After 10 years of renewing blighted properties in the community, Kalamazoo County Land Bank’s foundational project opens its doors

“Looking back over these ten years, this project has really helped give us the tools that we needed to make sure we could be good stewards of the property and that we had tools which allowed us to reach out to the community and let their voices direct what could be possible.” - Kelly Clarke, executive director of the Kalamazoo County Land Bank

As the Kalamazoo County Land Bank celebrates 10 years of service to the community, one of their very first major projects, The Creamery, is being completed.

The Creamery is a nearly 60,000 square foot structure in the Edison Neighborhood that will offer affordable housing and child care services. The Creamery serves as just one example of the Land Bank’s decade-long mission to acquire, renew and repurpose blighted properties to serve the community. The Creamery is scheduled to be ready for its first occupants in early 2021.  

Before the Creamery was reimagined as affordable housing, that space was occupied by the Klover Gold Creamery Co. The Klover Gold Creamery operated in the Edison Neighborhood from 1920-1997, but since then, the building had been vacant and had fallen into disrepair. 

The work to revitalize the Creamery began when Kelly Clarke, executive director of the Land Bank, and Mary Balkema KCLBA board chair and Kalamazoo County treasurer, toured the property together in 2010. They found a building on the verge of decay. It wasn’t safe for the school children that walked past on their way to the library, or the squatters that used the space regardless of the building’s questionable structural integrity. 

“It was important to remove the blight, to remove the potential for the people who were breaking in to hurt themselves, because it wasn’t safe inside, or for people walking by to be exposed to some sort of difficulty,” Clarke said.

The property’s prime location on Portage Street convinced Clarke that, if handled correctly, the building could provide valuable services to the Edison Neighborhood. The first steps were to  seek out community input to determine what those services might be. 

The Land Bank organized multiple community input sessions in partnership with the Edison Neighborhood Association, Bryce, and OCBA Inc. Residents attended and shared their visions of affordable housing options and childcare facilities. 

“Out of that process came this idea of something that would really make a statement on Portage Street, would really be attractive, and would also have some social impact goals, including mixed income housing,” Clarke said.

The result of this dream is 48 units of affordable housing and YWCA’s childcare facility that includes two floors, a centralized kitchen and outdoor spaces. 

The Creamery Apartments are for residents that qualify at certain income levels. Fifteen one-bedroom units, priced under $450/month including utilities, are for households earning less than $18,960/year. The rest increase as income increases: one-bedroom apartments for households earning less than $44,240/year start at $1,036/month including utilities, one- and two-bedrooms for households earning $44,240-63,200/year start at $1,185-1,422/month respectively (including utilities), and nine units will start at $1,460/month for households earning $55,300-79,000/year. These affordability restrictions will be in place for the next 45 years with only minor annual adjustments for inflation.

“The 15 units, those are the really special ones in my mind, because those are for the most critical need. We have very few homes of any type available in Kalamazoo county for people who are extremely low income households,” said Matt Hollander, president of Hollander Development Corporation, developers for The Creamery.

The building is also on track to receive Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design’s (LEED) Platinum certification, indicating that the building meets the organization’s highest standards in energy conservation and sustainability. Western Michigan University’s Heritage Hall is the only other building in Kalamazoo of that size with Platinum certification.  

The Creamery was one of the first projects that brought the Land Bank into the community. Seeking resident input for this affordable housing and child care facility set the standard for all the organization’s projects: Riverview Launch, Prairie Gardens, Washington Square, and the Eastside Gateway Project. 

“Looking back over these ten years, this project has really helped give us the tools that we needed to make sure we could be good stewards of the property and that we had tools which allowed us to reach out to the community and let their voices direct what could be possible,” Clarke said.

As the decade-long Creamery project comes to a close, the Kalamazoo County Land Bank looks toward other ways to bring the community new opportunities.  Currently, the Land Bank is partnering with the Kalamazoo Eastside Neighborhood Association to breathe new life into the East Main Business Corridor. Business owners and residents are an essential part of the process.


Interview with Kelly Clarke, executive director of Kalamazoo County Land Bank

Blight in Kalamazoo: a community asset rather than a weakness, says Kalamazoo County Land Bank


When buildings fall into disrepair and are no longer structurally sound, that is known as blight.  Kalamazoo, like many urban cities, has a problem with blight in its urban core; Eastside, Northside and Edison Neighborhoods; and in townships like Comstock and Cooper. Blight in Kalamazoo can be attributed to many different factors: redlining and white flight in the 1930’s; old industrial sites like paper mills becoming obsolete due to post-industrial economies; and property abandonment during the great recession in 2008.

“(During the recession), Michigan was really struggling,” Kelly Clarke said. “We had one of the highest rates of unemployment in the country, and we also had communities that were experiencing the highest population loss, and lots of property abandonment and blight.”

Previously, the likely outcome for these vacant properties would be to auction them off to the highest bidder. Current Congressman and former Treasurer of the Genesee County Land Bank, Dan Kildee, thought there was a better way. He realized the opportunities these properties presented, and saw them as community assets rather than weaknesses.

“We started to create public entities that could allow the community to take a breath, and hold the properties for a moment and think about how they could be repurposed, renewed and reconnected,” Clarke said.

Clarke agrees with Kildee that blighted structures in Kalamazoo offer an opportunity to rethink how properties are used through a community-focused lense. 

“Properties are part of what make up the fabric of our community. At the same time it offers some fresh opportunities to think about how we approach place and space,” Clarke said.

To start fresh with a property in a community, is not an opportunity available everywhere.

“Say, at the coast,” Clarke said. “Where you have very strong economies and land just isn't available; you are stuck with what you’ve got. So, in some ways, we have been able to turn a crisis into an opportunity.” 

The Kalamazoo County Land Bank became operational in 2010, at the height of the recession. Since then, they have removed just under 300 blighted structures, repurposed or built over 100 new homes, invested $20 million in local, state and federal resources, and supported just under 300 jobs. 

The Land Bank aims to be inclusive in the planning and the outcome of their projects, a goal that is only possible with community involvement. The Creamery itself is the product of over 100 people sharing their knowledge and ideas.  

“None of us individually has all the answers,” Clarke said, “but we have them collectively.”

There are just under 400 vacant parcels left in Kalamazoo County. As the Kalamazoo County Land Bank continues into another decade of serving the community, they hope to continue to forward projects that will stand the test of time.