Not Your Garden Variety Work

April 11, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — In addition to a new hotel, downtown also will see improvements made to two of its key riverfront streets as part of the Alticor Inc. construction plan.

The striking changes planned for Campau Avenue and Pearl Street are close to a complete makeover.

Wider sidewalks, new streetlights and a snowmelt system all are on the Alticor drawing board, right along with the 24-story, $70 million hotel that the company will build near the intersection of Campau and Pearl.

But perhaps the best, and certainly most noticeable, improvement will be the trees and plants that will line both streets. The effort will begin with a small garden that is planned for the intersection itself and end with rows of trees and flowers extending down Campau and Pearl.

What separates this project from many that have come before it are the planters that will line the streets. These won't be the usual garden-variety steel grates that have dotted streets here and almost everywhere else for decades. Instead of steel, cement will be used. And instead of being at street level, these will be raised a few feet, like the planters in front of DeVos Place.

"It's a raised cement planter. Most of the trees that we have around town now are trees that are planted in grates. So you have the trees planted in steel grates, and the trees that come up through that don't do very well. The trees don't tend to grow much," said Bert Crandell, project leader for the new Alticor hotel.

In short, the grates aren't so great for the trees.

"They live, but they don't grow because they don't get enough water," he added.

The raised planters allow for more soil than the grates do, so more water can be retained and the trees can grow fuller. Annuals also can be grown in the planters and add color to the streetscape. Plus, the planters provide an extra cushion of safety for pedestrians that the grates, which are flush with the sidewalk, don't offer.

"The typical process used now is where the tree is level with the sidewalk and they put a tree grate around it just to protect people from stepping off into the curb area. Even though these are somewhat pedestrian friendly, any lady wearing heels will tell you that they're not because the openings aren't that small," said Tom Tooley, a designer with BETA Design Group working on the project with Lohan Caprile Goettsch Architects of Chicago.

Tooley said the steel grates rust eventually and occasionally the trees have to be removed and replanted. The planters require wider sidewalks, though, so those planned for the hotel project are going to be 14 feet wide. Although a decision as to what type of trees and flowers will be planted hasn't been made yet, the planters would be at least two feet high.

Planters also let trees be situated closer together, grow a bit taller, and provide for a shadier effect. The height of the planters also keeps the street salt used in winter from being splashed onto the soil and the dormant trees.

"By putting a few trees together, you get more of a column effect and create a nice little shade buffer. They'll have a better opportunity to grow in the planters," said Tooley.

Daniel Weinbach & Partners of Chicago is the landscape architect for the project.

As for the snowmelt system, it already exists on the north side of Pearl Street and runs parallel to Alticor's Amway Grand Plaza Hotel. The project will add the system to the south side of Pearl, down both sides of Campau from Pearl to Monroe Avenue, and to the hotel entrance on Louis Street.

Alticor will spend $4.6 million on public improvements to the streets. The Downtown Development Authority will add another $2 million to that pot and reimburse Alticor $3 million for upgrades it makes to Campau Avenue, to the walk along the Grand River and to the plaza on Louis Street. The DDA will have until 2030 to repay Alticor.       

Groundbreaking on the new hotel will be held this summer. The Marriott-operated hotel is expected to open in September 2007.    

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