Setting The Stage Downtown

May 13, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — If asked, it’s likely most downtown developers would answer that the city has helped them with their building projects. And that assistance comes in forms other than tax-free zones, tax abatements, tax credits and infrastructure work.

For example, two new concepts that should help development in the downtown sector are quietly unfolding. Both involve the Downtown Alliance. One has the agency working with the Downtown Development Authority, the other with the Parking Commission.

The DDA recently gave the alliance $20,000, half of what the nonprofit group needs, to hire a consultant to assist in coming up with a plan to give downtown a more uniform look.

Alliance Executive Director Sharon Evoy told the DDA that even though downtown looks great, it also looks inconsistent. She pointed out that different patterns of pavers are found on adjoining sidewalks and different types of light poles are lining consecutive streets.

“Could it be improved by having a little bit more consistency? Or, even taking it a step further, can we make it work harder for us? What are some wonderful, creative ideas that we could use in regards to the streetscape that really would make it more aesthetically pleasing?” asked Evoy.

The purpose is to develop a model of consistency throughout downtown and then create a manual for developers, architects, and building and business owners. But Evoy emphasized that no one would be pressured into following the model. She does hope, though, that many choose to do so.

Last year, the DDA and the Frey Foundation gave the alliance enough money to install raised planters along Monroe Center and in other sections of downtown. The result was that some building owners, like the Waters Corp., did similar plantings on their own.

“The Waters Building has done a great job with its flowers,” said Evoy.

Hiring a consultant that would put together a specific plan for downtown will cost the alliance about $40,000. The alliance is spending $10,000 on the effort, and with the $20,000 from the DDA, Evoy said she was close to having the funds she needs. Grant applications have been submitted to two local foundations for the remaining money.

“We’re happy to see that there is a lot of work going on and a lot of construction, and what we want to do is just give it some direction. We want this to be real flexible, too — a real flexible framework of good design. We’re not saying everything has to look completely the same,” said Evoy.

Alliance Chairman Kurt Hassberger, also COO of Rockford Development — a firm that has renovated and built a lot of downtown structures — has asked the Parking Commission for help along Monroe Center. Hassberger said meters on the three-block-long section, which has recently welcomed a handful of new retailers, are being taken all day on the weekends and that situation makes it difficult for customers to park near the stores.

“We seem to be losing parking all over the place,” he said.

Hassberger said the alliance agreed to ask commissioners for an enforcement policy on Saturdays that would create some turnover at the meters, something he said was necessary to support a retail environment downtown.

In response, Parking Services Director Pam Ritsema came up with a policy that starts on June 11 with warning tickets and the real things the following week through December.

“We haven’t done Saturday enforcement before because no one was parking downtown. This is a recent problem,” she said.

City meters are enforceable Monday through Saturday.

“If it’s going to be a retail district, we need the enforcement,” said Eric Soya, manager of Little Bohemia at the corner of Monroe Center and Division Avenue.

Not that long ago, metered parking, raised planters and sidewalk pavers wouldn’t have meant very much to developers, builders and business owners downtown because few were there. But now because of all the redevelopment, the “little things” count in a big way — and not only for downtown, but for the region, as well.

“When you think of a region, I think that quite often what you think of is the downtown for that region, and the downtown sets the stage for the community,” said Evoy. “The Grand Rapids downtown sets the stage for the West Michigan community.”    

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