As the Kalamazoo County Land Bank turns 10, it’s showing land banks nationwide how community revitalization is really done

The Kalamazoo County Land Bank was created in 2010 in response to the growing number of tax foreclosures in Kalamazoo County, Michigan.

It was developed in the context of a growing recognition throughout the Midwest and across the country that use of land bank tools could assist with community development, improving quality of life, and halting neighborhood decline.

Storm Cunningham wearing Kalamazoo County Land Bank T-shirt in Arlington Cemetery.
2019 photo by Dr. Maria MacKnight of Wellness Restoration.

The Kalamazoo County Land Bank’s slogan is “Repurpose. Renew. Reconnect.“, which also happens to be the proven 3Re Strategy that has been revitalizing hundreds of places worldwide.

In Kalamazoo, the land bank is applying it to abandoned and blighted properties, as well as to entire to blocks, neighborhoods and communities.

As the Kalamazoo County Land Bank celebrates a decade of reusing, repurposing and reconnecting blighted property with the community, local residents are excited to see one of its formative projects come to fruition.

I (Storm Cunningham), am very happy for them, having seen their work up close and personal a few years back when I did a local workshop in 2017, after having keynoted the annual conference of the Michigan Association of Land Banks a few days earlier.

Ten years in the making, The Creamery, a nearly 60,000 square foot community-envisioned, mixed-use development in Edison, promises to help revitalize the neighborhood by providing affordable housing and much-needed round-the-clock quality drop-in childcare.

Kelly Clarke.

Some projects take longer than others while waiting for the right partners to come along. For this project, it was worth the wait,” said Kelly Clarke, Executive Director of the Kalamazoo County Land Bank.

I consider Kelly to be one of the most visionary and successful land bank leaders in the nation. Here’s why.

As I described in this Editorial in issue #98 of REVITALIZATION, land banks were born in Michigan, and now most U.S. cities and counties with shrinking populations have one.

They were originally envisioned as revitalization organizations, but most devolved into little more than demolition agencies.

The Kalamazoo County Land Bank repurposed renewed and reconnected this old commercial property into Riverview Launch, while turning it into an ecological restoration showcase.

The primary reason for that is that most of the significant, readily-available state and federal funding available to land banks is earmarked for demolition, so they do what they’re paid to do.

Demolition is sometimes necessary, and can be an effective revitalization tactic. But it’s not a strategy. In the absence of an actual revitalization strategy, communities are often left with little to show for their actions other than vacant lots.

In Kalamazoo, Kelly has repurposed vacant lots into bioswales to help restore the local watershed. She has repurposed a brownfield into a beautiful seniors community, Prairie Gardens, with an ecologically restored prairie in its center. And, unlike most land banks that focus solely on residential properties, Kelly isn’t afraid to tackle commercial properties, as the Creamery project shows.

Following demolition, the Land Bank, in partnership with the Edison Neighborhood Association, and with the guidance of Byce and OCBA Inc., organized the first of several community input sessions in 2013. Residents were enthusiastic. Over and over, residents expressed wishes for affordable, mixed-income housing; neighborhood services or business; and an attractive building that would make a statement on Portage Road.

The Riverview Launch site was reconnected to the Kalamazoo River via this new trail segment.

In late August of this year, Land Bank staff were invited to tour the near-completed Creamery, which is scheduled to open in early 2021. The recent tour was a positive reminder of how “entities working together can make something that is bigger than the sum of their parts by bringing their unique capacities to the table,” said Clarke.

A LEED Platinum Certified building, one of only two such certified in the state, The Creamery will be home to 48 studio, one and two-bedroom affordable housing units; a YWCA 24-hour childcare facility; and retail space that may include a small business accelerator and new offices of the developer, Hollander Development Corporation. The $14.2 million three-story project has had many hands and hearts involved since the original building’s demolition in 2011.

The restored prairie ecosystem in the center of Prairie Gardens redevelopment project.

The Land Bank did robust community engagement around the vision and gave us something to work with that was solidly desired by people in the neighborhood,” said Matt Hollander, President of Hollander Development Corporation. “Having a vision meant we had to protect it.

Four years after that first Edison charrette, Hollander and the YWCA, under the direction of CEO Dr. Grace Lubwama, saw opportunity and joined forces to realize the neighborhood’s vision.

Safe and reliable childcare that is also affordable is critical to supporting women and families in their upward economic mobility,” said Dr. Lubwama. “We are proud to collaborate with partners in the Edison neighborhood whose work aligns with the work of YWCA.

While not yet advertising the availability of apartments, Hollander said they had already received over 30 inquiries by late August. The YWCA’s thoughtfully-designed childcare facility, which addresses a long-standing need for flexible, quality childcare in the community, includes two floors, warm and inviting design, a central kitchen, and a nature-inspired, plastic-free outdoor space that supports studies of how important nature is to the wellbeing of children.

This is an entirely hometown, homegrown project,” Hollander said.

Congratulations to the Kalamazoo County Land Bank! I hope more land banks follow in their footsteps.

Unless otherwise credited, all photos are courtesy of Kalamazoo County Land Bank.

See Kalamazoo County Land Bank website.

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