New Master Plan Requires Involvement

May 8, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS – The city is calling on its citizens for help in crafting a master plan that will guide city development and investment decisions for the next 20 years.

The planning process for the current master plan, circa 1963, was a top-down driven process with little citizen or community input, Mayor John Logie told a group of about 200 gathered at the Van Andel Museum Center last Monday for the kickoff of “Plan Grand Rapids.”

This time around, it’s going to be different.

This time around, it’s going to be an all-inclusive process that combines the thoughts, concerns and recommendations of individual citizens, neighborhood groups, businesses, institutions and community organizations.

Over the past 38 years, the master plan has been amended 40 times in a more or less piecemeal, “as needed” fashion. Although Grand Rapids is a developed, land-locked central city, there are many pieces of land that were passed over in earlier planning efforts because they were deemed either difficult to develop or expensive to develop at the time. So the focus will be on development of some of those passed-over parcels and redevelopment of some areas of the city, said Planning Director Bill Hoyt.

The master plan update will look at development issues going forward, such as open spaces, traffic concerns, business district revitalization, neighborhood preservation and job creation and retention issues. It also will identify where resources should be directed. In essence, it’s the community’s overall vision for where it wants to go, and it serves as a policy guide that recommends both the kinds of development and the character of development appropriate for different areas of the city. The updated master plan will establish the principles and standards that will guide the city’s physical development and that will take the form of law in the city’s zoning ordinance.

The two-year project, which began last spring with the selection of a 30-member Master Plan Committee to oversee the plan, is being funded by a Frey Foundation grant awarded to The Right Place Program and matching funds provided by the city. The committee is comprised of representatives from neighborhoods and businesses, and includes three city commissioners and four members of the Planning Commission.

Committee chairman Jack Hoffman said the crisis in land use has given historic cities like Grand Rapids new relevance and importance. Grand Rapids and its surrounding cities, he said, are uniquely positioned to demonstrate the new possibilities for what a city can be.

“To realize the potential of our community, it’s critical that all citizens and groups become involved in the planning process,” Hoffman stressed. “If someone declines to participate, the community is deprived of that person’s energy, gifts and insights. By participating together, we educate each other. The Master Plan Committee says to each of the citizens of Grand Rapids: get excited, get educated and get involved.”

Based on that philosophy, the Master Plan Committee, along with the city Planning Department and Wade-Trim, an urban planning consultant, have designed a process that is broad-based and inclusive, he said.

It began last week with the first of 14 neighborhood outreach sessions that will run through Feb. 24, and 11 business association meetings that will run through Feb. 6. The meetings are targeted at some 30 functioning neighborhood associations and about 20 functioning business associations around the city. The purpose of the meetings, Hoffman said, is “to capture the visions, hopes and goals of each individual group.” He said his committee also plans to select half a dozen areas in the city for more intensive study.

Five city-wide community forums are to follow in March, June and September of this year and in January and May of next year. Recommendations culled from outreach meetings and forums will be pulled together in a proposal. The hope is to forge a consensus, which Hoffman thinks can be achieved because, historically, Grand Rapids citizens “have shown great community spirit.”

A public hearing will follow in June 2002 before the Planning Commission, which is responsible for adopting and maintaining the master plan. Issues and concerns raised at meetings and forums that don’t relate directly to the master plan will be noted and channeled to appropriate city departments, said Hoyt.

Marian Barrera-Young, a representative of the Baxter Neighborhood Association, said the process represents a unique opportunity for the city’s neighborhoods.

“This is an opportunity for you to tell the city what you’d like to see within your neighborhood. But we have to be realistic also. Not everything you propose for your neighborhood is going to happen.”

This time around, the city has “some wonderful new tools” to use in the way of technologies that weren’t available back in 1963, Logie noted, referring to computers and REGIS, the regional geographic information system created by the Grand Valley Metro Council. “Those tools are going to be available to us to come up with something very dynamic,” he added.

The impetus to update the master plan stemmed from a task force City Manager Kurt Kimball put together to look at how the city interacts with the neighborhoods and development community. One of the impediments to making the system work better, the city learned, was the outdated master plan and the zoning code adopted to implement it, Hoyt said.

“We have a zoning tool designed to implement a plan that is no longer current,” he explained. “In many ways that zoning tool makes it difficult for us in terms of trying to accomplish good development in neighborhoods.”

Planners did a good job back in 1963, Hoyt said, but people’s view of the world has changed. In 1963 planners thought the city would most likely go through a process of renewing itself, so the plan envisioned large sections of the central city being torn down and redeveloped. These days, there’s a greater push toward saving the good parts of the city’s older areas and renovating rather than razing older buildings.

Today, the concept of “new urbanism” is in vogue, and the popularity of an urban way of living is on the rise. The city has already begun to accommodate new urbanism principles in the zoning code, as evidenced in rezoning of the Eastown area as an Urban Business District last year, Hoyt noted.

“I think people are rediscovering the charm of older cities and the joys of living close in,” he said. “It’s just a different alternative and a lot of people are choosing that alternative.”

Hoyt expects community forums will reveal there are different visions in different parts of the city. He said if participation is high and people do a good job of identifying what they believe in and what’s important to them, when decisions have to be made, the master plan will be the touchstone to come back to.       

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