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The mystery lot of 269 Garfield SW

In September of 1965 a house on the city's west side sank into a sinkhole. Years after the sinking the land still sits empty. What is the story behind the property at 269 Garfield SW?
The house at 257 Richards SW once was located at 269 Garfield SW was moved due to a sinkhole forming at the Garfield address

The house at 257 Richards SW once was located at 269 Garfield SW was moved due to a sinkhole forming at the Garfield address /John Rothwell

The "Mystery Lot" at 269 Garfield SW

The "Mystery Lot" at 269 Garfield SW /John Rothwell

The northeast prospective of the development that was planned for 269 Grafield SW

The northeast prospective of the development that was planned for 269 Grafield SW /Courtesy photo from a resident on Garfield SW

Imagine being awakened at 3 a.m. to the sounds of loud popping. The sounds you hear when there is a hail storm, but there is no hail storm happening. It is the sound of your house being sucked into a sinkhole.

Krystyna Czarnopys-Sweeney was twelve years old on the night of September 27,1965, when at 3:20 a.m. the family was awakened by that popping sound at the home on 269 Garfield SW.

“It was 3 o'clock in the morning and we heard this loud popping. Literally it was it was like this huge large hail storm that woke us all up so we all jumped out of bed,” said Czarnopys-Sweeney, speaking over the phone from her home in Nashville, Tennessee.

Czarnopys-Sweeney described what took place after that.

"My mother looked outside and then went to put her foot on the step and the steps caved in then she started screaming 'Get out! Get out! Get out!' We ran out the door. She grabbed my little sister out of the crib. Everybody got out," said Czarnopys-Sweeney.

“It was an experience I wouldn't wish on anybody. It was the most frightening thing I have ever gone through."

"Then we started hearing this loud pounding. You're standing there watching your house as the sinkhole gets bigger and bigger and bigger and finally cave in. The entire basement was gone yet the structure of the house was still there. All of our belongings were in the basement ... my Barbie dolls and all my dad’s tools. Everything was lost; everything sank into the ground and was gone."

Arriving a decade before, Czarnopys-Sweeney’s father, Joseph, arrived from Poland with his three brothers. The four of them purchased four lots in the 200 block of Garfield SW to build homes. 

Czarnopys-Sweeney she feels the city was uncomfortable right from the beginning with the selling of the property.

“The land should have never have been built on. The topography was okay but underneath there they knew that something was wrong,” Czarnopys-Sweeney said. “There was some kind of stipulation with the purchases of the lots from the city.”

Neighbors called the lot the house was built on the mystery lot. Before being built on area kids would place piles of twigs, rocks and even toys on the lot and they would often be gone the next day.

Czarnopys-Sweeney remembers that when it rained the sewers would back up and their basement would flood.

“The insurance company said that the sinking was an act of god. No one received a penny of insurance from the incident. It was a year before the family saved up the money so they could move the house to a lot at 257 Richards NW.

During that year with the hole still open the sound of flowing water could be heard.

“You could hear the waters moving, so we thought it was an underground river,” said Czarnopys-Sweeney.

After the house was moved, the sinkhole was filled, it open up again and filled in again. Joseph Czarnopys maintained the empty lot cutting the grass every week and paying the taxes every year until his death in 1987, when the family deeded the property back to the city.

The city owned the property until it was sold to the Kent County Land Bank. It was then in the summer of 2017 real estate broker Joshua Schaub looked into purchasing and building a property on the lot.

“I believe back in the 1970’s the previous home there just collapsed as a sinkhole ate away at the front of the foundation. I found this out at a neighborhood meeting as I was trying to get the community's thoughts on my project. Some of the nearby neighbors had pictures and articles on the whole event. I eventually consulted with a geological digging company (don’t remember their name, I just Googled some) and they recommended I don’t build there because it could have a small risk of happening again. They stated you never know what the weight of the new home will do,” wrote Schaub in an email.

The Czarnopys believe that the city new that they sold their family bad property decades ago. With the recent request to build, what does the city know about this lot?

It was the neighbors who went to the Planning Commission when they heard of a development proposal in their neighborhood. Many asked why a house with the past experience of a sinkhole at that site should be allowed to be built on that location.

“The Planning Commission and Zoning don't look at whether soils are suitable for development,” Grand Rapids City Planning Director Suzanne Schulz said. “That is the responsibility of the property owner to do their own due diligence."

Are there other areas of the Westside in danger of sinking? This is the third article in a series exploring what it means to have an extensive network of mines and filled in wetlands in the same area a lot of new business development is taking place on the Westside.

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