This article is from the Independent newspaper, the FUNdamentalist, November of 1995.
Just weeks after the Grand Rapids City Commissioners voted to destroy some 70 houses on the westside to make way for parking, they voted again in August to destroy more homes on Baldwin street just off of Diamond. Caving under the pressure from Valley City Linen, the commissioners voted to re-zone that area to allow the linen company to expand its business. This re-zoning, or spot zoning, is illegal according to neighborhood organizers from East Hills. The state policy that prohibits spot zoning was ignored by the commissioners under the rubric that if re-zoning is not granted the company will move out of the city and the neighborhood will be stuck with a large, vacant building. Is this another example of corporate bullying or were there other issues involved?
Apparently, Valley City Linen has been attempting to have the city re-zone the area for some 10 years. Neighborhood organizer John Wittowski said that “the East Hills board and staff have remained consistent throughout those 10 years. They opposed the re-zoning.” The neighbors also have resisted the company’s proposal over the years, less so in recent years, because they have seen Valley City Linen’s failure to follow through with responsibilities and promises given to the neighbors.
Over the years Valley City has bought up homes around their business. In each instance they have failed to maintain those houses to the point that they had become eyesores and eventually were torn down. At one point they even agreed to renovate a house on henry Street in exchange for the purchase of 1001 Baldwin. That too was a failure. Attorney Nyal Deems, who represented Valley City Linen at the commission hearings, justified the company’s failures by saying that “they just don’t know how to be in the landlord business.” A weak defense from a man who is also the mayor of East grand Rapids. East Hills neighborhood organizer, KC Caliendo said, “some of the neighbors eventually gave up because they knew that Valley City Linen would get their way. It’s like people were saying, “You can have the lots, just give us green space and a tree.” Valley City did put up a fence, but only after residents and East Hills members complained to the city. “That is one of the problems that we have had with Valley City Linen, they have not taken a proactive approach to comply with what they have agreed to,” said Wittowski. One wonders what Valley City Linen’s eventual commitment to the neighborhood in the event that they get too big for the space that they have been granted now? All along it has been Valley City’s position that expansion is necessary. They used the trump card of suburban flight if the city did not grant their wishes. But, according to neighborhood organizers, Valley City Linen’s case was not that solid.
There has been some speculation about why Valley City Linen did not expand eastward along Fulton street. They told the zoning board that Emergency Lock & Safe was never made a real offer. Then there is the issue of parking, that all-encompassing 20th century reality that stands as the primary determining factor in these disputes. First of all, Valley City Linen claims that before the illegal spot zoning was granted that they already did not have enough parking space. Neighbors say, however, that there is no apparent street parking by the companies employees. Again, there seems to be unsubstantiated requests for additional parking space.
This is confirmed by the fact that many of the employees, even by Valley City Linen’s own admission, are people from the neighborhood, most of whom walk or get dropped off. In fact, most of the company’s newest workers are recent immigrants, especially Guatemalans, who are placed through the Catholic Human Development Office (CHDO). KC Caliendo told me that, as of August, the CHDO was providing 32 workers who were walking to work or being dropped off. If Valley City Linen intends to keep these workers, which seems logical from a business point of view (cheap, local, non-unionized labor), then there is no concrete evidence of the need for more parking space. Yet, when looking at the supplement to the application for change in zoning, I discovered that the city personnel who prepared the 4 page plan, mentioned parking 19 times. The only word that was used more often in the 4 page plan, other than parking was the company’s name. Therefore, it seems that above all other arguments, parking was the key to the re-zoning request. Jobs and employees were mentioned a combined total of 3 times in the plan.
As I listened to KC and John it became clear that in spite of resident, staff and board members of East Hills resistance to the expansion, the city voted in favor of the business. “If this is a democracy, then the many outweigh the few, but the people in power seem to have more standing,” said Wittowski. “What really bothered us was how the commissioners voted. We didn’t think they would have the nerve to vote that way after the westside fiasco. You think they would stop, especially in an election year,” lamented Caliendo. The only one on the commission that seemed to express any outrage was George Heartwell. He is also the only one who has a vision about about how to possibly deal with dilemma in the future. Heartwell said he would “reject all similar re-zoning requests until the city enacts a policy requiring unit-by-unit replacement of homes lost to commercial and industrial expansion.”
In the mean time what do neighborhoods do when confronted with their own demise? At the present it seems that despite what residents want, the city planners will do as they wish. Neighborhood organizers said that commissioners should at least have polled the neighborhood to see what people were thinking. But that was not done. So how do we respond to a planning department and city commission that does not seem to represent neighborhood interests? Bold and more direct actions is no doubt required. Companies should not be allowed to use the the threat of flight from the city. Neighborhoods should be more self-governed, especially if they are to have any future.
Planning Commissioner Rooney reflected the antithesis of the idea of more neighborhood self-governance when he said, “I don’t care about the future, all I am concerned about is the here and now.” Hopefully, we can resist such temporal illusions.