I don't live at the Center of the Universe, but I can see it from my house. This is the timeline of how one piece of land very near my home went from a contaminated and trash-filled gravel and dirt vacant lot, to a thriving retail and community action building and green space that showcases the best of today, while featuring all the promise of tomorrow. It is a very fitting tale for the last day of Governor Granholm's time as leader of our state, for her initiatives had a big hand in shaping what happened here. You know how she has been fond of the phrase, "Sometimes leadership is planting trees under whose shade you will never sit"? Well, the trees she helped to plant at the Center of the Universe are already bearing fruit.
The little lot that sits at the corner of Lake Drive and Diamond in Grand Rapids was a Shell gas station up until the mid-80's. I only have very vague memories of it, for example I could tell you it was a Shell, but actually recalling how the station looked is lost to time. (And in a real odd twist, I found out just recently that it was once owned by a good friend of my father. Small, small world.) The building structure and pumps had been removed, and all that was left was a gravel/dirt space, ground contaminated with industrial waste. That's how I visually remember it. Surrounded by a fence for a time, until eventually they took that down as well. I was glad for that. I used to walk by the lot often, and once the fence was gone I could cut across to get to wherever it was I was going. Never thought much of it - just another empty spot of blight in the city, collecting bits of trash and the occasional used car for sale.
It has this great sign though. A local artist named Reb Roberts painted a colorful picture that became the focal point of the neighborhood....
Like so many stories of urban revitalization, the one about East Hills begins with decay. Years ago, an abandoned gas station lot strewn with overgrown weeds and surrounded by a chain link fence symbolized the blight at the doorstep of a nearly forgotten neighborhood.
That’s when artist Reb Roberts took matters into his own hands. He painted a vivid sign that read simply ‘East Hills: Center of the Universe’ and fastened it tightly to the fence encircling the vacant lot. Once perceived as a black hole sucking the vitality of an area increasingly void of life, the dreary lot suddenly became viewed as a bright and welcome opportunity to reverse the downward slide with new ideas, investment, and passion.
... and I would wistfully chuckle when I saw it, thinking "Oh great. The Center of the Universe is a dirty vacant city lot." Still, it was my neighborhood, my home ground, and the sign was a symbol of why I wanted to live in this southeast section of town; it always has been filled with the artists and the dreamers and the working class and the hippies that turned into yuppies that wanted to make the world a better place.
In late summer of 2002, MSHDA gave a $40,000 grant to the East Hills Council of Neighbors to put towards developing the lot into a retail space. They wouldn't own the land, but in time it helped them recruit developer Guy Bazzani, who had redeveloped other inner city properties in Grand Rapids. He conducted a feasibility study, and the city of Grand Rapids threw in $10,000 for environmental tests.
Plans started to form. After all the testing, it was a go for development for the following year. In mid-June of 2003, heavy equipment began to remove the contaminated soil on the lot, and city officials held a groundbreaking ceremony to celebrate. The building would be a 7,000 ft L-shaped "green" building that would house retail stores and a restaurant. And apparently this public/private partnership was a first, with officials calling it "precedent-setting" for a community-initiated redevelopment of a brownfield site.
They had hoped to have it built and open by the end of the year, but it took a little longer to remove the contamination than they thought. They stopped for the winter, and started back up in the spring. Because of the delay, one business slated for the building pulled out, things started to get complicated - but they still proceeded ahead with the plans. In the summer of 2004, the building, as well as the whole neighborhood, got another boost from Governor Granholm's "Cool Cities" program - and that helped put it over the top.
Granholm said she sought projects that would create a vibrant street life and enhance neighborhoods or downtowns with a mix of residential, retail, entertainment and other commercial ventures. High-density, pedestrian-friendly projects were given priority.
In Uptown, funds will be used to renovate business facades and for the Center of the Universe retail and office building being built at Lake Drive and Diamond Avenue SE.
Developer Guy Bazzani, who wrote the grant applicant, said his $1.3 million private project met Cool Cities criteria because it will serve as "the core of revitalization of the neighborhood."
Taken with my first digital camera, 2004
"Cool Cities" provided a $50,000 grant toward the building, and they worked through the summer and fall to finish it. On December 2nd of 2004, they held a very happy grand opening. Marie Catrib's, a popular restaurant and deli, was one of the first occupants, and they are thriving there today. (Quite literally thriving, when I went to take a few shots today, the line was out the door. It's always crowded.) There is an art studio/gallery next to the restaurant. The West Michigan Environmental Action Council opened its office in the building the following spring of 2005. They were made for this spot, for this building is as green as can be, named in 2006 one of the "first double-gold LEED-certified buildings in the universe".
"This symbolizes the best of all worlds," said Guy Bazzani, whose Bazzani Associates Inc.'s design and restoration work can be seen around Grand Rapids.
"This hits what I call the triple bottom line: the social aspect of putting up a building that is sensitive to neighborhood surroundings, is environmentally sensitive, and all those costs influence the economic side.
Though it will not be accessible to the public, an observation deck was built for people to look at the "vegetated green roof" that manages stormwater runoff.
The roof is a garden of maintenance-free, drought-resistant flowering sedum planted in four inches of soil that sits atop layers of insulation. A mat made from recycled plastics collects moisture, and tiny "cups" collect rainwater and disperse it over time. A gravel-filled area channels rainwater to the planted area.
The building also will boast "light shelves" affixed to outside windows that heat the building from sunlight in the winter and help keep it cool in the summer, and a rain garden in the parking lot to collect stormwater there.
As a result, no runoff from the site will go into the city's sewer system, a feature that also hit Bazzani's triple bottom line.
The finished building in May 2010
It's a tree-hugger paradise alright, with a "Green Jobs" poster in the window, and spaces in the parking lot for "alternative fuel vehicles only". And just recently, a very fitting piece of the puzzle was added to this ground that once was a former gas station. The parking lot received one the area's first ChargePoint stations for electric cars as part of Consumers Energy's new “SmartStreet” program. "SmartStreet" came about due to Michigan's 2008 energy legislation that directed Consumers to offer energy efficiency programs to its customers. The Center of the Universe is part of a pilot program that Consumers hopes to expand across the state.
The charging station installed in the Grand Rapids neighborhood East Hills is part of a Consumer Energy's “SmartStreet” program, which will include adding 60 “smart meters” to homes and businesses in 2011 to track energy usage on a daily basis. The idea is to encourage consumers to use their energy during non-peak times when rates are lower.
"We selected the East Hills neighborhood to launch SmartStreet because we want to demonstrate that engaged customers can save money when they apply new energy efficient technologies," said John Russell, Consumers Energy's chief executive officer.
Having the city's first charging station next to the West Michigan Environmental Action Council office makes sense because the organization's office has served as a demonstration site for many sustainable green technologies, said Nicholas Occhipinti, the group's policy and community activism director.
Since there aren't a lot of electrics on the road yet, I'm not sure that the charger has been used as of now - but we are ready for when they show up, the autos of the future that will feature batteries made right here in Michigan. And you know who had a very big hand in making all that possible.
That's how Jennifer Granholm changed the Center of the Universe. From the rebirth and development efforts in inner cities, to the focus on and legislation for renewable energy and energy efficiency, to her efforts on behalf of the saving the domestic auto industry and bringing us the batteries that will power the electric car - all those things are featured in one small spot in my world, a spot that went in eight years from a desolate and deserted bit of land, to one that is thriving with jobs and leading the way into a green economy for Michigan.
And that, among many other reasons, is why I am a very proud supporter of Governor Granholm. Thank you Governor, you certainly did change my world, and it has been an honor and a privilege to write and shoot and bring these ideas to everyone who wants to see a better future for us all. There are those who can't get past the hard times right now, but it is my hope and belief that eventually time will show the true legacy that you gave us - and it's one that you can be very proud to call your own.