The West Side; Gentrification or Development?
By John Rothwell and Joshua Vissers
As Grand Valley State University continues to plan new buildings and additions in the downtown area of Grand Rapids, each step forward causes ripples of change throughout the city, some for the better, and some for the worse.
Before looking at the drawbacks, let’s take a look at what good GVSU has done as they expand.
“Grand Valley has always been the public university that was situated here, by the state, to serve the state’s second largest city,” said Matthew McLogan, Vice President of University Relations at GVSU. “We want to be a good neighbor.”
As a state university, GVSU is not bound by local zoning law and isn’t required to seek city approval for building projects, however they’ve been working with local organizations on expansion plans, most recently in the Belknap Hill area.
They’ve also created a Civic Action Plan that is intended to bring criminal justice and health science majors into the West Side to help with crime prevention and community health.
“I appreciate the work being done there,” said Andrew Sisson of the GVSU’s Office of Community Engagement, who developed the plan.
Sisson works for the West Side Collaborative, a group of non-profit organizations promoting equity and inclusion on the West Side.
“They are giving back,” he said.
Whenever there is growth, there is money, and the rapid expansion of GVSU is not an exception.
“It certainly adds to the city’s coffers in many ways,” said Matthew Daley, an associate professor of history at GVSU. As more students spend more money downtown, and as property values go up, so do tax revenues.
Not only that, but GVSU pays the Rapid about $2.6 million each year for bus service, according to an article from Mlive.com.
“We are the biggest customer of the Rapid,” McLogan said. “The buses are always full.”
As the graphs show, violent crime in the city as a whole, and in the area around the Pew Campus, has been dropping steadily for the last decade as well. Crimes included in the statistics are murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft and arson.
“There was a time when I didn’t want to be here,” Fritz Stanitzek, the third-generation owner of Frank’s Market said. “We had a lot of crime.”
Developers and the city government aren’t the only one’s profiting from GVSU’s increased presence either, local business owners like Stanitzek have seen a boom as well.
“We have a nice little specialty meat shop,” said Stanitzek, of Frank’s Market, which has been on West Fulton for about 75 years. “The college has been down here for about 15 years and we have people walking in every day saying it’s their first time in.”
Out in front of his store, a near constant stream of students walks by on the sidewalk.
“I don’t understand how they could be against what Grand Valley has brought down here,” said Stanitzek. “The wonderful kids, the people, the new structure, new buildings, to me is such an asset for the neighborhood.”
On Grand Rapids’ West Side, Grand Valley State University has purchased a number of derelict properties along the river and redeveloped them into the GVSU downtown campus. Working with the neighborhood and business associations, Grand Valley has stayed true to their word and not expanded west of Seward Street. The expansion continues to take place south of Fulton St along the river to Wealthy. Several old warehouses were torn down to make room for new educational buildings and surface parking lots.
The past couple of years have seen a tremendous redevelopment taking place on Grand Rapids’ lower west side that is not part of GVSU campus. Many people want to call this redevelopment going on around the Downtown GVSU campus gentrification, others disagree.
Peter Carlberg has lived on west side since of Grand Rapids since 1979, where he was a member of the Grand Rapids City Planning Commission for eight years, and is active in his neighborhood association.
“This is not gentrification here on the west side, it is just student housing,” says Carlberg. He continues, “there ain't no 'gentrification' going on over here, unless you think college students are some kind of new 'gentry'. They ain't, by any definition or stretch of the imagination.”
Only recently have students been willing to pay high rates for housing. Landlords and developers are buying up single family houses and turning them into $500 a month per bedroom rentals for college students, as noted by Carlberg. The result, or effect has been pushing out many working class families.
Parking, on the west side and the city of Grand Rapids as a whole has become a key issue as many houses do not having off-street parking to support the new population.
Local Grand Rapids community organizer and activist Jeff Smith has been paying close attention and has written about what has been happening in Grand Rapids in terms of growth and development.
“In the past five to ten years rents have more than doubled,” said Smith. “What have people's wages done?”
Civic leaders have a long way to go to convince Smith and a growing group of others that the working class and young professionals are benefitting from the West Side development. The perception is a power structure in the city of Grand Rapids that is not sensitive to the toll gentrification is taking on working class families (their exodus from the West Side), stagnant wages and the rapidly rising cost of housing.