Community rallies around Riverview Launch project

At Riverview Launch, a once blighted piece of property is becoming a hub for bicyclists, boaters, and more. A celebration is planned.
The many hands working on Riverview Launch have been taking away the urban blight, and encouraging nature and community to thrive.

The Kalamazoo County Land Bank project will have its grand opening celebration Thursday, Sept. 10. They're also launching their public campaign to raise an additional $25,000 on top of the $1.9 million raised from private donors.

On a sunny August day, Kelly Clarke, KCLB executive director, strolled along the six-acre combination park/nature center/office-campus/community center, pointing out the new native plant gardens, the new view of the Kalamazoo River, and the nature that had always been in the area, formerly obscured by a vacant, foreclosed property.

"We had a hawk, just hanging out, yesterday. We've seen osprey, blue herons...."

The land was the home of Riverside Greenhouses, flower-growers and florists in business since 1915. They closed their doors at the start of 2012, and the property went into decline. Bicyclists on the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail, running along the Riverview property, have told Clarke they didn't feel safe in the area before --

"Oh, there it is!" A red-tail hawk, just feet away, took flight from the ground next to the trail. It flew off over the river, with a "Cree!" cry straight out of a nature documentary. "My staff tell me they've seen him a couple of times, so he's a frequent visitor here," she says. It's amazing to see a bird of prey, near busy Riverview Drive, just northeast of a congested urban area.

Not as majestic, but as important, Clarke points at a monarch butterfly fluttering around the milkweed and native flowers at their Monarch Watch-approved monarch waystation. Next-door to the butterflies is a native bee condo by Trybal Revival Garden.

Thanks to earlier work, a field of wildflowers bloom. Another area is freshly plowed and seeded. A Kalamazoo Nature Center project, it will grow a true Michigan mini-prairie, with wildflowers and prairie grasses.

The Nature Center did invasive species removal, planted native plants this summer, and has been tagging and removing non-native plants and trees along the riverbank.

At the north end of the land are other gardens that capture and filter runoff from the buildings and parking lot. Buildings include a refurbished greenhouse, a LEED-certified, green office building, and a rustic red barn. In the office building is the main tenant, the Land Bank.

The Kalamazoo County Land Bank moved in because Riverview has the potential to be a star demonstration site of what a land bank can do. "It's an example of a tangible project that demonstrates how the land bank tools can be put to use to serve the community. These properties were assembled over a period of five years, and we were able to bring the community together to gather ideas and come up with a plan," Clarke says.

What Is a Land Bank?

While serving as Genesee County treasurer, Dan Kildee (now U.S. Representative, D-Flint Township) developed the idea of a land bank to address blight in Flint.

In that infamously-struggling city, foreclosed properties would go through a number of buyers and speculators who never managed to develop them. "People would come to the auctions and buy up properties, and just gamble on them," Clarke says.

If the property didn't pay off, owners would walk away. Surrounding property values dropped as the vacant structures became environmental and social hazards. "Vacant properties sold at auction have often proved problematic given they may not be structurally sound, may be suffering from mold or fire damage and can pose very difficult problems for adjacent residents," Clarke says.

As a county authority with legislative tools at their disposal, land banks are able to buy property (usually at tax foreclosure), rehab it, and either sell it or turn it over for public use. In each case, they "work with the community, and try to come up with a thoughtful plan to put them back into productive use," Clarke says.

There are 33 land banks in Michigan, with the idea spreading around the country.

Since forming in 2009, the Kalamazoo County Land Bank has rehabbed around 200 properties in the county. Its work ranges from leasing properties for neighborhood gardens, renovation or demolition of vacant structures, renting and selling refurbished homes and apartments, and developing the commercial corridor in the Washington Square/Edison area.

Hub at the River

Before it was a spot for selling flowers, before Titus Bronson built his cabin a couple miles away in 1829, the Riverview site, and the hill where Riverside Cemetery now sits across the road, was a trading hub for 14 Native American tribes and eventual Europeans. Clarke confirmed this with Kalamazoo Valley Museum historians before they placed that history, and other facts about the area and its nature, on signs made by local artist Conrad Kaufman.

A Kaufman signpost on the KVRT lists the few miles to pedal to downtown Kalamazoo, Parchment, the Kalamazoo Nature Center, Markin Glen Park and Spring Valley Park.

Riverview Launch will become more of a crossroads when work is completed--with help from the Kalamazoo County Parks and the city--on a bike connection from the KVRT to the paved trails of Spring Valley. It will cross Riverview Drive, made safer for bikes and pedestrians thanks to traffic calming efforts going into this summer's construction on the road, Clarke says. The connection is expected to be complete by the end of the year.

Eventually, one will be able to launch a kayak or canoe at Riverview. In the parks department five-year plan is a boat launch on the river there.
The Land Bank-led rain garden plan at Riverview is designed by Inform Architecture and OCBA and Associates, and constructed by Naylor Landscaping and volunteers. Rain gardens use and filter the runoff from buildings and the parking lot, instead of channeling it directly into the river. 
"People have been working on the river for decades," Clarke says -- working, after about a century of paper mill pollution, to return the river to a natural state for the public to enjoy.
The Kalamazoo River Watershed Council, another of the project community partners, will be celebrating with a Water Festival at the site Sept. 19.

Being on a bike trail, Riverview is a suitable home for Open Roads. The non-profit that teaches kids life skills and bike mechanics is the site's other permanent tenant. Since June, they've rehabbed and sold used bikes in an old rehabbed cinder-block shop on the site and hosted Thursday "Fixapaloozas" for kids and Saturday "Adult Open Shops" for older bikers there.

Open Roads director Ethan Morgenstein Alexander said that before, the area was a bad spot for riders on the KRVT. Some didn't feel safe, and the blight "was horrible," he says.

Clarke invited them to partner in 2013. "When we first walked through this space, it was not friendly. It was not pleasant smelling, it was not pleasant looking, it had a really run-down, dirty feeling. It just felt let-go."

The transformation has been "amazing," he says. "I've been in lots of different partnerships with lots of different organizations, but I've never seen a project come together like this one in my life..... This, from my experience, has been a model of true, meaningful collaboration, in that all the partners, the Land Bank, the Nature Center, the Water Conservancy (Watershed Council), Open Roads, we've all got skin in the game, we've all got lots to win and something to lose."

While in his office, a room that used to have a dirt floor so high one had to stoop down to enter, Alexander has been seeing more bikes rolling past his window. "It's transformed this whole piece of the trail. This is a real fun spot to go through."

Other Riverview partners and groups that have held events and programming there are MSU Extension, Go Places, and Intentional Yoga. Area businesses like Landscape Forms and Pfizer have pitched-in--in August, volunteers from the drug company showed they could also build garden boxes and growing tables for the greenhouse.

The project has been, and continues to be, "a great example of what happens when you invite the community to be part of the conversation," Clarke says. "People in our community are very dedicated to beautiful places and making our community better."

Mark Wedel is a freelance writer who has covered the Kalamazoo area since 1992.

Photos by Mark Wedel.
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