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Schulz Loves Making A Plan
GRAND RAPIDS — Although she lives strictly by a “five-minute rule,” Suzanne Schulz willingly devoted the last few years to developing a new zoning code for neighborhoods and business districts throughout the city.
As city planning director, Schulz spent a good portion of the past four years working on the code called Zone Grand Rapids. During that time she continuously met with residents, developers, business owners and neighborhood planners to get their input into the code.
“I think it’s going to make a substantial difference in the character and quality of the developments that we see in the future. It’s going to reflect the neighborhoods,” she said.
Schulz said a good example of what the code can accomplish can be found by checking out the new Family Dollar store on Grandville Avenue SW near Wealthy Street.
The firm wanted to build its traditional store on the site, which would have had parking in front with the building set on the property’s back edge. City planners didn’t like that design and told the company to return with something that was more in sync with the neighborhood.
“They came back with a storefront building with the parking on the side and apartments above. So we ended up with a true mixed-use building with storefront windows. Should Family Dollar ever decide to leave that location, you could put in another store or coffee shop or some other use, because it doesn’t look like a Family Dollar store,” she said.
“I’m very hopeful we will see more of that.”
City commissioners recently turned the code into an ordinance — one she unexpectedly had to write because former city planner Val Lazdins left the city for private practice, and former planning director Bill Hoyt left the city for Iowa. After Hoyt retired, City Manager Kurt Kimball promoted Schulz to planning director, and the exacting task of writing the new zoning regulation fell into her lap.
“So I had all these new duties, with this zoning ordinance hanging out there and also trying to mix Chloe (her third child) into the mix,” she said. “That did add some time to the process, because I wasn’t going to lock myself in the office and just write it. I wanted to make sure we had citizen input on it.”
“There wasn’t anyone to fill that void for managing the Master Plan. I was able to step in, take ownership of it and help direct the process,” she said.
Schulz is a unique woman in a unique position as there isn’t an overabundance of females heading municipal planning departments today, largely because the field hasn’t traditionally attracted them. In fact, Schulz said urban planning didn’t catch her eye until she was in her third year of college.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew there were certain things that I liked and was good at. Writing was one thing, being detail-oriented and doing reports. But I also am personable and I like being with people, facilitating and doing public-process work,” she said.
“And my dad (Dennis LaBelle) is an attorney, so I like the legal pieces: the debate that brings together different elements. When I found planning, it contained all of those things that I found interesting — everything from the minutia of zoning to the bigger perspective of regional planning. I love what I do.”
Schulz was born in Royal Oak, just outside of Detroit, but was raised in Traverse City. She earned an associate’s degree in general liberal arts from Northwestern Michigan College and a Bachelor of Science in urban and regional planning from Michigan State University — both with honors. Before she joined the city, Schulz worked as a private sector planner and township planning consultant in Lansing and here.
She married husband Scott a dozen years ago. In addition to her daughter Chloe, who is a few weeks shy of her first birthday, 8-year-old Jacob and 5-year-old Madeline complete the Schulz family.
Schulz said she met her future husband while they were waiting tables for the breakfast crowd at a Traverse City restaurant, and she admitted that her first impression of him wouldn’t have exactly inspired a story of love at first sight.
“I tried to get him fired. I couldn’t stand him,” she said with a big laugh.
Today they’re still hanging out together at a restaurant — but this time they own it. Cherry Deli and Catering at 834 Cherry St. SE is theirs and has been for roughly the last three years. Scott earned his culinary degree from Grand Rapids Community College and was the assistant executive chef at The BOB for seven years before the Schulz’s opened the deli.
“Business is good. It was this time three years ago we were signing the papers for the building,” she said. “He knows the restaurant industry and we met in the restaurant industry, so it’s not foreign to us. It seems a little crazy that we thought starting a restaurant would be a better fit for us in the long run, and it was something that Scott really wanted to do.”
There was one unmistakable prerequisite for their restaurant, though. It had to be located on the city’s southeast side, near the Schulz’s home, because Suzanne lives by a five-minute rule.
“If it’s not within five minutes, it’s not worth going to,” she said with another hearty laugh.
“So our doctor, day care, dentist and church — everything is within five minutes. I cannot have as busy of a life as I do if I have to commute a half-hour to and from. I just couldn’t do it. I think one of the values of living in the city is being able to have everything so close.”
In her spare time, Schulz and her family go on their very own discovery treks by taking walks here and wherever they visit. Those walks have an ulterior motive, too, as the leisurely pace gives her the opportunity to show the kids the virtue of living by a five-minute rule.
“They are going to grow up with the five-minute rule. They get very impatient if they’re in the car for much longer.”
Next on Schulz’s professional plate is a project called Green Grand Rapids, pretty much the greenspace portion of the city’s Master Plan. It’s a complex task that will take time to complete. Two of its major goals are to increase the amount of parkland in the city and to make those acres more accessible to residents and visitors.
“It needs to happen. The more I get into it and the more feedback I’ve gotten from people tells me that this is going to be such an exciting process,” she said.
“As a city, we’re going to come out of this process that much better. I’m really looking forward to doing this.”