Eastside Neighborhood

New funding meets ongoing enthusiasm as the Eastside Sunrise Plaza takes shape

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Eastside series.

The Eastside Sunrise Plaza is designed to be an attractive, modern, open space at the corner of East Main Street and Edwin Avenue in Kalamazoo.
It's to be a place where people can meet, relax or enjoy a small event. Along the Metro Transit bus line. It is also expected to help beautify an area that once thrived with more than 40 small businesses, into one where new opportunities grow.
“It gives residents some bragging rights,” says Pat Taylor, director of the Kalamazoo Eastside Neighborhood Association. “And it will also give the broader community a way to look at the Eastside and see things do happen over here. It just takes a little creativity, imagination, and effort.” 

Efforts to make it a reality have gotten a boost with word that the project has received a $12,500 grant from the Michigan Council for Arts & Cultural Affairs. And with word from the Kalamazoo Eastside Neighborhood Association and the Kalamazoo County Land Bank that a request for proposals has been issued for landscape contractors. That will allow the community's vision to be executed this year at East Main and Edwin, integrating outdoor furnishings, plantings, and other elements in unused space.
Pat Taylor, director of the Kalamazoo Eastside Neighborhood Association, is filmed by Gerald King at the 1616 E. Main St. site where Eastside Sunrise Plaza will be developed. Supported by Public Media Network, King is filming a short documentary.The grant helps the Eastside Neighborhood Association and the Kalamazoo County Land Bank, come closer to some $125,000 needed to build the pocket park.
“The thought of having a plaza on East Main is really pleasant,” Taylor says. “I see it as a lovely place. I’m envisioning a person coming up the street, taking a rest, having a chance to meet neighbors. This is something quite visible that will help accentuate the pride in the neighborhood that residents have already.”

The plaza takes its name from the idea that the sun always rises in the east and its principal art piece is set to be a large rising sun with rays created from yellow plexiglass. That artwork is to be featured at the corner of East Main Street and Edwin Avenue. The space will include plantings, outdoor furniture, and ceramic tiles inscribed with haiku (short-form poetry originally from Japan). The features of the plaza were chosen and designed by residents. 

According to information provided by the Kalamazoo County Land Bank, the plaza will have greenery in and around a hard tile base. Those 12” by 12” tiles are also to include rising suns to reflect the plaza’s theme. It will have three picnic tables. Two of those will be traditional sized, including one that will be accessible to people with disabilities. It will also have one in a contemporary shorter size to allow for informal seating.

Buddy Hannah, a poet, former radio personality, and Eastside resident, has created haiku (short-form poetry originally from Japan) that will be on some of the tiles used in the Eastside Sunrise Plaza.On target for a ground-breaking this year, the plaza is expected to be the first visible part of the larger Eastside Square project, an overarching community-envisioned redevelopment of the 1600 block of East Main Street. Ideas for what it should include were based on the desires expressed by more than 200 area residents during special meetings in 2019. They included a desire for more affordable and varied housing, more family-friendly commercial space, and more attractive places in which to gather.

Spearheaded by the Neighborhood Association partnering with the Land Bank, the Eastside Square project is focused primarily on the redevelopment of nine dilapidated and/or unused structures in the 1600 block of East Main. They are properties that were acquired by the Land Bank over several years.

“The Land Bank is honored to be invited in to help support these community-defined and led efforts for this block,” says Kelly Clarke, executive director of the Kalamazoo County Land Bank Authority. “The land that will see the residents’ vision implemented has been vacant for a long time.”

The Land Bank was established in 2009 to redevelop tax-foreclosed properties and put them back into use. Its mission is to help make communities vibrant by stabilizing property values, creating affordable housing opportunities, and supporting community-envisioned redevelopment projects.

Clarke says, “Our role at the Land Bank is to be temporary stewards of abandoned property until neighborhood residents have the time and space to define and lead their desired future for sites. This is a wonderful example of just that.” 

Artwork in the Eastside Sunrise Plaza will include pieces by artists Conrad Kaufman and Gerald King. The haiku are being done by poet Buddy Hannah. They were inspired by poetry submitted to the neighborhood association about life on the Eastside and by stories from Eastside Voices, a 2019 project that compiled interviews with several generations of area residents into book and video form. That project was led by Hannah and Sid Ellis, an artist, and performer.

InForm Architecture LLC and O’Boyle, Cowell, Blalock, & Associates Inc. met with residents at the special meetings to transform residents’ concepts into a design for the Sunrise Plaza.

Taylor, who was present for those events, says, “The sun is truly rising on the neighborhood, and it’s a beautiful thing to see.”

King, an Eastside resident who helped design the illustrations for the Eastside Voices book, says, “I used to come to the East Main and hang out at the old Eastside Youth Center and always loved it there. This plaza will bring back that same vibrancy and beauty and hopefully provide a safe space for everyone, especially for our children.”
The cost to develop Eastside Square, including some phases of the affordable housing and commercial space is set at about $2.9 million. About $1.36 million of that has been raised, a result of philanthropic contributions from the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation; the Stryker Johnston Foundation; the Marvin and Rosalie Okun Foundation; the Dorothy U. Dalton Foundation; the Harold and Grace Upjohn Foundation; the Jim Gilmore Jr. Foundation; the Suzanne Upjohn Delano Parish Foundation; the Tyler Little Foundation; the Fifth Third Foundation; the Old National Foundation; the Huntington Foundation; and Kalsec.
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Read more articles by Al Jones.

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.