Public Works Site Costly Decision

August 4, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Whether or not the city of Grand Rapids sells its Public Works Island to Grand Rapids Development Corp., Moch International or some future interest, it is all but certain that the facilities at

201 Market St. SW
will one day be relocated and its riverfront property opened for development. The costs related to that move may already be a source of contention among city commissioners and are anticipated at $65 million to $70 million.

When the city rewrote its Master Plan four years ago, the 16-acre parcel was among a number of city properties earmarked for future redevelopment. Reflecting the nearly universal opinion that municipal services is not the best use for riverfront property, the city-owned 1501 Monroe Ave. NW, 1401 Monroe Ave. NW, 201 Market Ave. SW and the adjoining 225, 273 and 353 Market Ave. SW and 509 Wealthy St. SW were all slated to eventually make way for park land and mixed use.

"I think we've learned, from long ago, that our waterfront has a higher, better use, and everybody has agreed to that," said Grand Rapids Economic Development Director Susan Shannon.

Whether or not it happens as a result of the current proceedings, several important city services will someday be relocated, setting the stage for one of the city's most important decisions in recent memory.

"We're talking about where would be the best place for a Department of Public Works for the next 50 to 100 years," said Bill Kozak, an engineer at Moore & Bruggink Inc. who has worked with both the city and Grand Rapids Development Corp.

The city structure doesn't have a Department of Public Works, per se. The Public Works Center is a collection of disparate departments including Parks and Recreation, Streets and Sanitation, Information Technology and related support services.

While some of these departments can be housed virtually anywhere in the city, others such as sanitation, road maintenance and snow removal could be incredibly disruptive to a neighborhood.

"You have to put this in an industrial area — heavy industrial, preferably," Kozak said. "It's ugly, all day and all night. That's not fair to neighbors."

Such a facility would also have to be centrally located, Kozak said, or close enough to major roads and highways to have access citywide.

Steve English, a senior civil sanitary engineer in URS Corp.'s Farmington Hills office, agreed that a suitable site must have easy access to its entire service area, but did not agree that it had to be in an industrial zone. He used the Farmington Hills DPW as an example, located in a commercial zone off I-696.

"It just can't be anywhere near the residences," English said.

This would be difficult in Grand Rapids, however, where there are few commercial areas not bordered by housing. Beyond that, Kozak said, care should be taken to locate somewhere that isn't going to be in demand for development in the foreseeable future.

"Look at the property they're on right now," he said. "It went from property nobody really cared about 25, 35 years ago, to property people are willing to pay $30 million for today."

Choosing a site that isn't likely to be developed could rule out sites within the city's 10 tax-free Renaissance Zone districts, where much of the city's vacant industrial land is located. There is a precedent for relocating to Ren Zone property, however. The city built its new Water Department headquarters at

1900 Oak Industrial Drive NW
in the Terra Firma Renaissance Zone.

English cited the possibility of collocating services.

"This is a bigger opportunity than just relocating," said Rick Chapla, vice president of urban development for The Right Place Inc. and a member of the steering committee evaluating the PublicWorksIsland proposals. "This could result in an upgraded service delivery mode. It's a perfect opportunity for a learning exercise."

Some city services — information technology, for example — could consolidate facilities within another city office. Another possibility would be to have the city collocate departments at county facilities, such as snow removal and salt storage.

Eric DeLong, the deputy city manager in charge of the relocation, said such a possibility exists.

"The charge of the team we have looking at this is to look for all types of efficiencies, whether that be location or operating efficiencies," he said.

The new location, should there be one, might not have a much smaller footprint, DeLong said, but could have a significantly different structure than the current site. DeLong believes the plan that will eventually be produced will show a more efficient facility, both operationally and environmentally.

While city officials have never publicly estimated the costs of relocation, DeLong said preliminary figures are roughly what he expected. He did not divulge what those figures were, and also indicated that the city had not contacted any property owners concerning a relocation site.

English said that while he could not estimate the cost of the project without knowing the city's intentions, comparable Department of Public Works and Transportation projects he has been involved with averaged $150 to $180 per square foot.    

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