Williams Works A New Angle

April 4, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — Construction on one of the city's more unique multiple housing developments is well under-way and is proceeding smoothly.

But applying a grade to the project based solely on that snapshot would be like looking at the "after" photo of someone's major weight loss effort. Only the gain, and not the pain, would be in the picture.

The land, owned by the Versluis family, had been a productive apple orchard for decades. Groves of aging trees, however, made the business less than fruitful and the property ripe for other development.

So the family hired Williams & Works Inc., a local civil engineering and surveying firm, to prepare the land for retirement homes, an independent living center, a group of single-family homes and an assisted living facility.

Work began two years later on the 48 acres at Lake Michigan Drive and Maynard Avenue on the city's far northwest side.

"They're about 80 percent done with the southwest corner, which is the Holiday Retirement site of 8.5 acres," said Todd Olin, Williams & Works project manager.

"They're about 60 percent done with Marsh Ridge, 15 acres on the east portion of the site."

But before foundations were poured, it took more than the proverbial village to gain approval for the plan.

In fact, it took two cities, a county and a pair of state agencies to endorse the project, which gained a city-granted, planned unit development (PUD). It also took three developers and six consultants to agree on the plan.

Williams & Works served as the primary consultant, but got help from Cornelisse Design Associates, King & MacGregor Environmental, Parsons Brinkerhoff and Ed Kettle. Kettle did the public relations. Parsons Brinkerhoff conducted the traffic study. King & MacGregor investigated the nearby wetlands, and Cornelisse Design provided land use schematics and landscaping.

Curry Bradshaw Architects of Salem, Ore., and Lansing's Dimitrious Economides designed the retirement communities and subsidized senior housing for Colson & Colson Inc. and Medallion Management, respectively.

The third developer, in addition to Colson and Medallion, was the Versluis family.

The list of players involved in the project, however, still isn't complete because the largest lineup of those involved belonged to the reviewing public agencies — all 12 of them.

The Grand Rapids Planning Commission, City Commission, engineering department, water department, wastewater department, police department and traffic safety all had a look at the blueprints.

The Interurban Transit Partnership, the Michigan Department of Transportation, the Kent County Drain Commission and the Walker engineering department also got ganders. And the Michigan State Housing Development Association had to approve the subsidized housing project for seniors.

The effort, however, didn't start with any of those public bodies.

Instead, Williams & Works began a two-year journey with the Northwest Neighborhood Association to change property that was zoned single-family residential to PUD.

And that opening move turned out to be the smartest one Williams & Works could have made to get a green light for such a project, a feat that is often compared to a chess match.

"We chose to go to the neighbors first, before we went to the city, to work through a plan that would be acceptable to the neighbors and the developers. We then approached the city with that application," said Olin.

Not all the neighbors were ecstatic over the plan that Williams & Works took to the city, but most were satisfied. Olin said getting to that point with the neighbors took an enormous amount of time, and also created sort of a power outage at the city.

"The Planning Commission felt trapped in that the neighbors and the developers had come together on this particular project, and the Planning Commission felt it had no power," he said.

The usual route for an engineering firm is to meet with city planners first and then make an application for a zoning change with the city. Civil engineers might meet with neighbors before the plan is filed with the city, but that step usually comes after they get together with planners.

"We went once (to the Planning Commission) and we were tabled and went a second time the following month. Just twice and that is pretty standard for a PUD."

City commissioners approved the change shortly afterwards and the Versluis portion of the project got going.

Olin said they returned to planners for site plan approval of another project on the property and still have at least two more trips to make.

"One for the senior-living facility and another for the single-family residential in the northwest corner," he said. "So the process goes, over and over, until you finally put all the pieces together."

The project was unique for Williams & Works in that the property's location brought many stakeholders together.

The site sits in Grand Rapids, but is at the edge of Walker. A pair of watersheds is involved, which empty into a county drain, and the land is near an MDOT right-of-way.

"The water runs off the site and goes into an MDOT right-of-way that leads to a county drain located in the city of Walker," said Olin.

"That was one of the huge hurdles we had to overcome in this."

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