In the Edison area, high hopes for a healthy hub

Stakeholders await "placemaking” recommendations for a pedestrian-friendly, thriving network of campuses and businesses, including an expanded Farmer’s Market, in Kalamazoo’s Edison/Washington Square neighborhood.
A vibrant destination where shoppers, diners, residents and students patronize thriving businesses, easily get around by foot or bike and access locally grown foods. A hub for medical and health studies. An innovation center for urban food production.

That’s the vision many have in mind for Kalamazoo’s ever-transforming Washington Square/Edison/southeast downtown area.

Making it a reality is the subject of soon-to-be-released "placemaking” recommendations from a Michigan Municipal League partnership. And champions of the community are eager to see how those plans address their hopes and concerns.

Kalamazoo was among eight Michigan cities awarded a PlacePlans grant in November 2013 for design and planning assistance from a joint effort of the Michigan Municipal League (MML) and Michigan State University, with support from the Michigan State Housing Development Authority and the state’s MIplace initiative.

Placemaking is a strategic approach to community revitalization that leverages place-based assets. In the Kalamazoo study area, those assets include Kalamazoo Valley Community College’s upcoming 13-acre health- and food-focused campus, Western Michigan University Stryker School of Medicine campus on Portage Street, the Kalamazoo Farmers’ Market and the Washington Square business area, where the Kalamazoo County Land Bank and the Edison Neighborhood Association are collaborating on improvements.

Laura Lam, Kalamazoo’s community planning and development director, says the city applied for the grant with the intention of complementing the efforts of KVCC, the Land Bank, the Local Initiatives Support Corporation and others involved in the targeted area. It’s been envisioned as a walkable, amenity-rich "Healthy Living Corridor.”

The grant covers technical assistance only, not funding for implementation. Still, the prospect of renovating this corner of the city is generating plenty of enthusiasm.

"You’ve got such excitement happening in the southeastern quadrant” with the new campus activity, Lam says. "There’s momentum … there’s energy.” In September, WMU’s first medical students started classes, while site preparation commenced for construction of the KVCC campus.

Lam says issues of mobility, connectivity and parking have been a top focus of the PlacePlans study: How to make a high-density area accessible to students and others who rely less on cars, while also connecting key locations (including downtown), supporting sustainable transportation and creating a welcoming vibe.

Busy Portage Street, which the city plans to resurface in 2017, is of special concern. Both the city and KVCC have sought input from stakeholders on possible street enhancements in conjunction with the repaving, like reducing lanes, extending sidewalks, adding a median or streetscaping. Lam says community members want to "make it more pedestrian friendly, to reduce the speeds and try to make the overall corridor more walkable, more inviting, and more vibrant.”

The PlacePlans report also will address the feasibility of expanding the Famers’ Market’s role in the area. Possibilities under consideration include incorporating youth programming and education and forging potential partnerships with WMU and Bronson Hospital in addition to KVCC.

"I think people are feeling a stronger sense of connectedness to the marketplace, and interest, and desire to be part of the experience,” says Farmers’ Market manager Chris Broadbent. "It’s a really great opportunity to invest in our Farmers’ Market and make sure we have the structure and space our businesses need to participate successfully.”

Craig Jbara, KVCC’s vice president of strategic and economic development, anticipates collaborating with the Farmers’ Market on programming for the new health-focus campus, which will feature a food innovation facility that incorporates indoor and outdoor growing spaces. "We’ll be growing food year-round to some extent, and will be extending the seasons through some of the growing systems,” he says. Local farmers and producers could benefit from light processing in the facility to help them get products to market, too. "Given that the Farmers’ Market has plans for renovation … there could be some synergies and compatibilities between that initiative and ours.”

Jbara predicts the site will generate a beneficial ripple effect and boost placemaking efforts. "One of our goals was to put the campus in one of the underserved areas of the city. By having it in the Edison neighborhood, we’re hoping to be a stimulant for economic development. Part of achieving that is to make sure it’s a place people can go, more of a destination, and that it’s not only a safe place but it has the type of programs and services that a neighborhood would need.” WMU’s and KVCC’s presence, plus the proximity of downtown, "could be a trigger for housing developments and residential areas,” he adds. "When KVCC built the Arcadia Campus, it helped to spur other development and it changed the face of that downtown area. We think the same will happen with this campus.”

Broadbent shares that optimism. "The health, well-being and vibrancy of the neighborhood around us and having thriving businesses will help bring more people down into this area. The market is an excellent place for commerce, but around us there’s work to be done, for (more) retail and food businesses to come in.” He says he’d like to see restaurants, cafes, and entertainment venues located within a couple walkable blocks of the market.

"One thing I really like about placemaking is the idea that if you plan for cars and traffic, that’s what you get,” Broadbent says. "I want to see us plan for people and pedestrians and bikes and get those methods of transportation… and also spaces for people to interact with one another without vehicles getting in the way.”

Any improvements in the area will impact a major portion of Kalamazoo’s citizens. Edison is Kalamazoo’s largest neighborhood by population, with more than 9,000 residents. Tammy Taylor, executive director of the Edison Neighborhood Association, hopes the recommendations result in a "more walkable, bike-able, aesthetically pleasing, more resident-friendly” environment that would draw visitors from all over the county and boost the neighborhood’s sometimes troubled image.

"The biggest challenge that I face is perception,” she says. "It’s a great place. I’ve lived here for 20-some years. People care about each other. It’s just a very select few that cause problems and make it sound bad. Overall, this is a great place to live and a great neighborhood with a lot of opportunities.”

Laura Lam agrees. "Certainly the increased energy and investment in the area is going to have a positive influence on the neighborhood. … It seems like daily I’m made aware of a new effort or initiative underway in Edison, of neighbors coming together. I see so much strength and determination coming out of that neighborhood.”

With fresh projects already taking shape, and the possibility of further PlacePlans improvements ahead, the long-term challenge will be to gracefully combine old and new in this unique locale.

"We have an obligation to connect these assets and amenities together in a meaningful way … that fully integrates the new improvements with the existing neighborhood fabric,” Lam says. "It shouldn’t feel like two different worlds; it should feel like a joint community."

Watch for further coverage in Southwest Michigan's Second Wave when the final PlacePlans report is released.

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.

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