Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Gentrification and Urban Transformation: A Local Developer’s Perspective

Mikael Pelz


By Mikael Pelz

August 25, 2014

This is the final installment in a four-part series.

In the first article of this series, I argued that gentrification should first be evaluated based on whether changes taking place in a neighborhood successfully bridge the new with the old.[i] Changes along these lines have the potential to foster diverse and participatory communities, particularly when supported by the intentional leadership of citizens, churches, and local developers. In subsequent articles, I highlighted the active role of citizens in transforming West Greenville, South Carolina and the mission of Mosaic Church in renewing neighborhoods in Little Rock, Arkansas. This installment presents the perspective of David LaGrand, a local developer who is credited for revitalizing the Wealthy Street corridor in the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan. LaGrand demonstrates how developers can greatly enrich neighborhoods as well as advance social justice within these communities.

LaGrand’s passion for urban revitalization was sparked at age four when he saw the problems of the urban center first hand after his father, a Christian Reformed minister, moved with his family to the south side of Chicago. LaGrand purchased his first piece of property in college. As a long-term resident of Grand Rapids, LaGrand has worn many professional hats including practicing attorney, city commissioner, and state senate candidate. But perhaps his greatest contribution to the city has been in his roles as a developer and an entrepreneur, advocating for urban renewal.

This career began in 1994 when he and his wife, along with some college friends, opened Four Friends, a coffee shop located in what was largely an empty downtown. The group’s next set of projects reclaimed a main thoroughfare of Grand Rapids that was controlled by a violent and pervasive gang. This effort began with the opening of Wealthy Street Bakery in 2002. LaGrand and his partners also facilitated the development of the retailer Art of the Table and the restaurant the Winchester shortly thereafter. His courageous development of this abandoned and dangerous commercial stretch of Wealthy Street has not only revived the immediate neighborhood, but has established a cultural destination in Grand Rapids that is now lined with unique shops and restaurants. LaGrand and his associates continue to purchase vacant properties for development in Grand Rapids. For example, they recently opened Hall Street Bakery in 2013 in a predominantly African-American neighborhood.

I had the opportunity to speak with LaGrand on the subject of urban transformation. I first asked him about his reaction to the term gentrification. From his perspective, he considers it to be largely outdated and misleading because the displacement of residents often associated with gentrification rarely occurs, particularly in a city such as Grand Rapids. Michigan laws limit the amount of property tax a homeowner pays, thus protecting long-time homeowners from fluctuations in the housing market. Moreover, in many cities like Grand Rapids, the housing stock is plentiful in a variety of neighborhoods. These factors allow people from all walks of life to participate in urban renewal as well provide a continuum between the old and new dimensions of the neighborhood.

This led to a broader conversation about the difference between good development and bad development. LaGrand distinguished between different types of corporations and discussed the rise of benefit corporations. Unlike regular corporations that are expressly established to generate a profit for the company’s owners, benefit corporations allow owners to contribute to a particular social cause. Because these companies are motivated by a broader mission beyond simple profit, they can be a useful model for urban development. Ideally, developments should serve the community in ways that promote economic opportunity, enhance citizen engagement, and meet the unique needs of residents in the neighborhood.             

LaGrand and I also discussed how developments could promote diversity. LaGrand urged developers and entrepreneurs to first understand the history of the particular neighborhoods where they are investing. He intentionally hires employees from the neighborhood and he stressed the importance of being “a good neighbor” by providing job opportunities to area residents so they would not need to contend with the expenses of a car.

However, the most powerful tool in advancing diversity is a right perspective. LaGrand is quick to acknowledge his point of privilege as a Caucasian with close ties to people in positions of power within the community. Implicit in this acknowledgment is that some do not have access to power, and thus are disadvantaged in the community, particularly those with criminal records. In his unique approach to urban renewal, LaGrand seeks to share this power by providing economic opportunity and community spaces to places and people devoid of each. As such, he and his partners are helping foster neighborhoods of reconciliation and trust.  

*Special thanks to David LaGrand for sharing his thoughts and time. 

Mikael Pelz is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Calvin College.


[i]Zukin, Sharon. 2011. Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places. New York: Oxford University Press.


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