Deepening the 40 Million Dollar Hole of our Silver Line by Digging up South Division.

The city commission is now bent on finding some way to “rejuvenate” South Division.   I don’t know why we’d bother except that the strip seems to consume a disproportionate a amount of police resources, and the tax base could be increased if the population and businesses were to return.  Rejuvenate implies a return to a previous youth, a better time. So we need to review the economic history of South Division. We’ll see that the glory of those bygone days are nobody’s savior.

The road led to Kalamazoo and it paralleled the all important rail lines. Working class neighborhoods like those around the Cottage Grove, GM, and Steelcase  factories developed because raw material and finished products could be moved to factories and stores. Organic neighborhoods with work places, stores and entertainment evolved, all within walking distances of each other. Housing was inexpensive and not regulated. One bought a place near where the husband worked (often ethnic considerations intervened,) women stayed at home, cooked, sewed clothing, shopped every few days walking to the nearby supermarket, bakeries and butchers for fresh food since the iceboxes operated only fitfully.  Kids walked to the small parochial or public schools and quit when they were 16 years old. Men walked to the factories or used the family car for business. Families patronized local businesses with whom they had personal connections.

South Division businesses also catered to the heavy truck and automotive traffic between Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids. The daily shopping from the neighborhood and the needs of travelers along the thoroughfare supported the myriad of small shops and tradesmen in that simpler era.

All this came to an end about 50 years ago. The standard of living had improved and folks stopped having huge families. They could afford a second car and wives needed to go to work to pay for the nicer house in the suburbs. No one felt energetic enough to spend a few hours weekly walking to a local small shop when Meijers Thrifty Acres, Roger’s, Eastbrook and other malls were just a short drive away and offered so much more at lower prices.

The final blow came when 131 opened, robbing South Division of its traffic. Motels, restaurants, auto repair shops, distributorships and the like died. Buildings disappeared and the resulting empty lots hosted used car lots. Low end businesses came and went. It acquired a reputation where one could buy illegal drugs or sex.

Now come the Urban Planners who never yet saw a stable failure that they wouldn’t try to make worse. There was “free money” around and so they built a Silver LIne up the middle of South Division, promising that it would resurrect Lazarus, but there’s not been a flicker of life after four years. What to do?

Well, there’s always the deeper mysteries of Smart Growth. What our Planners envision for South Division is an eight mile long strip mall with stores on the first floor and apartments full of bright young folks on the second and third floors, all of them visiting their favorite bars and coffee shops daily, strolling among outdoor cafes while talking about internet startups, in January yet. The Planning Svangalis  would re-zone this area into something called “form based” code which means moving 80 year old buildings festooned with awnings projecting over the sidewalks closer to South Division, parking cars behind the buildings, planting trees in the space between the sidewalk and street and slowing or even preventing auto traffic on the road by marking the pavement for bicycle lanes. Cars would be forced into the two central unmarked lanes greatly increasing the likelihood of collisions. (Cars are the enemy for these guys.) The buildings would house businesses that catered to the walk in crowd on the first floor and rental units on upper floors.

Politicians in Michigan and other failed states bought into the notion that computer savvy young people would return from Houston, California and Georgia based on “studies” and “surveys” that showed that smart, progressive young people were avoiding getting driver’s licenses, preferred public transit and living in downtown “walkable” communities which Urban Planners would provide. They would return in droves to Buffalo, Flint, Newberry…..A Miracle!

I’ve not been converted.  There is virtually no vehicular traffic on South Division and with New Urbanism, there will be less. Why would a merchant or saloon keeper start a business if few customers see his signs? The neighborhoods along South Division are not the most prosperous and won’t support upscale businesses. The residents living within a half mile of the road have long since forgotten how to walk and it will take a federal program to re- inculcate that habit before the proposed sidewalks on South Division will be flooded with eager shoppers and gawkers.

The more fundamental problem arises in finding the businesses that our Planners assume will populate this 2 mile long strip. 28th Street and Alpine Avenue carry an enormous amount of vehicular traffic and have attracted almost all of the national chains that are today deliver the bulk of commerce, but our mayor has struggled manfully to attract just two franchised businesses to our 28th Street corridor even as Ruby Tuesday closed. Serious money will not invest in a strip mall to which customers have trouble gaining access. The poorly capitalized and inexperienced businesses, small oriental groceries, tattoo parlors, payday lending, a few off brand fast food joints, prostitutes and drug dealers are already there and struggling.

The bottom line is that the population and their earnings is a zero sum game that will support only so many retail outlets. These have long since been established elsewhere. If our Planners foresee new, upscale businesses for the South Division corridor, these will have to be enticed from elsewhere using tax money taken from successful businesses on 28th Street. I don’t think that those businessmen will be sympathetic.

I had played with the idea of getting rid of the zoning and planning for So. Division to allow for industrial and more open commercial use. Small factories and distributorships would have great access to the nearby 131 expressway and provide jobs for nearby residents. But lurking in the background are the enormous and empty GM and Steelcase factories; the problem is, once more, that there are too few businesses to use the space. A lesser problem is that the established real estate interests in Kentwood would never allow competition to their sinecures on industrial property.

Just because I have no ideas about what to do about the economic zero on South Division doesn’t elevate the schemes of our Planners to anything more than evanescent fantasy.

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