This article first appeared in a September/October 1997 issue of the FUNdamentalist. Last month we posted another story about a development/gentrification project in the Belknap neighborhood. This article deals with a battle in the near south east part of Grand Rapids, at the northern edge of the SECA neighborhood.
In the late 1970s then the City of Grand Rapids was finalizing plans to turn the westside of Division near Buckley into an industrial park, residents expressed their dissatisfaction.
Many people had lived there since the early 1950s and were now being told that they had to move because the City needed to create an industrial park so as to keep businesses in the tax paying limits of Grand Rapids.
When the deal was finished people living on the east side of Division, near Buckley, expressed concerns that they might be next. City planners told them not to worry, their neighborhood would be left alone.
This story was told by Rev. Roger Van Harn, the Pastor at Grace Christian Reformed Church, which has been a stable component of what is called the Forgotten Corner Neighborhood. Less than 20 years after residents of the mostly Black, low-income neighborhood were given assurances about it remaining a residential area, they find themselves in a struggle to keep their homes.
In the Fall of 1996, a local group called the Concerned Citizens Council (CCC), came to the neighborhood group with a proposal and plans to build a youth center on the 400 block of LaGrave. This ambitious $4 million plan would cover most of the west side of the 400 block of LaGrave and necessitate parking space on several other lots on the 400 block of Sheldon. The neighborhood group was open to this idea, but needed more information before getting behind the project.
The Concerned Citizen’s Council set up meetings over the next several months with the interested parties and members of the neighborhood. In February of 1997, the Planning Department of the City of Grand Rapids brought forth plans to “re-develop” the neighborhood in such a way that would “complement the CCC plan,” said City planner Bill Hoyt.
Three concept plans were laid out, all of which would radically alter the makeup of the neighborhood. At a minimum 30 homes would be displaced, as well as 6 – 8 businesses. The neighborhood quickly organized to resist such a plan.
The Concerned Citizens Council, still determined to build in that neighborhood, asked if they could meet with the residents to get support for a zoning variance that was necessary in order to build. Some 25 residents met in April with the 2 architects that designed the plan. No members of the CCC were present. The neighbors present voted unanimously to oppose the youth center proposal. Some neighbors candidly asked, “Why don’t you build this project in your own neighborhood?” In addition to those types of sentiments the residents realized that if the project went through, then the larger development plans the City has present would seem almost inevitable.
In early September of 1997, Rev. Van Harn had notified this writer that he had been asked to sit on a task force to develop a park plan for the Forgotten Corner Neighborhood. Upset, some of the neighbors went to see City Planner Bill Hoyt. He was asked, “what the hell they were doing and why no one from the neighborhood was asked to sit on the task force?” Hoyt said that Rev. Van Harn was invited, but residents said that Roger, although he worked in the neighborhood, did not live there.
Not getting anywhere, the neighbors held a special emergency meeting. Residents had known from recent experience that what had happened to the near west side that was demolished for a parking lot (where the current YMCA is now located) would happen to them if they were not organized. Residents also knew that unless they could get the support of the larger community that would not be able to save their neighborhood. Residents began circulating a petition that asked City residents to support the neighborhood’s desire for no displacement of homes, rental units or businesses.
In addition to the petition drive residents decided that they would write a letter to City Planner Bill Hoyt to demand that they be included on what was being called the Wealthy/Division Park Task Force. The letter was delivered shortly after the neighborhood meeting, but they never received a response from the City. Believing that the City needed to adhere to the Open Meeting Act, about a dozen neighbors showed up at the park task force meeting. A few members of the Heartside Neighborhood Association also attended, since the proposed park plan would impact both the areas north and south of Division & Wealthy.
The meeting was called to order by City Manager Kurt Kimball, who at one point said it might be necessary to hold secret meetings in the future. The task force was chaired by Lou Rabaut, a lawyer in the same firm as Mayor Logie and husband of the recently elected City Commissioner Lynn Rabaut. The neighbors were told that the purpose of the task force was to determine the need for park space in area 4 of the City, which covers between Wealthy & Burton and US 131 & Eastern. They cited several studies which already acknowledged the need for park space, but what came next made clear their intentions all along.
Val Lazdins, also with the City Planning Department then showed the neighbors a map targeting the Forgotten Corner Neighborhood with the proposed park plan. Some residents then asked if the task force was to determine the need for a park in area 4, why then would a detailed map of the Forgotten Corner neighborhood have already been drawn up? Lazdins evaded the question.
To their credit there were some members of the task force that were concerned over the fact that no one from the neighborhood was invited to be on the task force. This created a whole new discussion that finally led Kurt Kimball to allow submissions of representatives from both the Heartside and Forgotten Corners Neighborhoods.
Afterwards Lou Rabaut and Kimball both went on about their plans to hold meetings in the neighborhood for citizen input. Most the neighbors felt quite patronized considering that they referred to many members of the task force as stakeholders in this grand plan.
Some of these stakeholders were: Valerie Simmons , also with the Mayor’s law firm and a member of the Concerned Citizens Council; Dan West, a member of the GR School Board and CCC; Micki Benz with St. Marys Hospital and John Kennedy, CEO of Autocam and a major financial backer of Catholic Central High School. Since not all information has been made public on this matter it was hard to know for sure which stakeholders want., but some conclusions can be drawn.
Catholic Central has also been interested in the same area of land in the Forgotten Corner Neighborhood ever since they pulled out of the Heartside park plan. Despite the construction of a new sports complex out on Knapp NE, Catholic Central has expressed an interest in an athletic field/park space that could be utilized by their students and St. Andrews students during the day. This possibility is closer since the neighborhood just found out that John Kennedy bought the vacant land on the 400 block of LaGrave for a mere $140,000. The neighbors also found out that Catholic Central was interested because 1st Ward City Commissioner Jim Kozak, when confronted, admitted that he had met with Catholic Central planners during a September debate in Heartside.
The neighborhood residents believe that groups with a great deal of money have decided that the Forgotten Corner neighborhood is expendable.No one seems to listen to them when they say that the most stabilizing factors for the area would be new housing.
As a compromise with the Concerned Citizens Council, the neighbors suggested that the organization build on a site on the corner of LaGrave and Wealthy, a sizable vacant lot that is already zoned commercial, so as to not further disrupt potential long term housing possibilities for the neighborhood. In response to the City’s desire to put in a park at the 400 block of LaGrave, the neighbors suggested that the city develop the land just north of Sheldon Complex for a park space, an area that would actually be larger than the 400 block of LaGrave and would not require any houses to be demolished. However, both ideas seemed to fall on deaf ears at the meeting.
The task force will be meeting over the next 5 months and will eventually make recommendations to City Manager Kurt Kimball, who will in turn bring a plan before the City Commission. The Forgotten Corner neighborhood needs to continue to be pro-active in order to fight outside forces. Catholic Central has vastly increased its use of space for student parking over the past 13 years, moving south of Wealthy into the neighborhood. Catholic Central could have been encouraging students to use the bus or carpool, but then again expansion plans of economically privileged families is more important than that of low income neighbors made up of mostly Black and Latino residents.
Editor’s Note #1: The Concerned Citizens Council decided to use the land north of Sheldon Complex to build their youth center, which never came to fruition since they failed to raise adequate funds. The City of Grand Rapids did not push for a park space in the 400 block of LaGrave and Catholic Central decided to move all student athletics to the Knapp NE location. The Forgotten Corner neighbors WON!
Editor’s Note #2: In 1998, St, May’s Hospital bought land in the neighborhood for staff parking. This action prompted the neighbors to organize for long term planning to prevent any further incursion into the neighborhood. The neighbors host a day long planning meeting to makes some determinations about the long term future of the neighborhood. The Inner City Christian Federation, which at the time had its headquarters on the corner of Jefferson and Logan got involved in the discussion, which eventually led to their decision to operate without neighborhood consent and violate agreed upon principles to NOT displace any residents when new development projects began. ICCF deceived residents and acted independently. A longer description of these events can be found at this link.