not much engagement and there is no summary of what was said. From a report on GRIID.ORG, a supplemental meeting on July 7th was perhaps even worse, with minimal information about the project presented and little opportunity for engagement while representatives from the City talked at the audience about development in general. In any case, it doesn’t even matter as the core of the plans were already made and nothing was likely to change, despite Rockford Construction’s declared desire in the media to listen to community feedback.

Of course, the reality is that everyday developers are making plans to radically restructure the neighborhoods of Grand Rapids and that they care for little beyond profit and their image. From the southeast side to the Westside, developers and the city have committed themselves to a project of gentrification. Heart-wrenching stories of rising rents, displacement, housing insecurity, and poverty abound, while at the same time, the city, the media, and the developers enthusiastically cheer with each demolition of a so-called “obsolete” building.

Development in the context of capitalism always will involve land-grabs, displacement, back room deals, and secret plans – it’s how it works. Developers can also readily incorporate simple demands for “affordable housing” or neighborhood services into their rhetoric, perhaps even building the occasional affordable housing project as a means of silencing criticism. Rather than having our imaginations limited by zoning acronyms, arcane legal codes, micro-units, City task-forces, non-profit lingo, and misguided notions of “pragmatism”, we need to start asking how we can build a new paradigm – one where we can truly thrive and where we aren’t pacified by the false hope that at some point developers and city leaders will voluntarily start building a “just” city. The history of Grand Rapids from colonization to present day segregation and racialized policing shows that it simply isn’t going to happen unless we challenge ourselves to develop new strategies of resistance and forms of living.

Participation, Engagement, and other Illusions

When speaking of development or gentrification in Grand Rapids, a constant refrain heard from city leaders, developers, and even many opponents is the need for more “community involvement” or “community engagement.” Development is presented as if it is a dialog or a process in which we are all on equal footing, rather than something done by those with considerable capital and political power. The appeals for participation are repeated over and over: the city and developers allegedly want to hear from the “community”, while always looking for more ways to get people involved.

However, what is actually being encouraged is a very specific and narrow form of “involvement” that centers around the process of attending city meetings, meetings with developers, and other such similar events. It’s presented as a type of civic duty akin to voting – if you don’t do it, you don’t have a right to complain. A sort of hyper-local version of “America, Love It or Leave It.” Often when these conversations happen, they involve a considerable amount of blame being placed on those who are critical. The assumption is always that they have chosen “not to be involved” and that because they allegedly aren’t participating their voices aren’t being heard, and therefore, their concerns aren’t being addressed. It’s a charge that has been leveled at us repeatedly over the past year: that if we participated in the allegedly “important meetings” that are happening, “our voice would be heard”. Of course, as we have written before – we have attended these meetings, eaten the free pizza, rolled our eyes with our neighbors, and engaged in the various activities dreamed up by consultants who are paid to gather “input” (see for example, GR Forward) – but it’s an issue that is much bigger than us. The people affected by these projects are by and large absent from the decision-making process. While the City and developers tend to blame residents – with the most recent example being City of Grand Rapids Planning Department Director Suzanne Schulz stating that neighbors need to get more involved and be more clear in their articulation of “what they want” at a recent lecture on gentrification at Grand Valley State University – the onus shouldn’t be placed on residents, rather, the problem lies with the City and how they define participation.

The Planning Commission

In terms of gentrification and development, one of the most important decision-making bodies in Grand Rapids is the Planning Commission. It’s a nine member body tasked with “preparing and adopting a plan for the physical development of the city.” In practice, this means reviewing new building projects, changes to zoning ordinances, etc. It’s the governmental body that approves, denies, or amends projects. The nine members are supposed to “represent different professions and occupations and provide a wide range of citizen interests in land development issues.” In practice, many of the members are connected to real estate and/or other development interests. They are appointed by the Mayor of Grand Rapids for three year terms, with a maximum of three terms or nine years.

Meeting Graphic from GRCITY.US

If a major project – such as a market-rate housing development – is proposed in a neighborhood, it is the Planning Commission that hears resident concerns. They will schedule a “public hearing” – a block of time at their regularly scheduled meeting – where they will take comment from the public on the proposal. When a hearing is scheduled, residents and property owners living within 300 feet of a proposed development will receive notice by postcard of the hearing, while a printed notice is published in The Grand Rapids Press 15 days prior. Comment can also be submitted via letter.

Beyond this, developers are encouraged to schedule a “neighborhood meeting” about a project before presenting their request before the Planning Commission. According to Grand Rapids’ Zoning Ordinance, the meeting is designed to do the following:

“The purpose of a neighborhood meeting is to educate occupants and owners of nearby properties about the proposed development application, receive comments and address concerns about the development proposal; and resolve conflicts and outstanding issues, where possible. The meeting is intended to result in an application that is responsive to neighborhood concerns and to expedite and lessen the expense of the review process by avoiding needless delays, appeals, remands or denials.”

The ordinance further specifies that the meeting shall be held in a “neutral location after 5 p.m. on a weekday.” Developers are also expected to circulate a sign-in sheet and provide the information to the Planning Commission at a later date.

Democracy in Action

In the idealized world of citizen democracy, then, we should all be expected to exercise our rights as citizens to participate in the democratic process by attending these meetings. However, there are many barriers that keep even the most interested from participating. Among these is the rhetoric of “citizenship” – it ignores that some of the most vulnerable – and occasionally most affected – are not “citizens”. They might be the workers who pay cash for rent, who lack the ability to challenge slumlord landlords in court, or who will wash the dishes at the hip new restaurants. This is merely one of many ways in which the process is one of exclusion, not inclusion.

If one wants to attend a Planning Commission meeting, they happen on the second Thursday of each month at 1:00pm at the City’s Development Center, located at 1120 Monroe Avenue NW. As needed, additional meetings are scheduled on the second Thursday. Meetings vary in length, but they generally last for several hours. For example, the March 10, 2016 meeting adjourned at 4:20pm. This means that if the topic you came to speak about is late in the agenda and you are one of those who have steady 9-to-5 employment in the current precarious economy, you will likely have to take off an entire afternoon from work or find childcare if you are parent. Additionally, to understand exactly what is being discussed, you will generally want to read through the “Agenda Packet” which is often well over 100 pages long, full of charts, applications, graphics, and other such things written in inaccessible language. Clearly, this is not a process that screams that participation is valued.

Assuming that you can get the time off from work, find childcare, or have several hours on a Thursday with nothing better to do, the meeting itself is not a very welcoming atmosphere. It’s kind of like walking into a party where you don’t know anyone and everyone else is already friends. There are various city officials, occasionally cops, the Planning Commissioners, and developers all hobnobbing and slapping each other on the back and shaking hands. If you are lucky, there might be a few other people you know – especially true if something is a particularly contentious issue – but for the most part, it’s a lonely affair. Most of the people are in suits or other professional attire. There are sometimes contractors in attendance, but for the most part, this is a professional crowd and professional norms dictate expected behavior. Those who are on the Commission, attend the meetings, and speak tend to be professionals (developers, architects, investors, etc). The majority of those in attendance have college degrees, often from graduate or professional programs. There are typically very few working-class or low income people in attendance, even though many of things being discussed will inevitably affect them. We shouldn’t blame them for their absence, but rather should ask what it is about the process that excludes them. If you walk into the room, complete with snacks and drinks for the Commissioners, it’s hard to miss why people might feel excluded – the professionalism and concomitant whiteness is unavoidable.

Asleep at a Meeting

If you decide to speak at the meeting (which again supposes you were one of the few living within 300 feet of a project and/or that still read The Grand Rapids Press’ print edition to find out about the meeting), it’s essential to understand that what happens at a Planning Commission meeting isn’t a simple conversation, but rather it’s a convoluted process that happens through the use of highly specialized and professionalized language. Prepare to hear a lot of acronyms (TN-LDR, TN-TCC, SD-IT, ASP, etc, etc), specialized terms (density, setbacks, special land use, etc), and processes. There will typically be a lot of discussion about building heights, building materials, parking spaces, signs, etc. For the uninitiated, it’s hard to make sense of it all and nobody is there to make it accessible or understandable. It is a process that works best for those in power – the City, the developers – if there isn’t much participation.

Comment is sought primarily in relation to very specific points, i.e. should a development of 5 stories be allowed in a TN-LDR zone despite a limit to buildings of 3.5 stories (a hypothetical example). While you can get up and theoretically say whatever you want, the Planning Commission tends to value the points that relate most specifically to City Code or Zoning regulations, which few are conversant in. For example, a debate might center around whether or not a particular project is “consistent with the Area Specific Plan (ASP)” which of course assumes both a familiarity with the ASP, a knowledge of what those are, and how to interpret them. Not surprisingly, there often isn’t public comment. To cite the March 10, 2016 meeting again, there was only one public comment on one agenda item. Commissioners will often argue against issues raised in public comment, saying that despite the concern, it’s unfounded – again, it’s not something that makes you particularly empowered. Even in situations where there is comment and residents come out in opposition to a particular project, it isn’t uncommon for Planning Commissioners to vote unanimously in favor of a project.

Neighborhood Meetings

A Planning Charrette

The neighborhood meetings that are encouraged by the Planning Commission – albeit specifically not required (after all, Section 5.12.04 says that “Failure to hold a neighborhood meeting shall not stop or delay the review process; however, such an omission may result in the tabling of a request.”) – tend to follow a similar pattern where the same power dynamics and imbalances come into play. Meetings aren’t advertised well as there is no specific process outlined by the city for how developers should do that. Consequently, meetings are usually sparsely attended, with a representative from a particular development company often presenting to a neighborhood association about “what is coming”. These aren’t really conversations – the project is typically already decided – and the whole affair seems more like an exercise in checking off boxes rather than a dialog based on respect. Often, there’s food – as if a developer throwing down some cash for some food from a local restaurant is going to win over the “hearts and minds” of the people. What inevitably happens is that there is some type of push back from neighbors and that the developer – one of only a few in the room in a suit – talks down to residents and asserts the clichéd mantra that “change is inevitable”. Even when opposition is quite strong, the “sign-in sheet” – circulated by developers to show that they “consulted with the neighborhood” – will be presented to the Planning Commission as proof of their “community engagement”. Often the sheet will simply be thrown in the Planning Commission’s “AgendaPacket,” with little comment about the contents of the meeting. Simply because the developer presented the plans, this is counted as community engagement—regardless of reaction to it.

ASP, CID, BID, DDA, and the ABCs of Exclusion

Other venues for participation touted by the City are equally disempowering. A favorite of Planning Director Suzanne Schulz is the Area Specific Plan (ASP), an often multi-year planning process that functions as a localized master plan for a specific area of the city. Just as the City of Grand Rapids as a whole has a master plan, an Area Specific Plan attempts to outline and facilitate development of a smaller area. However, there are the usual problems associated with the City’s planning process in that they tend to be dominated by developers and business interests. For example, the Westside ASP Steering Committee features many of the same politicians and developers responsible for the gentrification of the Westside. The same is true of the Belknap ASP. It’s a lengthy and involved process which demands considerable work on behalf of those convening them. While they may give some guidance to developers – there’s a convincing case to be made that they aren’t particularly helpful in addressing resident concerns. In the case of the “U to the Zoo” ASP covering West Fulton and Seward streets on the Westside, the ASP has been approached as an obstacle by developers – something that is meant to be stretched and interpreted, rather than a specific rule. In this case, projects such as an apartment project on the corner of Lake Michigan Drive and Seward or the construction of Rylee’s Ace Hardware on West Fulton were both approved despite being contrary to the ASP for the area. Even after engaging in a multi-year process that the City touts as a way to be responsive to resident input, by ignoring it they send the message that resident input isn’t valued.

Belknap ASP Graphic

Engaging with the City Commission – another common venue for resident public comment – is also a relatively meaningless gesture. While meetings are held in the evenings on every other Tuesday at 7:00pm and are even geographically dispersed to encourage more participation, it isn’t clear that participation is any more valued. The meetings tend to follow similar dynamics to what has been outlined above, albeit with a more friendly face. The Commissioners give off a more understanding and accessible air and they are at least electable and not appointed. However, much of the work is done behind the scenes or at meetings that are significantly less accessible – for example the 9:30am “Committee of the Whole” meetings – where anybody who follows the City Commission will tell you “the real work” gets done. It gives the 7:00pm meetings a sense of performance, where most decisions have already been made. In some ways, they are characterized by theatrics with occasional contentious debates about neighborhood developments, policing, or as a site of protest.

Presentation at City Commission

In the large bureaucracy of the City there are other boards and entities which have considerable influence over the City and that claim to be open to input, but really aren’t. A prime example is the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) which essentially guides the development of downtown Grand Rapids. It’s tasked with the mission of eliminating “…property deterioration, to increase property tax valuation where possible in the City’s business district, to eliminate the causes of deterioration, and to promote economic growth” – in other words – it’s a major facilitator of the gentrification of Grand Rapids’ downtown core. It meets at 8:00am on the second Wednesday of each month – and all previous discussion about barriers to participation stand. There’s a host of related committees (Alliance for Livability, Alliance for Vibrancy, DGRI Board of Advisors, etc) and figuring out where to bring a specific concern is difficult. While theoretically open to the public, it’s rare that anyone participates in these meetings besides their members. The same can be said of Corridor Improvement Districts (CID) and Business Improvement Districts (BID), which both use a variety of financing and tax capture avenues to facilitate improvements in public infrastructure. Most often, these are things like planters, bike racks, public art, etc. They tend to be the kind of thing that can “improve” a neighborhood’s physical appearance, but at the same time, can be used as means of facilitating gentrification. For example, they may try to “brand” a neighborhood as a new hip destination, as has been done on the Westside. On a CID, there is a spot for one resident to serve and while public comment is allowed, there rarely is any given.

Looking Deeper, Broadening Understanding

Participation shouldn’t be restricted to participating in formal structures outlined by the government. As discussed above, these are most often structured in a way that does more to exclude participation than invite it. Whether they are meetings scheduled during the weekday, hearings held as a rubber stamp, or conversations dominated by large power imbalances, it’s clear that what passes as “community engagement” often has significant barriers to participation. It’s characterized by a professionalized and educated discourse – which in a society characterized by countless divisions of which those by race and class are some of the prominent – tends towards a discourse which is very middle-class and white, thereby excluding large portions of the population.

This isn’t a call for more accessible meetings, as if the problems could be solved if we changed the words we used, calculated the accurate formula for a “truly diverse board”, or scheduled meetings in the evenings, but rather for a deeper understanding of engagement and participation. In the case of gentrification, we need to understand that participation is going to mean a lot of different things to different people, some of which may be outside of the traditional structures of civic engagement. It could mean small informal gatherings with neighbors, conversations amongst religious congregations, blog posts attempting to understand what is happening, conversations among friends, study groups, alternative media, art, or public discussions. As more people lose their homes, are pushed out, or are displaced by rising rents, it may mean other forms of political action. In Grand Rapids, the City has been clearly engaged in a policy of gentrification for the past several years, and we should consequently expect that many people won’t see the value in participating in processes that have facilitated gentrification, especially when these processes exclude so many.

Rather than chastising people, we should be making alliances, forming plans, and figuring out ways to stop the gentrification of Grand Rapids.

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.