Kalamazoo's Eastside looks for ideas to rise regarding improvement on East Main Street

Efforts to upgrade, improve, and beautify a key section of Kalamazoo’s Eastside Neighborhood continue with community residents offering ideas for the redevelopment of the 1600 block of East Main Street in Kalamazoo.

The Eastside Neighborhood Association is working with the Kalamazoo County Land Bank and others to draft an overall, progressive, community-led vision for six parcels that the Land Bank has acquired in the 1600 block of East Main Street, generally on the south side of the block between Phelps Avenue and Edwin Avenue.

The Land Bank is charged with acquiring abandoned. blighted and tax-foreclosed properties in Kalamazoo County and putting them back into use.

Some of the residents' suggestions: a clothing shop, a pizza place, a coffee shop, a donut shop, a Dollar Tree store, a laundromat, a small business center, other family-friendly businesses, and places where local people can find jobs. The ideas were suggested during a July 10 charette at the Eastside Neighborhood Association and Community Center.

A charette is a gathering in which people with a stake in a project or the resolution of a common problem meet to find solutions and map out a path to success.

The gathering, organized by the Kalamazoo County Land Bank and the neighborhood association, took place from 1 to 8 p.m. with landscape and design architects, along with Land Bank officials explaining what they hope to accomplish and what they are hearing from interested members of the community. Between 30 to 40 people turned out to offer their ideas regarding the redevelopment of the area in the first of at least two opportunities to discuss what residents want to see there.

During the day, the public was invited to identify their concerns with the area, its challenges, and its potential. Challenges included dealing with loitering, the busy street, and worries about safety. The need for good lighting and for places to buy fresh foods were further challenges. Potential uses for the properties that emerged were incorporating more affordable housing, enhancing the streetscape, and making the area more appealing to outsiders and businesses.

“I want to see the residents having their input and the result being another project that they can be proud of and that they can sing praises about,” said Pat Taylor, executive director of the Eastside Neighborhood Association. “They already love the Eastside but this gives them kind of bragging rights.”

The ideas raised during the event “ran the gamut as far as what people said they wanted to see,” Taylor said. But it may make more sense to let market forces determine what businesses use any space that is made available, she suggested. In other words, to sell or lease space to businesses that are confident they can thrive there.

The parcels include five now-vacant properties and a sixth that has a one-story, 4,000-square-foot building that has been out of use for several years. It has had various uses over the past few decades. The last use was as a community youth center and prior to that it was a consignment furniture store, a longtime area resident recalled.

Neighbors study the ideas proposed for for the 1600 block of East Main Street.That building is nearly connected to a pale blue building that houses the only landmark business in the area as Main Street levels off after motorists make a northeasterly drive uphill from Michigan Avenue near Riverview Drive. That business is the East Main Food & Beverage, which sells beer, wine, and groceries in more of a convenience store atmosphere than a typical grocery store setting.

Steven Hassevoort, managing partner of InForm Architecture, and Sandy Bliesener, president at landscape, architectural, and project design services firm O’Boyle, Cowell, Blalock & Associates, said finding a vision for what the block could be may involve recognizing the history of the area but moving it and its residents forward. That could mean renovating space, undertaking new construction, or trying to find other ways to upgrade the look and feel of the area.

Ideas include the possibility of converting the unused building there for other uses. A concept by InForm Architecture includes expanding the one-story structure to two or three stories with space for businesses at the ground level and space for residential uses on the higher levels. The concept includes the possibility of a roof-top walk-out greenspace.

The structure also could be demolished altogether and the space could give way for some other use, Bliesener and others said.

When it comes to suggestions about new construction, Hassevoort said, “We’re leaning away from the (idea of) ‘Let’s build something that looks really old,’ to something that has a more contemporary flavor.”

But contemporary includes the idea of properties being warm and inviting, he said. The professionals provided photos and renderings that exemplified the ideas put forward in successful redevelopments from as far as Seattle and as close as downtown Kalamazoo.

Mary Whittaker Duncan, a partner with InForm Architecture, said there was enthusiasm shown for having greenspace at the northernmost end of the block, at Edwin Avenue. A desire for more greenspace repeatedly rose, she said, including the idea of having a small park-like area there with an internal staging area where food trucks could set up for events.

Kelly Clarke, executive director of the Kalamazoo County Land Bank, said the owner of a well-maintained house on Edwin Avenue will continue to own that property and there are no plans for it to change. A vacant space that separates it from the next nearest house is owned by the Land Bank and gives the properties controlled by the Land Bank a jig-saw pattern. It could be used to build another single-family dwelling, Clarke said.

The owner of the East Main Street Market will continue to own that property and the parking lot at the southernmost portion of the block. Clarke said that property owner is very interested in seeing improvements made in the area and is eager to see what ideas arise.

“I think it’s a very good thing,” said Twala Lockett-Jones, a real estate agent with Pierson Real Estate said of the efforts being made. “I wasn’t here for all of it. I feel like I missed quite a bit. But I do like the initial plans that I saw.”

Lockett-Jones sells property in the area and said she attended the gathering to try to stay up to date on what’s happening.

“I think the retail is important and bringing the commercial in (is important),” she said. “And then adding more residential units (is important) because there is a shortage of quality affordable housing.”

During the Wednesday, July 10, 2019, visioning session for the 1600 block of East Main Street, professionals listen to ideas from Twala Lockett-Jones, foreground. In the background: standing at left is Sandy Bliesener, of O'Boyle, Cowell, Blalock & Associates; standing at right is Hannah Knoll, of InForm Architecture; and seated in the middle is Kelly Clarke, of the Kalamazoo County Land Bank.She said the Eastside Gateway Project, whose construction began when the first of seven energy-efficient homes were built last year in the 1500-block of East Michigan Avenue, has been well received and the homes are selling quickly. The first three single-family houses were built on land that was acquired by the Kalamazoo County Land Bank. They have been purchased and are occupied, Clarke said.

Builder Ross Menhart, owner of RossMan Construction, said the fourth house has also been built and has a potential buyer. The fifth is under construction.  The units all range from about 1,000 to 1,200 square feet. And the Eastside Gateway, which was the result of an earlier visioning process, also features greenspace — a community pocket park. It is expected to be a welcoming entryway to the Eastside.

Taylor and Clarke said they expect to host another charette before the end of the summer but no date has yet been scheduled.

When can anyone expect to see results?

“From my experience, it could take a couple of years,” Taylor said. And it is important that residents are kept informed with updates during that wait. “It doesn’t even have to be a meeting or gathering. If they could see some kind of activity moving forward on what they were talking about. That’s what they’re looking for and I’d love to see that.”

She said such projects are often supported by charitable contributions and the work of many partner organizations, including the Kalamazoo Home Builders Association, the City of Kalamazoo, and others.

Clarke said she expects the project to be developed over about four years, although work on greenspace in the area could start sometime in 2020.

It is expected that the project will cost a lot more than what the property would generate, Clarke said. That’s where the Land Bank plays a large role. “We often do work on projects to get things started,” Clarke said. “We do that with philanthropic dollars and some of our own capital and then the hope is that other things will follow.”

Community residents and stakeholders who want to offer more input may do so by contacting the Kalamazoo County Land Bank here.
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Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.