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It’s Showtime, Again!

Wealthy Theatre renovation just a part of Grand Rapids’ revival

April 8, 2004 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Gary Howe

The Wealthy historic district is one of five contiguous, historically preserved neighborhoods that play a major role in the city of Grand Rapids’ ongoing revitalization.

The 1100 block of Wealthy Street in Grand Rapids was so poor at the end of the 20th century that young kids pushed drugs on the street for money. Today they attend art class on the same corner.

“Sometimes I come down through here and just smile,” said Thelma Rhodes, whose family owns and operates Rhodes Rib Crib at 1133 Wealthy Street. “It used to be chaos.”

The Rib Crib has drawn customers to the downtown of Michigan’s second largest city for more than 30 years. Try the pork bar-b-que with thick sauce and a side of black-eyed peas to understand why. But the Wealthy Theatre directly across the street served as the gravitational center for this neighborhood business district for many more decades. In the 1920s people came by foot and car to see Charlie Chaplin’s silent films; in the 1960s they were still coming, enjoying Frederico Fellini’s latest release, buying fresh-cut flowers from the florist, and shopping women’s fashion boutiques.

Then, in the late 1970s, the theatre closed. Racial tension, substance abuse, and public disinvestment drove out most nearby business owners, their customers, and even longtime residents. Suddenly, windows were barred and buildings boarded up. In the really bad times, some of those buildings caught fire. And the city of Grand Rapids essentially forgot about the once-prosperous community at Wealthy and Diamond.

Neighbors Save Their Theater
City officials in 1989 slated the Wealthy Theatre for demolition. The neighborhood’s residents responded immediately with a visionary plan to restore the movie house and a sense of pride in their community.

“That theatre is our centerpiece,” Ms. Rhodes said. “I wanted to show the kids we stand for something. There’s always good and bad. It depends on the choices we make.”

Choosing to refurbish, not demolish, the Wealthy Theatre, built in 1911, was not easy. Against the backdrop of an inner city competing with shiny new suburbs for jobs and residents, the building had stood vacant for some 20 years. Its mosaic-tiled floor fell into the basement; water gushed down its interior walls during heavy rainstorms.

The project required an orchestrated campaign of government incentives, private investment, and citizen action. It ultimately triggered a full-scale economic and cultural revival.

Wealthy Theatre reopened in 1998 as a community arts center. Inside, children paint pictures, watch films, and learn to dance. Outside, pedestrian traffic and civic energy is increasing. New ventures like Lady Love Barber Shop cut hair and make a profit. Established businesses have improved facades. Window signs in the few buildings that remain boarded up set a dramatically different tone for the future: “Developing Soon,” “Opening October,” “Wealthy Street Alive!”

Historic Districts Enrich City
This is not an isolated success story. Similar examples of the power of historic preservation initiatives to restore urban character and lure people back to the core city abound across Grand Rapids and in other Michigan cities.  According to a report published by the Michigan Historic Preservation Network, rehabilitation projects added $1.7 billion and 20,252 jobs to Michigan’s economy and returned almost $32 million in once-abandoned or dilapidated properties to local tax rolls since 1971.

Moreover, in August 2003 the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council, a bipartisan group of prominent civic, political, and business leaders, recommended more than 150 steps the state should take to direct the engines of growth inward toward cities instead of outward toward rural areas. Included in the panel’s report, which was endorsed by Governor Jennifer M. Granholm and the Republican-led Legislature, were a host of specific recommendations for new public policy that speeds the renovation and reuse of historic, downtown buildings.

Instead of bulldozing its historic landmarks, Grand Rapids embraces them and creates distinctive places to live, work, and play. The goal is to encourage vibrant urban centers that are convenient, inspire social engagement and artistic creativity, and value racial and economic diversity.

The city now recognizes five contiguous designated historic neighborhoods: Cherry Hill, Fairmount Square, Heartside, Wealthy Street, and Heritage Hill, one of the country’s largest urban historic districts. The Grand Rapids Historic District Commission encourages their residents to protect them by employing historically sensitive project designs. So the neighborhoods remain beautiful, elicit pride and increased community involvement, and enjoy dramatic increases in property and resale values.

The community has registered and restored structures like the Sixth Street Bridge, Michigan’s oldest remaining metal bridge; Coit Avenue School, built in 1880, now an arts and science school; and the Berkey and Gay Building. The 500,000 square-foot, former factory now houses offices, a bar, and aspiring professionals.

These are the growth engines in one of the few Michigan cities with the muscle to attract younger residents and workers seeking urban experiences. The more appealing areas in the central city share one guiding principle: Honor the past to create a desirable future.

“Restoring the theatre was the pivotal turning point for this neighborhood,” says Carol Moore, a resident, landlord, and community activist in the Wealthy Theatre District. “We talked about it for years. And some people thought we were crazy. But once it opened, once people started coming back, the doubters became believers.”

Myths and Realities
Despite historic preservation’s proven ability to enhance quality of life, many barriers slow the movement. Lack of funding, outdated building codes, and misinformation stall the reuse of significant structures. Critics argue that historic designation standards erode personal property rights and gentrify urban areas. Such false charges generate negative opinions of historic preservation.

Claims that designation of the city’s first historic neighborhood, Heritage Hill, would drive out minorities have not come true. From its designation in 1973 until 1996, the percentage of African Americans in the neighborhood has hovered around 30 percent, according to a 1998 study by the Grand Rapids Press. The revival of Wealthy Street has nurtured minority-owned businesses, encouraged cultural flavor and, residents say, helped to heal the lingering social wounds of intolerance.

“We’re not pushing out the poor,” Ms. Moore said. “We’re pushing out the drug dealers and the absentee landlords. A city thrives when people want to live there.”

Proponents argue that preservation elevates property values, stabilizes neighborhoods, and boosts home ownership and that, like better public transportation or clean water, it should be a key organizing principle for revitalizing downtowns, modernizing planning, and preserving parks and open space.

Restoring and celebrating historic buildings and civic heritage is a theme that flows through Grand Rapids’ 2002 Master Plan, the community’s vision for future development. The plan strengthens inner-city neighborhoods, breathes new life into dormant business districts, provides better mobility, and protects natural resources. A guiding principle is that recognition of value in old structures like the Wealthy Street Theatre is vital to the city’s look, feel, and function. No wonder the National Civic League named Grand Rapids a finalist for the 2003 All-America City Award.

Partnerships Are the Key
As awareness of the value of significant architecture grows in Grand Rapids, so do strategies for initiating new projects. Citizen leadership, charitable giving, flexible local laws, and public-private partnerships play key roles in prompting the revival of many of the city’s more than 2,000 historic properties.

A variety of creative financial incentives provide the economic stimulus necessary to lure investment. The Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives Program and the Michigan Rehabilitation Tax Credit anchor many restoration projects in Grand Rapids. These programs encourage developers and homeowners to return certified historic structures to active service by providing income and business tax credits.

Resourceful local developers also leverage Michigan’s nationally recognized brownfield tax credit to rehabilitate blighted, polluted, or inactive properties. The Dwelling Place, a nonprofit community development corporation focused on reviving Grand Rapids’ Heartside District, taps funding from the Michigan State Housing Development Authority’s Neighbor-hood Preservation Plan to renovate old buildings and provide affordable housing for low-income families. It also contracts with the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, which actively encourages economic revitalization of the district.

“We pursued both historic district designation and renaissance zone classification,” Ms. Moore said. “That makes the home and business owners eligible for tax credits. Those incentives have made what’s going on in the Wealthy District possible.”

Award-Winning Efforts
The City of Grand Rapids also offers tax credits and grants to rehab obsolete property. Its Downtown Development Authority established the Building Reuse Incentives Program to reduce vacancies in older, inner-city neighborhoods by providing assistance for public projects such as sidewalk improvements. The city also distributes Community Development Block Grant funding to support public infrastructure improvements in low-income areas.

Even public transportation spending supports inner-city revitalization and restores historic community character in Grand Rapids. The community leverages Michigan Department of Transportation funding to plant street-side trees, calm neighborhood traffic, erect stylish streetlights, and reconstruct classy brick roads.

One key to Grand Rapids’ success is Mayor John Logie, who sets the tone for developers by strongly supporting historic preservation. Mr. Logie helped draft Michigan’s local historic districts act in the 1970s and remains committed to adapting historic buildings for new uses and encouraging mixed-use housing opportunities downtown.

Financial and civic energy for historic preservation have helped elevate Grand Rapids’ status as a national destination for growing a business or a family. In 2000 Inc. magazine ranked the region 13th in its annual “Best Cities to Start and Grow a Company,” while Money named the city to its “Best Places to Live in America.”

The restoration of the city’s built legacy also has nurtured a new attitude about the urban lifestyle.

“I’ve seen good times, bad times, and now good times again,” says Thelma Rhodes. “They’re going to brick my street this summer. The economy will get better. It’s going to be terrific. I’m proud that we stood the storm and helped make a difference. We made the right choice.”

Andy Guy, a journalist, directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Great Lakes Water Security Project and manages the Institute’s office in Grand Rapids. Reach him at aguy@mlui.org.

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