Reinventing University AvenueSee how community partnerships made this Flint area cleaner, safer in less than a decade

Here you will find a neighborhood anchored by two universities and alive with new businesses, a park, golf cart police patrols, and neighborhood cleanup days. 

The University Avenue corridor cuts through the City of Flint, running east to west, with a northward bend. The road connects Kettering University and the Mott Park area with historic Atwood Stadium, Hurley Hospital, the University of Michigan-Flint and a revitalizing downtown.

University Avenue, as we now know it, has existed less than a decade. Before 2008, it was Third Avenue. Little distinguished it from any of the other area streets, and it simply, predictably, fell between Second and Fourth avenues. 

The name change marked the first in now a landslide of changes. First came the $1 million beautification effort throughout the 1.5-mile stretch from Nolan Drive to North Saginaw Street that turned much of the avenue into a boulevard with islands of landscaping. 

Then in 2012, a group of residents and stakeholders attended a class on Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design—which fundamentally changed the trajectory of the neighborhood and gave life to a broader University Avenue Corridor Coalition. 

A cornerstone of the ongoing progress has been Kettering University’s receipt of a $1 million Byrne (pronounced “burn”) Criminal Justice Innovation Program grant, which brings together 20-plus community partners, 16 research professors from four universities, and 2,500 residents.

That massive impetus also has led to receipt of multiple other awards, including $180,000 to the United Way of Genesee County that funds UM-Flint’s Urban Safety Corps. 

The impact? Huge, said Marie Novella Herron, lifelong Flint resident, University neighborhood block club president, and AmeriCorps service member.

“We’ve been able to get crime down in the corridor by 24 percent. We’ve picked up over 16,000 pounds of debris,” Herron said. “There have been significant changes at the street level.”

The pace of change has been swift: the opening of University Square park and Einstein Bros Bagels in 2013, Atwood Stadium’s grand reopening and the addition of Grand Traverse Circle in 2015, and the city’s first Jimmy John’s in late 2016.
It’s also meant seeing the neighborhood come alive with food trucks, bike patrols and neighborhood cleanup days—all of which have increased quality of life and safety along the avenue. The three-year Byrne grant continues through September 2017, and Herron notes that while the impact is there, so, too, is work still to be done.

“There has been a lot of improvement in terms of walkability, and you see more people out bike riding and kids playing outside, but at the same time there are still some of those elements that were trying to get rid of—mainly many of the blighted houses that still need to come down.” 

Corridor resident and business owner Ken Van Wagoner, who operates Good Beans Cafe, a block down from University and Grand Traverse, said anchor institutions played a critical role in the transformation—especially the universities’ expanded focus beyond their campuses and into the community. 

“Really, I’ve seen more things being done in the area in the last few years than at any other time since moving here (in 1994),” he said.

Good Beans sits in the middle of Carriage Town, which is the historic neighborhood surrounding the corridor. 

“It used to be that the schools and universities were more focused only with what was going on, on campus," Van Wagoner said. "In a sense, they’ve broadened their campus (and) inspired a lot of the local groups to work with them.” 

Thomas Wyatt, the Byrne grant coordinator at Kettering, said the strategy regarding the avenue goes beyond safety, blight reduction and beautification. It is part of an overall Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design strategy, including placemaking and new investment—all of which ultimately help to bring people back into the city. 

Wyatt said student and community member participation is key in building and “spurring growth around the neighborhood.” 

Adam Hartley, 20, a junior at Kettering University and lifelong Flint resident, said he is proud to be a part of the University Avenue Corridor Coalition. 

“It is a group of very selfless individuals,” said Hartley, who has seen his city struggle over the years and especially with the impacts of the Flint Water Crisis. Seeing an area rebuild sets an important example: “(I am) glad to get to be a part of it, even if it is a small part.”

UM-Flint Police Chief Ray Hall said from the very beginning, back in 2012, the focus was on working with residents. They hosted community listening meetings, did direct outreach with youth and regularly checked in with residents.

“It was fairly straightforward. When we first started, it was a question of improving the quality of life for the residents and talking with them directly about what they wanted to see us do in terms of a holistic approach to assistance,” Hall said. 

As time progressed, the Urban Safety Corp helped establish block clubs, launched the River Trail Watchers golf cart patrol along the river, worked to replace street lights, hosted a Halloween Hayride for children in the neighborhood, and even worked with a local convenience store to stop selling outdated food. 

“We want people to know we’re here for them,” he said. “Grants can come and go. … We are here for the long haul.” 

Herron also noted that while massive partnerships came together to make the progress of the University Avenue Corridor Coalition possible—ultimately, none of it would have been possible without the residents’ participation and support. 

Especially during the water crisis, many residents feel “there are outside elements coming in and making changes they don’t have control over,” Herron said.  

The University Avenue Corridor Coalition is different. It is a leading example of what can happen when residents are given the tools and support to make a difference on their own street, block and neighborhood. 

“This is a community effort. It’s the people in the corridor making these changes,” she said. 

Read more articles by Jake Carah.

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