Midtowns Destiny Drivers

March 23, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — The first amendment to the city's master plan may come later this year. If it does, the change won't be driven by an out-of-town developer with a seemingly endless line of credit but by a neighborhood association located in the heart of the city.

Residents of a section in Midtown, known as the Brikyaat area, captured the necessary grants and then developed a plan to foster residential and economic growth in the district. Planning and city commissioners have taken a look at the unique proposal and have come away impressed with what the residents have accomplished.

"I think this is so incredibly innovative," said Rosalyn Bliss, a 2nd Ward commissioner.

"This is something that has come from the bottom up, which is the way planning should be," added 2nd Ward Commissioner Rick Tormala.

The Brikyaat area falls into the city's 2nd Ward. Fountain Street is the northern boundary and

Fulton Street
borders it on the south, while Fuller and Eastern avenues border it on the east and west, respectively. About 250 households reside there and a dozen or so small businesses offer products and services. The area includes the Fulton Street Farmers Market, which has a key role in the economic expansion plan, and Houseman Field sits on the district's edge.

"I think it is a wonderful plan. They worked hard on it," said City Planning Director Suzanne Schulz.

Highlights of the plan revolve around expanding the Farmers Market, adding covered spaces for year-round sales, and increasing the number and the mix of businesses on

Fulton Street
and
Diamond Avenue

"That is where we are really focusing our economic development," said Kelly Otto, of the Midtown Neighborhood Association, of the Farmers Market area.

Research by CalvinCollege revealed that the Farmers Market regularly draws buyers to the area from neighboring counties; the hope is that an expanded market will result in more customers for businesses on East Fulton and Diamond.

The neighborhood association also proposed to create a variety of housing options that would include all income levels, raise the residential density, improve the infrastructure, and enhance public safety and access in the area. Smart Growth guidelines will be followed throughout the economic and residential plans.

Schulz said the three-year project will likely lead the East Fulton Business District to be named a Traditional Business District, like the one along

Wealthy Street
. The Brikyaat area would enter the master plan under a provision known as an Area Specific Plan.

"That is the direction we're headed. It's a long road, but we're willing to go down it," said Otto.

The association hopes to complete the expansion of the Farmers Market within three to five years. The residential improvements would take longer, depending on the status of the real estate market and the amount and type of development going on in the district.

But the plan itself could be included in the city's master plan as soon as July.

"The entire plan was really years and years of comments from neighbors," said Otto. "We want to be the driver of our own destiny."

The neighborhood association managed to collect $70,000 in grants for the project from the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, the Dyer-Ives Foundation, the Frey Foundation, the Steelcase Foundation and the Michigan State Housing Development Authority.

They spent those funds to hire professionals who led them through the planning process, which consisted of two charrettes, six design team meetings, and three neighborhood-wide meetings over 18 months.

Brikyaat Project Director Christine Helms-Maletic told city officials what prompted the neighborhood project was the nearby Midtowne Village, a retail, medical office and high-end condominium development that is being built in a former, but longtime, residential area just north of Michigan Street.

Helms-Maletic said the association learned of the project too late to have a significant say on it and residents in the Brikyaat area feared that they, too, could possibly lose their homes to a commercial endeavor.

"It was this state of affairs which prompted the neighborhood association to assess Midtown as a whole with a view to proactive involvement in future development in the neighborhood," she told the city.

Helms-Maletic said including the Brikyaat plan in the city's master plan would breathe new life into a neighborhood that has been struggling for two decades.

"Designating the Brikyaat an Area Specific Plan is one giant step in the direction of a revitalized community," she said. "It will not only give the plan 'teeth,' but it will reinforce the generous donation of time, talent and resources poured into the project by committed citizens and passionate proponents of urban renewal."    

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