Downtown Streetscape Incentive Going Mostly Unused

August 11, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — An incentive program that gives downtown property owners a financial assist to improve the spaces in front of and alongside their buildings hasn’t received many takers.

The streetscape improvement program offered by the Downtown Development Authority will pay for up to 35 percent of a project’s cost for certain upgrades. The program helps to cover sidewalk replacement and removing street furniture. It also helps defray the cost of inspection and design fees and picks up a portion of the expense for installing decorative pavers, trees, pedestrian lights and snowmelt systems.

But relocating utilities and a building’s mechanical equipment aren’t included in the DDA program. Nor is filling an areaway — the space under the sidewalk in front of a building, but the DDA has a separate program to specifically help property owners with that.

“Most of our streetscape work is done as a DDA program, but if a property owner wants to take on the initiative and fix up the front of their building, they can,” said DDA Executive Director Jay Fowler.

The DDA has set aside $70,000 a year for the next five years for the incentive. Although the program has been in effect for the past seven years, it hasn’t been nearly as popular as the building-reuse incentive the DDA offers.

Only $35,000 was awarded last year in the streetscape program, a grant that went to the owners of the Ledyard Building for sidewalk improvements along Ottawa Avenue just off Monroe Center.

“That was a great improvement to that block. It looks a lot better,” said Fowler.

In contrast, $100,000 in building-reuse grants went to property owners in FY08.

The DDA, though, has already awarded more than 80 of those grants, totaling $2.3 million, since the building-reuse incentive was established. Those grants helped to leverage $70 million worth of brick-and-mortar investment downtown. When the DDA began the reuse incentive, there were a lot of empty buildings, but that number has dwindled dramatically since.

“There aren’t very many buildings left that qualify, to be honest. We had about 70 vacant buildings when we started and, having given away all these grants, there is only a handful that are the type of building that we envisioned when we started this project,” said Fowler.

Now that there are fewer buildings to restore in the district than there were a decade ago, more property owners may turn their attention to the board’s streetscape incentive over the next few years.

“Our plan is that we can do several of these a year,” said Fowler of the $70,000 allotted to the streetscape incentive. “If we needed to, we could go back and ask the board to approve an additional amount, especially if the BRIP program is down and this one is up. I think that is a reasonable request.”

More information on the streetscape incentive program is available from the DDA.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm recently signed a bill into law that lets a DDA operate retail business incubators. But Fowler said he wasn’t certain how the board could get involved in that effort because the DDA isn’t a landlord.

“It’s an interesting idea. It isn’t exactly clear how we will do this because we don’t own a building that is likely to be used in that manner,” said Fowler.

He also mentioned, though, that the incubator idea may get tied into the effort the DDA started last fall to draw retailers into the district. It began as a three-month pilot program but the board made it full-time this year. Fowler said he planned to bring up the concept with the commercial realtors he regularly meets with as part of the retail program and get their input into what the DDA could do.

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