University Avenue Corridor Coalition Turning 10
Frederick Jones and his wife have heard a lot of talk in the nearly 30 years they’ve lived on Mason Street, but it wasn’t until the last 10 years that they saw any action.
“Speaking about it is no longer the issue; activities are actually being done,” Jones said.
Jones is a member of the University Avenue Corridor Coalition (UACC), a group of more than 80 community stakeholders brought together by Kettering University to improve the neighborhood. In October, the organization will celebrate its 10th anniversary.
The footprint of the coalition is McLaren Flint on the west to the University of Michigan-Flint on the east and from Hurley Medical Center/Whaley Children’s Center on the north to the Flint River and Chevy Commons on the south.
Jones said people talked for years about various projects in the neighborhood, but not much got off of the ground until the UACC got involved.
“Kettering has been the backbone of this area since it has adopted this area full-fledged,” Jones said. “It’s been a drastic change because of the attitude and influence of Kettering with the UACC. It has been instrumental in propelling some of the plans that have been on the back burner for a lot of years.”
Since the UACC’s inception, more than 340 cleanup projects have been completed, hundreds of homes have been repaired, more than 12 houses have been painted, and more than 500 lights for community safety have been installed. Crime hot spots have been cut in half, and the coalition’s membership has increased 340%.
A Diversity of Voices
Jack Stock, Director of External Relations at Kettering, said he is proud of what the group has achieved in 10 years despite some daunting challenges that included the Flint Water Crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. Dallas Gatlin, UACC co-founder and Executive Director of Carriage Town Ministries, agrees. He said he is proud the group was able to sustain many of its efforts during the pandemic because much of the work is focused on building relationships and neighboring, which is done best face-to-face.
UACC doesn’t have a charter or a leadership team of officers to encourage a “diversity of voices and keeps things from bogging down in process and procedures,” he said.
Members meet monthly at a site within the footprint to discuss projects and what’s going on at their respective organizations. The first hour of the meeting includes lunch with a presentation from a coalition member, neighborhood leader or community organization.
“The last half hour of the monthly meeting is to share what they want to share or ask what they want to ask,” Gatlin said. “... Those monthly meetings are like an anchor, and we’ve sustained them pretty well through COVID for obvious reasons.”
During the worst of the pandemic, the group met virtually a few times but tried to meet in person outside when weather permitted. Meetings run from noon to 1:30 p.m. People are welcome to stay and chat beyond the end time, but the official end is 1:30 “to avoid that dread that comes from meetings that go too long. Death by meeting: We wanted to avoid that also,” Gatlin said.
He compared the coalition’s progress to a person starting a fitness plan because you have to take small steps every day.
“The one thing that describes the University Avenue Corridor Coalition is how we can look back together and say, ‘Wow, we accomplished all of that?’” Gatlin said.
None of the larger transformations would have taken place if the coalition members hadn’t started acting as caretakers of the corridor, he said, noting it took hard work from everyone involved.
At the beginning, residents and community members were at times skeptical, “but sustained effort and some little successes building into bigger successes makes people believe that the people around them are also interested in the same problems they are,” Gatlin said.
The University Avenue Corridor Coalition was founded by Kettering University in 2012, bringing together residents and area institutions to work collectively to beautify and draw investment to the area.
Overall, the group has worked with “a shoestring budget,” Stock said.
Various participating agencies step up each month to sponsor UACC’s monthly meeting and pay for lunch. Other organizations and neighborhood associations have donated different tools over the years for clean-ups, such as rakes, bags and gloves.
The UACC also stretched out grants it had earned over the years to support its efforts.
In 2014, the group received a $1 million Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation (BCJI) Program federal grant to be used over three years to focus on crime prevention and blight elimination along the corridor. The first year of the grant was spent gathering data and conducting research to find neighborhood hot spots and identify sustainable solutions to make a change. The group focused on the following points: blight/crime hot spots, improving community health, stabilizing land use, establishing leisure and recreation areas, enhancing communication links and supporting education throughout the area.
Also in 2014, it received a Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) $150,000 grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It dispersed $50,000 a year for three years. CPTED principles focus on four areas: territorial reinforcement, such as landscaping and beautification; natural surveillance, such as trimming bushes and trees to improve safety and visibility; maintenance; and access control, which shows the importance of limiting and guiding people’s access to property through landscaping.
The group used the CPTED grant funds to provide 300 LED solar motion lights, 99 driveway motion sensors, and 30 security cameras to homes and businesses of the corridor; plan neighborhood block parties; and teach others how CPTED can create a safer, welcoming community. UACC also assisted in installing a disc golf course at the former Mott Park municipal golf course, now the Mott Park Recreation Area.
Stock said the group would not have been as successful if it had not followed the CPTED principles.
“It’s been very effective,” he said. “It’s not crime prevention with a billy club but by saying we can improve our community by doing good together and supporting each other.”
The results were published in the July 2019 article "Community-Engaged Neighborhood Revitalization and Empowerment: Busy Streets Theory in Action" in the "American Journal of Community Psychology."
In addition to cleaning up the area and adding lighting, the group removed a lot too. In the past 10 years, Kettering University razed more than 70 blighted properties in the corridor and replaced others.
“Now Kettering, for its part, is maintaining them in a parklike fashion to make sure they are trimmed, mowed and not used as dump sites,” Stock said, noting corridor neighborhood organizations, businesses and volunteers help too.
The biggest projects include:
- transforming a former convenience store at the corner of University and Chevrolet across the street from the Campus Center into Einstein Bros. Bagels and a Flint Police Service Center
- replacing a former party store and dilapidated homes at North Grand Traverse and University Avenue with a commercial building that now houses Jimmy John’s and Little Caesars Pizza
- taking ownership of historic Atwood Stadium from the city of Flint. Upgrades to the structure and seating were made, along with the addition of new turf — the same type of turf used at Ford Field and Michigan Stadium.
The group also has a graffiti squad to clean up vandalism and replace it with murals created by artists in a partnership with the Flint Public Art Project.
In 2013, UACC members and various community service organizations joined students, faculty and staff in the Service Saturday program to volunteer one Saturday a month (weather permitting) to help in the corridor.
The University isn’t just cleaning up the area. It’s also encouraging its employees to live in it. In 2016, Kettering University established the Employee Home Purchase and Renovation Assistance Program.
The program offers employees a $15,000 forgivable loan for purchasing and occupying a home in one of three designated neighborhoods or a $5,000 forgivable loan for exterior improvements to employees who already live in the designated areas. The neighborhoods are located in the Historic Carriage Town District, Mott Park Neighborhood and Glendale Hills — all within the boundaries of the University Avenue Corridor.
While the group was able to survive during the height of the pandemic, Gatlin said some regrouping needs to happen to rebuild some of the connections that were lost.
“There’s an energy; there’s a celebratory energy that needs to be rekindled.” he said. “Like gatherings of people at events and festivals and parties and all of those kinds of great connecting things.”
Stock is optimistic about the future of the UACC.
Kettering continues to be careful with the businesses and organizations that occupy its properties to ensure they are family-friendly and will benefit the community. In 2021, Gov. Gretchen Whitmore announced plans for a state park at the Chevy in the Hole site, which Stock said will be a great addition to the area.
“It’s going to be inviting for the whole community,” he said.
Jones would like to see some of the vacant lots become plots for new homes, condos or townhomes.
“With the induction and the need for new construction, that will turn this area completely around,” he said. “... We’re on the cusp right now of a big breakthrough.”
He said the new building at the corner of Grand Traverse and University Avenue will be a “cornerstone of things to come.”
“We need more students down here, and we need more professionals in this area, but if you don’t have a place for them to stay, how can they move down here?” Jones said.
Stock recognizes there is still work to do and that sustainability is huge in getting residents’ trust and continuing the momentum.
“Neighborhoods are a key to Flint’s revitalization,” Stock said. “There are still some neighborhoods that have so much work to do. As long as Kettering is a part of the community, we’re going to do our part to support and improve neighborhoods around Flint. We’ve got a great set of values that we go by, and I’m encouraged by the direction we’ve taken in the last 10 years.”
Visit University Avenue Corridor Coalition Facebook to learn more about their efforts in the community and how you can help.