Coming A DeVos Place Traffic Jam

July 25, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS—Most would seemingly prefer to have traffic jammed inside the new convention center over having a traffic jam on the way to the building. But downtown traffic may not flow as smoothly as the city would like it to for a nine-month period down the road and that possibility has wrinkled a few foreheads.

The Michigan Department of Transportation has some bridge restoration work near the junction of I-196 and US-131 on its agenda in the near future, and that job has created a bit of concern for members of the Convention and Arena Authority.

The planned project would be similar to the work MDOT did on the west side of the junction last year, a job that widened lanes near the I-196 Lane Avenue ramps and replaced bridge decks over Lane, Stocking and Broadway avenues.

The next time, however, the work will be done on the east side of the junction and will involve repairing bridges over Ottawa, Ionia and Division avenues.

“What was done on the west side will be done on the east side,” said Art Green of MDOT. “We want to get this thing done because the bridges aren’t in real good shape.”

So why is the CAA concerned?

Because the project could start in April 2005, about three months after work on DeVos Place is scheduled to be completely finished. The bridgework would continue for the entire construction “season,” meaning it could last into November, and would require closing at least one heavily used downtown ramp.

“The Ottawa off-ramp will be closed for some time during construction,” said Karl Koster, a city engineer.

Twenty-one conventions are booked at DeVos Place in 2005 and most will take place after the auto show, boat show and other consumer shows are done in March, pushing much of the convention season into the construction season.

In fact, the largest conventions booked for the year are set to arrive in the summer when the bridgework could be in high gear.

Those 21 conventions should bring 49,500 out-of-towners downtown, account for 31,366 room nights at area hotels, and be worth $8.8 million to the local economy in 2005.

In addition to those bookings, the Convention and Visitors Bureau has 11 more groups thinking about coming here that year. Should those tentative groups sign on the dotted line it would mean another $3.5 million for the economy that year and 2005 could be worth $12.3 million in convention business.

To get that financial benefit, however, convention-goers have to get to DeVos Place. If they have difficulty getting there on their first visit, and if traffic jams disrupt attendance and schedules at their conventions, would they ever return?

“We just want to make sure we have a plan in place to minimize any potential impact to these conventions,” said Rich MacKeigan, SMG general manager of DeVos Place and Van Andel Arena.

Green said a start date for the work hasn’t been finalized and Koster said it wouldn’t start next year. So the earliest start date would be April 2005, and the project could be held back until 2006. Green added that MDOT would remain in close contact with the CAA regarding the project and would listen to any recommendations board members might have.

“We’re excited,” said Green, “because we can fix some of these things and not bother you for another 25 years.”

Some work is planned, though, for next year on downtown bridges along US-131, but it will be done under the bridges on Bridge and Pearl streets. A ramp or two could be closed during the project, but Green said most of the work would be done on the weekends.

In 2004, 21 conventions are also on the DeVos Place schedule with another 10 listed as tentative. The exhibit space opens for business in December. The entire project, however, won’t be finished until January 2005.

Still, downtown will see some bridgework done before next year as MDOT will make repairs on the I-196 bridge over the Grand River at the US-131 junction in September. That work will close westbound I-196 between U.S.-131 for at least two weeks, but the Ottawa Avenue exit ramp should remain open. 

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