Balancing economic development with residents' needs: Dialogue key as placemaking plans take shape

The final report from a placemaking study of Kalamazoo’s Southtown district is sparking excitement as a blueprint for growth -- and an opportunity to embrace mindful development that includes and empowers longtime residents.
The Fire Historical and Cultural Arts Collaborative, across from Washington Square Library, inhabits the former Portage Street Fire Station, Engine No. 2, built in 1903. The building, at the heart of the Edison/Washington Square neighborhood southeast of downtown Kalamazoo, has housed everything from a laundromat to a grocery store to a photography studio in past decades.

Those transformations echo larger changes underway in this historically diverse area, home to more than 9,000 residents. It’s now envisioned as an amenity-rich "Healthy Living Corridor," featuring new health, food innovation and culinary campuses drawing hundreds of students, a refreshed Portage Street "gateway," walkability and bikeability improvements, a possible expansion of the Farmers’ Market and millions of dollars in new development.

"Connecting the Dots of Sustainable Mobility, Health and Wellness," a recently released report from the Michigan Municipal League’s PlacePlans program, offers recommendations for making that vision real. It’s sparking excitement, as a blueprint for growth and as an opportunity to embrace mindful development that includes and empowers longtime residents.

Kalamazoo was among eight Michigan cities selected last year to receive technical assistance through PlacePlans, a joint effort of MML and Michigan State University, coordinated by Michigan’s Housing Development Authority. The program helps communities develop walkable downtowns and leverage their unique assets to drive economic and community development and attract and retain residents and businesses.

With the WMU Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine up and running, KVCC’s Healthy Living Campus under construction, and $42 million in new development on the way, the emerging health and wellness district is already taking shape. "Connecting the Dots" outlines ways to balance biking, walking, transit and traffic in the area and to improve Portage Street as the "spine" of the district. It also suggests approaches for bolstering the neighborhood by building on its cultural, entrepreneurial and environmental strengths, as well as its diversity.

The final PlacePlan report provides "a more solid vision" for the area, and it’s generating lots of enthusiasm, according to Kalamazoo City Planner Rebekah Kik. "This plan definitely has developers motivated and the college is excited as well," she says in an MML news release. "This part of the city has been transforming for the last 20 years. The residents and businesses in the Edison Neighborhood are excited to be a part of the changes."

The next step is to prepare infrastructure for that new growth and encourage additional developers to invest, Kik says. "Once the campus is open we will hope to have developers saying, ‘Hmm, these students are going to need housing and they’re probably going to want to eat and shop so maybe we should consider some residential units, mixed-use, and some new restaurants.’"

The plan "artfully blends ideas that emerged during community conversations over this past summer with exciting placemaking projects across the state," says Laura Lam, director of the city’s community planning and development department.  "Our next steps include revisiting the (recommendations) with our community partners to determine where there is the greatest opportunity for collective action."

Michelle Johnson, Fire’s executive director, has reviewed the report, and she’s intrigued by the prospect of nearby development. Yet she’s also passionate about making sure that any placemaking efforts here include plenty of grassroots input and don’t marginalize some sectors of the population.

In economic and community development projects, critical questions need to be answered "in light of the historic trajectory of gentrification, which is very real and documented across the country, even in our own state," Johnson says. Gentrification "is connected to the potential displacement of people of color, people of lower incomes," and is always a dangerous possibility in community movements "to create change and an attractive location for businesses and new residents."

She points to Grand Rapids, Detroit, Flint and Ferndale as examples of places that are "shifting for people," and not always with the input of those who’ve been there a long time, or consideration of capacity building efforts to benefit them.

Fire, a nonprofit focusing on arts and education for teens and emerging artists, opened in 2005. The organization fosters artistic expression and skill development in everything from poetry and dance to music and the visual arts, with a belief that cultural awareness generates social justice.

As longtime neighborhood residents, "we’re very excited about the possibilities for community development, for sure," Johnson says. "As citizens, we’d like more businesses and an attractive streetscape. Of course! Who doesn’t want something like that? The question is, at what cost and with whose input? And for whom? … How (will) the businesses coming in (be) responsive to and serve the people in the community?" And how will transportation shifts, like a three-lane Portage Street, impact the numerous people living farther south towards Milwood?

Another concern: The area’s ethnic and cultural diversity "needs to be retained, not mined," she adds. "Rather than just 'oh, here’s this cool ethnic stuff, let’s just kind of take from it,'" developers need to involve and support the people creating it.

Laura Lam says she’s mindful of the area’s significant needs, but remains optimistic about the impact of new development and the chance to leverage opportunities like the new medical school and KVCC campus to enhance the neighborhood’s quality of life.

"I believe Southtown will be stronger with an infusion of new residential units and businesses as we work to improve existing housing and retail/services," she says. While Lam acknowledges gentrification as a concern, "I have greater concerns with the lack of safe, affordable housing, quality retail/services and access to employment" currently.

Cautionary statements aside, Michelle Johnson sees the possibility for "some really great things for the community and for Fire" coming out of the placemaking effort. She just wants to see the community do it right. It’s a chance to show people coming into the area for culinary and health education "an alternative model of community," she says.

"We have a really fantastic opportunity to do something different. Kalamazoo is poised in all kinds of sectors -- law enforcement, art, youth development, community development -- to be a model of something different." Let’s look at what’s been done before and study what did and did not work in other communities, Johnson urges. "And now’s the time to do it, not down the road."

Opportunities for that discussion are a priority for both Johnson and Lam. "I see Kalamazoo’s PlacePlan as a start of a community conversation," Lam says. "We now have some great ideas -- but we have to continue the dialogue to gauge the community’s reactions, determine key priorities and fine-tune our implementation strategy."

Johnson says Fire is uniquely positioned to support that conversation and promote equitable placemaking plans. After nine years, "we have some strong and very proven ideas about how to intersect with the local community," she says. "We see our work at Fire as integrally connected to that process, very much from the community level up. We see ourselves … as a very responsive organization" that listens to resident’s desires. "I think that’s a critical community development model … where people really do respond to community needs, rather than bringing in a vision of what they want and then making that happen."

Johnson envisions Fire facilitating more community forums about proposed projects. "We need to let people know this is a real possibility and hear what they have to say about it," she says. And this needs to happen in multiple meetings held in multiple venues around the area, like Fire, the Boys and Girls Club, St. Joseph Catholic Church and the library, she emphasizes.

"Our hope is that these deep conversations continue to happen around how people of color, people who are struggling economically, are being served by this." For Johnson, it’s a matter of balance: "Yes, let’s go, let’s move forward, but let’s do it equitably, and do it differently than it’s been done in other places."

Edison, Washington Square, Southtown

Cathie Schau is a freelance writer and owner of the communications firm GoodPoint. She lives with her family in Portage and steals away to Saugatuck whenever she can.

Photos by Susan Andress

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