Done wrong before, S. Division businesses eye plan

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A plan to spur development along South Division Avenue in Grand Rapids is complete after nearly two years and input from hundreds of community members. 

The question now is whether the plan will actually deliver restoration in an area that has suffered from years of neglect. 

“Division is a challenging corridor for a number of reasons. It used to be the primary corridor before US-131 was developed,” said Suzanne Schulz, Grand Rapids city planner.

The corridor between Wealthy and 28th streets suffered from the urban flight of businesses in the last half of the 20th century, some of them self-inflicted.

“Part of it was redlined, which means it was difficult if you’re a homeowner to get a mortgage to fix up your property, to fix up your business,” Schulz said.

The new plan is not the first to tackle the problem of decay along South Division, but the city says this one was designed with the people who live and work there

“I think the difference though is whether it’s high-level and grasstops or grassroots and in this case we really took a different approach,” Schulz said.

City planners worked for two years and held dozens of meetings that involved hundreds of residents and business owners. They want to have economic development that promotes ownership.

“Our first goal is to have development without displacement both of residents and businesses that are here,” Schulz said.

The plan calls for a minority-owned bank or credit union. Shultz says the presence of a bank in the community allows for people to understand that capital is available to them.

“Minority communities, especially Latinos, think they have to bootstrap it all the way without being able to leverage from other sources, so a presence of a bank in the corridor is really important,” Schulz said.

The area is a federal opportunity zone that cuts capital gains taxes for those who want to invest. That strategy has not been terribly successful in other cities.

The plan also aims to connect South Division to highly visible development along Michigan and Bridge streets. Schulz said she believes it will lead to transformation of the corridor and she hopes others in the city will give the area a second look.

“The art of it and the implementation of it is getting everyone else in the region to see the vibrancy to see the wonderful people on South Division and their businesses,” Schulz said.

Before there was a four-lane highway and massive suburban shopping malls, South Division was one of the city’s main corridors. But it was policy of previous city planners in the past that created the area we know now.

“The city had rezoned it for heavy commercial, so you see a lot of auto-oriented, fix-it shops along the corridor and not the restaurants and bars you see in other locations throughout the city,” Schulz said. “Part of the powerful story of this corridor is how eminent domain played a role in once thriving African-American businesses that were then demolished for larger industry.”

Businesswoman Synia Jordan’s namesake grandmother Synia McBride lived and died in that displacement. Jordan pointed to photos and articles from more than 30 year ago of her grandmother’s landmark Chicken Shack soul food restaurant once located at 569 S. Division Ave. Her grandmother had owned the restaurant since World War II.

“This was supposed to remain in our family as well. She was creating a legacy for us to carry on,” Jordan said from her salon, which she owns in addition to a real estate business.

But the city decided that spot should house industrial development and by the mid-1980s, it was replaced by a food service building that has since relocated.

“Many black families were displaced, many Latino families were displaced,” Jordan said.

Her grandmother was the last to sell. Officials finally took her to court and filed numerous violations against her property until she finally had no choice.

“She died right there in her apartment on Division and Pleasant,” Jordan said.

She believes it was the stress of losing her business that killed her grandmother.

“A broken heart, yes. Everything she worked for,” Jordan said. “It’s been a very painful process for me. I still have dreams of my grandmother. She takes me to the property, she lays my hand down on it and she doesn’t say a word.”

“So we have saw how it can be done the wrong way,” continued Jordan, who is on the steering committee for the new plan. “That is why I have taken so much from my family and my business to be able to make sure that we’re involved.”

She has seen development done around her and said she believes the city still has a lot to learn.

“I believe change is hard for them especially when you’re the privileged ones and you’re used to having and everything is accessible to you,” Jordan said. “There’s a way to get it done and we want to make sure that it happens with us, we want development to happen with us, we want it to benefit all people, not just certain people.”

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