Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.
KALAMAZOO, MI –
Residents of Kalamazoo’s Stuart Neighborhood want to preserve that neighborhood's historic properties and ambience.
They want to slow the automobile traffic through their streets just west of downtown Kalamazoo.
They want to see sidewalks and streets fixed. They want to have better lighting installed. And they want to create stronger connections between area residents and the public elementary school in the heart of the neighborhood.
Forestalled by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Stuart Neighborhood residents came back together in the spring of 2022 to begin crafting a new neighborhood plan.
Those are some of the ideas outlined in an official neighborhood plan that Stuart residents started to formulate before the COVID-19 pandemic surfaced in 2020, but finished during the last 18 months, working at outreach events and engagement activities. The plan is intended to dovetail with the city’s comprehensive plan for improvements and redevelopment, called Imagine Kalamazoo 2025
, and it will be used to help the nonprofit Stuart Historic Neighborhood Association
partner with the city and other organizations to hopefully find ways to make dozens of improvements and community-building projects happen.
“We feel it is imperative to partner with the City of Kalamazoo in order to accomplish these goals,” says Gary Wark, chairman of the Stuart Historic Neighborhood Association.
“It’s a document that outlines what people want to see invested in their neighborhood," says Jacqueline Slaby, Neighborhood Activator for the City of Kalamazoo. "Always when you have something written down and then also officially approved by … the city, there’s weight behind that and there’s an official commitment made to seeing those projects through.”
The plan is set to be presented to the Kalamazoo Planning Commission on May 4. If approved, it will then be presented to the Kalamazoo City Commission for adoption.
“Over the past year and a half we have had many events (in addition to going door-to-door) in order to discuss our neighbors’ top concerns throughout the neighborhood,” Wark says. “I believe most of our neighbors are excited about the neighborhood plan and the changes taking place in our neighborhood. They are optimistic their Board will accomplish many of the goals in the neighborhood plan.”
As stated in the plan, the Association is focused on six goals:
Enhancing the public realm
: The public realm in this plan is streets, the public right of way, curb lawn areas, and open/green spaces. According to the plan, public realm improvements can support safety, wayfinding, neighborhood visibility, and placemaking. Among the top priorities residents identified in this area are better lighting to help create a safer environment, make public spaces more inviting, and strengthen the neighborhood identity.
– Among the strategies suggested for achieving the goal is promoting the neighborhood’s identity and fostering neighborhood beautification. “Streetscape and other elements that add to curb appeal may include banners, directional signage, street and pedestrian lighting, street trees and landscaping, street furniture, waste receptacles, utility boxes, mailboxes, green stormwater infrastructure (GSI), and public art,” according to the plan.
Addressing housing needs:
As more commercial and resident development occurs downtown, Stuart is interested in balancing its response to what it sees as growing interest in downtown living, “as well as calls for support from existing homeowners and renters in maintaining their properties.” Stuart residents have also raised concerns about the availability of resources to help better maintain existing housing, and about the continued enforcement of housing code violations.
Neighborhood improvement strategies for Stuart including installing traffic calming devices to slow traffic on the north-south street through the Stuart Neighborhood.
– Among strategies to help achieve this goal is the development of tools and programs to help property owners and renters understand, navigate, and find funding for property maintenance or improvements.
Championing the concept of community building
: Residents have said they want to come together as a neighborhood and be engaged, according to the plan. And ongoing engagement, as experienced during the neighborhood planning process, is expected to help motivate residents to get involved, support one another, and create a welcoming environment. “Residents have voiced interest in putting in place systems to better inform residents of opportunities, stronger visual neighborhood identity, and customs that create a sense of belonging, especially for new residents and renters,” according to the plan.
Neighbors gather in the Stuart Neighborhood
– Among the strategies to help accomplish this goal is an organized effort to welcome new homeowners and tenants to the neighborhood. The Stuart board is working to implement practices that help welcome new residents such as welcome kits and updating their website to include more resources that promote school enrollment, housing resources, and historic tours.
Supporting Woodward School for Technology and Research
: Stuart residents value Woodward School, an elementary school that is part of the Kalamazoo Public School District, as a neighborhood asset and the neighborhood association hopes to explore ways to strengthen the relationship between the school and the neighborhood. Speaking of the school at 606 Stuart Ave., the plan states, “Residents have communicated the importance of advocating for the building’s continued use as an active elementary school and supporting its students, as well as the desire to expand programming and other activities that welcomes and supports the neighborhood at-large.”
A new neighborhood plan for Stuart Neighborhood includes the idea of developing stronger connections between area residents and Woodward School for Technology & Research, shown here.
– The strategies to accomplish that goal include creating and promoting opportunities for its teaching staff and students to get involved in the Stuart Neighborhood to enrich their learning and workplace.
Promoting historic preservation
: The Stuart Neighborhood boomed as one of Kalamazoo's first affluent neighborhoods. With lots of its homes built in the late 1880s and early 1900s, the neighborhood has been designated the Stuart Historic District. Residents have expressed an interest in sharing the neighborhood’s history through storytelling, education, neighborhood branding, and historic-related events.
– Among the strategies to achieve this goal is to celebrate the history of the neighborhood and the role historic preservation plays in preserving the neighborhood's character. That could include such things as promoting Historic Preservation Month and developing a 3-D house model program with Western Michigan University and Kalamazoo College students to present to residents as an educational tool and keepsake. Another strategy is to support the preservation of existing housing stock and reinforce the historic fabric of the neighborhood through regulations and wayfinding. (Wayfinding helps reinforce the identity and boundaries of a neighborhood.) A historic district identifier could be installed on street signs in the neighborhood.
Increasing connectivity for all:
Three of the top six priorities that have been identified by Stuart residents are related to transportation and getting around the neighborhood easily and safely, on foot, on a bicycle, or in a vehicle. Improving connectivity with all users in mind is expected to create a more complete neighborhood and unify residents from all parts of it. Improvements to the larger city streets, sidewalks, and trail networks are also expected to improve residents’ sense of connectivity to downtown, college campuses, and adjacent neighborhoods.
A new neighborhood plan for the Stuart Neighborhood includes fixing up potholes and sidewalks.
– Among the strategies to accomplish that are the following: Enhancing pedestrian safety and visibility at key street crossings with such things as installing Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacons at points where West Main Street is crossed by railroad tracks. Such enhancements and other traffic calming measures are expected to support the proposed conversion of Kalamazoo Avenue from one-way to two-way traffic.
If its plan is approved, the Stuart Neighborhood will become the eighth of Kalamazoo’s 22 neighborhoods to establish an official plan to have their wants and needs recognized, joining the Eastside, Edison, Northside, Oakwood, Parkview Hills, Vine, and Winchell. Slaby, who works to coordinate city departments to review and provide feedback on the projects and ideas from the neighborhoods, is working to help the Westwood Neighborhood craft its plan.
Named for early neighborhood resident Charles E. Stuart, businessman and former U.S. Congressman, the Stuart Neighborhood was home to any number of influential business owners, politicians, and professional people in the late 1800s and was considered one of the area’s first middle-to-upper-class suburbs.
Bordered on the north by North Street, on the west by Douglas Avenue, on the south by Main Street, and on the east generally by the Michigan Central Railroad tracks, Stuart is one of the city’s smallest neighborhoods. It has about 841 households and 1,088 residents, according to the 2020 U.S. Census.
It continues to have many well-preserved residences built in the mid-1800s as single-family residences. But over many years, some were converted to multi-tenant rental properties as they were populated by students from nearby Western Michigan University and Kalamazoo College. The population of the neighborhood has declined by more than 16 percent over the last 10 years.
Wonderful architecture if a hallmark of the historic Stuart Neighborhood, located just west of downtown Kalamazoo. It has a lot of houses built in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Wark says area residents want their voices heard concerning the following: the conversion of Kalamazoo Avenue and West Main Street from one-way to two-way streets; changes in the City’s historic preservation guidelines; changes in the city’s zoning ordinance; the development of a new downtown events center (which will border the Stuart Neighborhoods on the east); and future changes to the City’s master plan.
“With all of the changes taking place in our neighborhood and adjacent to it, the Board and our citizens feel it’s imperative to participate with the city in regard to those changes,” Wark says.
He says one of the main reasons the neighborhood association was founded was to preserve its historical heritage. He says, “We are going to expand on that a little by preserving historic properties, both private and public, as well as its open spaces. The association encourages appropriate maintenance, restoration, and beautification of our historical structures and open spaces.”
In the meantime, despite its challenges, Wark says, Stuart Neighborhood continues to thrive. Since re-engaged in the planning process in the Spring of 2022, the neighborhood association has rebuilt its board of directors to a 10-member group and it has officially become the Stuart Historic Neighborhood Association. It was previously the Stuart Area Restoration Association.
“We have seen a lot of very exciting changes in our neighborhood’s demographics over the last five years,” Wark says. “We are a very diverse neighborhood and our neighborhood board reflects that. We have had some empty-nesters and seniors move out in order to downsize, and we have had a lot of young families, professional workers, and students move in. We also still have neighbors that have lived in the neighborhood for 40-plus years.”
He says those include Shirley Coleman, who helped to found the Stuart Neighborhood Association in 1973, and other long-term residents such as David Anderson, who is the mayor of Kalamazoo, former Mayor Bobby Hopewell, Sharon Carlson, Cori Terry, Marti Anderson, and Tom and Mara Schrier.
“It’s been exciting to see this neighborhood’s leaders and residents come together and create this plan,” Slaby says.
Wark says, “We expect to accomplish most of our goals in the neighborhood plan. We are already seeing some of our streets getting resurfaced with added speed bumps, for traffic calming. We expect to see more of this along with sidewalk repair and pedestrian/street lighting. These basic improvements are in line with the Safe Routes to School Program and must be maintained and upgraded regularly. We will also continue to support the Woodward School.
"Again, we will protect the historic character of the Stuart Neighborhood by being good stewards of our properties, and by advocating for the preservation of Stuart’s historic structures, both private and public as well as its open spaces.”