From abandoned lots to Eastside Gateway: Eleven parcels rebuilt to renew neighborhood

Over the next two days, a new house will be built in the Eastside neighborhood, marking the beginning of the development of the Eastside Gateway.

With the help of the Home Builders Association of West Michigan, Habitat for Humanity and more than 20 other partners the 1,000-square-foot house with a modern design will launch a project at East Michigan and Foresman that the Kalamazoo County Land Bank and the neighborhood have been working on together for about a year.

Through the Home Builders’ annual Fast Built program work was slated began Sept. 13 and continue Sept. 14. 

The Eastside Gateway is going in on 11 abandoned or underutilized parcels that have come into the Land Bank’s inventory over the past eight years. Houses on the parcels have all been demolished over the last 50 years. Two of the homes were demolished in the ’70s.

“I think this spot is really interesting because it tells the story of Kalamazoo's inner-ring neighborhoods and also the national story of how our cities experienced 50 years of decline and disinvestment,” says Kelly Clarke, executive director of the Kalamazoo County Land Bank. “So we reached out to the community, to the residents, and other stakeholders last fall to have a conversation about what it might look like to repurpose these parcels.”

As the project moves forward and funding becomes available, the plan is that the Eastside Gateway will have up to seven houses and a pocket park complete with a labyrinth, native plantings, and green space. 

There are other ways in which this will not be your average housing development. Clarke says that in the planning process the plans came together after gathering a significant number of ideas from residents there and asking a lot of questions. 

They were asked: “Can we bring something to the community beyond the structures that will be occupied by somebody? Can we bring some passive public space? Can we bring something that enhances the quality of life for everyone,” Clarke says. 

Building on its past successes, such at the photographic portraits that decorate the main corridor of the Edison neighborhood, the Land Bank looked at what could be done that would “lift up the stories of the neighborhood,” Clarke says, “and also the history of the neighborhood as told by long-time Eastside residents.”

The plan for the Eastside Gateway. Photo Courtesy Kalamazoo County Land Bank

The idea emerged to create a storytelling project, Eastside Voices, led by local artists and community leaders Buddy Hannah and Sid Ellis. As longtime residents the two men know much of the area’s history and where to start in terms of collecting the history that will be recorded as part of the project. The Greater Kalamazoo Arts Council and the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts are also collaborating on the project.

Art work that reflects the neighborhood as detailed in the oral histories will be part of the pocket park, Clarke says.

During the months when the project was in the planning stages, residents met with Land Bank officials and the architects invited to help design the development for a series of at least four meetings. Clarke says more than 100 residents participated in the events. 

Architects from the firms InForm, OCBA, and one architect who used to live on the Eastside who flew in from Seattle to participate in the charrettes, planning meetings they helped guide.  

The sessions started with getting feedback from residents about the aspects of the neighborhood that they wanted to build upon. Participants were asked to identify the existing positive features of the neighborhood that they wanted to leverage. “They were asked what were opportunities? And what types of things could they think of, broadly speaking, that this project could help to achieve?” Clarke says.

Nature was one of the aspects of the neighborhood that residents asked to see accentuated. “It’s in the city and it's an inner-ring neighborhood but there is a lot of green space,” Clarke says. “There's a lot of woods and natural areas.”

Participants also talked about “the neighborhood quality of the Eastside” especially as a place where there are a lot of streets where people can walk. They also brought out the rich history on the Eastside. 

The architects also asked the residents to think about the outcomes and impact the 11 parcels in the development could have on the neighborhood.

“Folks talked about wanting a visual presence on East Michigan and something aesthetically pleasing, something that would incorporate sustainability, natural plantings, encourage bees and butterflies, and have a mixed use,” Clarke says. “So that's where the idea of both housing and the pocket park came about.”

New housing for the development was a priority for residents, especially those who remembered the lots with homes on them. “Reestablishing homeownership and reestablishing the urban fabric that had been lost over the five decades where we were seeing some blight and abandonment was something the residents felt very strongly they wanted to support,” Clarke says.

They were particularly interested in housing that would bring in people from a variety of different backgrounds. “They were not in favor of all low-income and they were not in favor of all high-income. They were very interested in building an urban fabric which supported diversity, where people from all sorts of different backgrounds, doing all sorts of different jobs, were living side-by-side, next to each other. So that is how the vision was shaped.”

What emerged from the information gathering process was a vision for modest-footprint homes that will be built to stand the test of time, Clarke says. The homes will be built with high-quality craftsmanship designed to keep them standing for 100 years into the future.

The homes have been designed to for energy efficiency and will use approximately 50 percent less energy than a traditional home. Should the homeowner decide to add solar panels – this home is capable of eliminating utility costs all together. 

It is expected the two-bedroom, 1,000-square-foot homes will cost about $200,000 to build, but the homes will be sold for $127,000. Corporate, foundation and individual supporters will help underwrite the project’s costs above the sales price.

Houses on the property will be designed and built to serve households roughly between 60 and to 120 percent of median income. Habitat for Humanity also has indicated it would like to build two homes at the Eastside Gateway.

Raising funds to make sure the project proceeds has been another part of the work to be done. Clarke says Realtors Who Care, a non-profit of the Greater Kalamazoo Association of Realtors, were “the first ones to raise their hands” and show their support for the project. 

“They really helped us to be able to explore the idea of something going in here and to work with the community to see if there was a vision for this site,” Clarke says. “So that helped us to bring the architects on board, to hold the meetings, and to have that expertise that could translate the ideas into drawings so that we could all see what was possible. That was really wonderful to have that early support.”

“We're blessed in this community to be able to have the funders and residents and partners who come round the table to come up with these ideas,” Clarke says. “And with these community projects, we're able to add these community features and these places for passive public use over and above whatever the redevelopment plans are which is I think a nice position for us to be in as a community.”

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Read more articles by Kathy Jennings.

Kathy Jennings is the managing editor of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor.