Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Is there Hope for Wyoming?

28th Street, 1959. Photo courtesy of the City of Wyoming

One of the trends I expect to see further confirmed in the 2010 census data is the decline of many first-ring (or inner-ring) suburbs. Inner ring suburbs are communities that grew rapidly during the post-war economic boom that ran roughly from 1945 to 1974. As noted by Myron Orfield and other scholars, these communities were largely developed with features that distinguished them from existing urban communities, including the incorporation separate zoning uses into the predevelopment of the built environment, the relatively low levels of population density compared to the urban core, the predominance of the automobile as a means of transportation, and general exclusion of racial minorities during its formational period.

In metropolitan Grand Rapids, the cities of Wyoming and Kentwood clearly fall into the first-ring suburb category, as do portions of the city of Grand Rapids. Walker, Grand Rapids Township, Cascade, Ada, Alpine, and Plainfield Townships all experienced the bulk of their development after 1970, putting them in the exurban suburbs category, which developed differently than their inner-ring suburb brethren. Grandville, although incorporated in 1933, was a small town much like Rockford or Lowell until the 1970s, and thus should also be considered an exurban suburb. East Grand Rapids was developed as a Streetcar Suburb between 1880 and 1930, and has remained a wealthy enclave. While the city of Grand Rapids is considered the urban core, areas that the city annexed between 1956 and 1963 are similar in many ways to Wyoming and Kentwood.

Will Wyoming and Kentwood share the fate of many declining first-ring suburbs? While I do not see the population dropping yet for either community (Wyoming’s will probably be around 71,000, while Kentwood will rise to 47,000), the evidence of Wyoming’s decline as a commercial center has been well documented by the Grand Rapids Press and other local media. This decline is especially evident on 28th Street, which was long the heart of the city. In the past decade, destination businesses such as Rogers Department store, Studio 28, and Classic Chevrolet closed, as did a large GM stamping plant located at 36th and Burlingame, and vacancy rates in the Rogers Plaza Shopping Mall increased significantly. Recent attempts to resurrect the commercial strip (which included the relocation of Klingmans) have failed, leaving the city scrambling to find ways to restore its fortunes.

The decline of Wyoming’s commercial heart on 28th Street is compounded by the city’s demographic changes. Over the past two decades, the city has become significantly less white, with a large growth in its Hispanic population, especially north of 28th Street. With the Hispanic core neighborhoods in Grand Rapids along Grandville Avenue continuing to grow, many are finding more areas of affordable housing and better schools in Wyoming. By the middle of the next decade Wyoming might find itself with two distinct communities-a wealthy white portion south of 36th Street that I like to refer to as “Voorheestan.” Folks in Voorheestan are overwhelmingly conservative Republicans who like their taxes low, their God glorified, and dislike regional cooperation. The growing Hispanic neighborhoods north of 36th Street are generally much poorer, desire strong schools for their children, and have yet to find their political voice in local and state politics. Thus, while Wyoming’s political elite might remain white and conservative over the next decade, the demographics underneath them will continue to shift.

The efforts over the past year by city officials, planners, and consultants to remake Wyoming’s “Town Center” are interesting. A suburb that rejected everything about traditional urban form and density is seeking to redevelop its commercial core into smaller urban blocks. In Matt Van Bunte’s article from November 27, 2010 Grand Rapids Press, Van Bunte notes that

“public input shows a new street peeling to the south of 28th and cutting massive commercial parcels, including Studio 28, Wyoming Village Mall and Rogers Plaza, into smaller urban blocks. The vision could become a prototype for suburban redevelopment around Grand Rapids, a consultant said. The primary concept envisions a new street veering south of 28th just east of Burlingame and arcing back to 28th just west of Clyde Park. The road would slice through the large parcels, connecting with new north-south streets to create smaller urban blocks with better pedestrian access and more green space. The sketch features a roundabout at Michael Avenue, north of Prairie Street, with a mix of commercial, residential and office uses flanking the new street in each direction.”

For the full Grand Rapids Press article see the link below:

Map 1: Metropolitan Grand Rapids Population Density, 2008

The consultants with this project note that achieving this vision will be difficult. While people generally do not agree what the ideal density of a town center is, I bet that planners are looking at the Eastown neighborhood in Grand Rapids. As shown in Map 1 Eastown’s population density in 2008 was about 13,000 people per square mile. As Map 1 shows, many of the successful commercial corridors in Grand Rapids have a density that is similar or higher than Eastown’s.

Map 2: Wyoming Population Density, 2008

Map 3: Wyoming Town Center Population Density, 2008

Perhaps the greatest problem for any redevelopment of Wyoming’s Town Center will be the low levels of population density. Map 2 shows Wyoming’s population density, and Map 3 shows the density in the Town Center redevelopment area. As 28th Street changes from a regional shopping destination to neighborhood shopping center, the market capture for stores in the Town Center will increasingly shrink. In order for any redevelopment efforts to succeed, the residential base needs grow significantly. Changing the urban form of the Town Center area will be helpful, but unless the new commercial buildings contain residential units located above or within a1/8th of a mile, these businesses will just not survive.

For efforts to revitalize its commercial corridor to succeed, Wyoming must think about how to draw residents to this part of town. This might require the expenditure of tax dollars to create an urban grid, as well as finding anchor institutions willing to stick it out over the next few years. I personally think that the idea of creating a satellite Grand Rapids Community College campus at the intersection Clyde Park and 28th Street would be an excellent first step to bringing people to Town Center. The satellite campus could specialize in vocational training for students interested in working at some of the city’s industrial centers, which continue to provide a number of excellent paying jobs. A campus would for many new Hispanic residents to take courses near their homes, as opposed to trekking to downtown Grand Rapids. Similarly, a branch campus of Spectrum Health would provide some jobs and services for residents.

Wyoming is a first-ring suburb in the midst of continued economic and demographic changes. The question is whether its population and political leadership, especially those from Voorheestan, are willing to jettison a political ideology that has served it well for the past sixty years.

(PS-My article on urban planning in metropolitan Grand Rapids from 1946 to 1964 will be coming out in the next issue of the Michigan Historical Review. It is heavy on politics, planning, and personalities, which make for a good read. Let me know if you want a copy. PB)

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