Downtown GR Is On A Roll

September 23, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Downtown has changed drastically over the last few years, but plenty more is in store.

New residential developments, restaurants, bars and retailers have become part of the downtown scene and the area now hosts more special events than ever before.

Downtown is a lot more attractive these days, too, thanks in large part to the maintenance and beautification efforts of the Downtown Alliance. Maintenance and beautification have been the Alliance’s focus since April 2001 and the end goal has been the same every year: to create a clean, inviting, safe and attractive urban core that will keep people coming back for more.

Funding for the Alliance’s maintenance and beautification services comes from assessments paid by property owners in the Downtown Improvement District (DID), which is generally bound by I-96 on the north,

Cherry Street
on the south,
Division Avenue
on the east, and the Grand River on the west.

Nearly two-thirds of the district’s annual budget — which was $472,000 this year — goes to maintenance and beautification activities, Chairman Kurt Hassberger said Wednesday at the Alliance’s annual meeting.

“We believe the downtown has never been cleaner than it has been in the last couple of years,” said Sharon Evoy, executive director of the Alliance. “We want downtown to exude color, vibrancy and life.”

On the beautification side, planter boxes installed last year provided MonroeCenter with “365 days of flowers” this year, Evoy said, and 30 other planter boxes have been placed throughout the district. She noted that beautification efforts have “really taken hold” and seem to have inspired a few property owners to undertake their own beautification projects.

In fact, some property owners outside the district are now “clamoring” to have the improvement district expanded so they can be a part of it, Hassberger said. Some have suggested expanding it across the river to include GrandValleyStateUniversity’s Pew Campus, the Van Andel Museum Center and the GeraldR.FordMuseum

There are two myths about downtown that former mayor John Logie said he would like to dispel. Myth No.1 is that there is no parking downtown. Myth No. 2 is that downtown isn’t safe.

“The reality is that there’s a ton of parking in downtown and some of it is free if you just know how to access it,” Logie said. As to the safety myth, he pointed out that in 2002 there were six homicides in all of Grand Rapids, even though it has a population of 200,000.

James Schultz, Ph.D., director of WesternMichiganUniversity’s Grand Rapids campus, said that when the college moved a third of its students from its East Beltline location to the

Ionia Avenue
location, students initially complained that there was no parking and that security was a big problem downtown. Students didn’t want to come downtown, he recalled.

“Now, five years later, when we do our student satisfaction surveys, those items are very low on the list of priorities and concerns that our students have,” he said. “We’ve had no security incidents to speak of, and parking, thanks to the parking commission, is very accommodating to us. We’re very satisfied being here.”

One of the Alliance’s objectives is getting the facts about parking and safety out to people in the suburbs, Hassberger said.

“We’re trying to get the word out around the community because when we finally get somebody to come downtown, they look around and ask, ‘When did this happen?”’

The Alliance has been successful at cleaning up and greening up downtown, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed. A 2004 survey of DID property owners indicated that 88 percent think downtown is cleaner than it was before, and 99 percent feel cleanliness has an impact on the success of the area.

Now the group is out to brand downtown with an identity that sticks. The Alliance is developing a downtown brand and marketing plan with the help of Hanon McKendry Inc., and is ramping up downtown’s exposure with a new Web site that will give folks access to daily information on events and attractions at restaurants and bars, and at cultural, sporting and entertainment venues, said Ray Kisor, Alliance vice chairman.

He said the interest in branding downtown came on the heels of the Arts & Entertainment Strategy analysis of last year, which suggested downtown needed to show some “attitude,” develop a consistent, branded focus and play up its growing reputation as an arts and entertainment destination.

In addition, the Alliance has hired Progressive AE to develop a streetscape plan for downtown. The Alliance held three streetscape design workshops to present some of the design possibilities and to get feedback from the public as to what look they want for downtown.

The idea isn’t to start over again, but to add to what has already been done, said Peter Pollack of Pollack Design Associates. He noted that change in an urban setting has to be done incrementally.

“Making the urban dimensions feel smaller is a really important part of how people walk and see and experience. It’s all about experience and coming back because the experience was positive,” Pollack said.

He presented suggestions for a design framework for downtown beautification built around four “character” areas: the downtown activity center, which is “urban plaza” in overall character; the institutional and governmental campuses that are “park-like” in character; and the Heartside Neighborhood area, which conveys “a city setting with a personal feel.”; and the river’s edge, which is “shoreline” in character.    

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