Grand Haven downtown makeover is under way

January 3, 2010
| By Pete Daly |
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GRAND HAVEN — This lakeshore community made quite a splash in its quartoseptcentennial —and it's not done yet.

Quartoseptcentennial is an impressive word for a 175th anniversary, which Grand Haven celebrated in 2009. During that year, completion of new public facilities marked the investment of more than $31 million in downtown Grand Haven, and another $5 million to $6 million is now going into a major replacement of public infrastructure in the prime commercial district: the three blocks of Washington Avenue from Central Park down to the waterfront.

The new $21 million Ottawa County Courthouse overlooking Central Park was occupied in July. The old courthouse has since been torn down, and the new parking lot for the courthouse just opened a few weeks ago. A formal dedication of the new courthouse — a LEED certified structure — will take place in May.

Also in July, the new Loutit District Library building opened to the public. Its new home, which was begun in early 2008, was completed at a cost of just over $10 million, below the original $11.4 estimate, thanks to a "favorable construction climate," according to the library’s Web site.

Complete reconstruction of downtown Washington Avenue already was being planned two years ago, but the federal ARRA stimulus act took effect at just the right time to benefit the city of Grand Haven.

"It really did, otherwise we wouldn't be able to stretch our money nearly as far and get things going nearly as quickly. This is coming at the right time and the right place, and we're trying to take best advantage of it," said Grand Haven City Manager Pat McGinnis.

He said he has been told that Grand Haven was the first community in Michigan to jump on ARRA funds to help finance bonds for public infrastructure. That opportunity arrived late in the summer, when word came that some ARRA funds would be used to reimburse 45 percent of the interest a government entity would owe on new long-term construction bonds.

"That has given us an effective interest rate of 3.1 percent" on the 25-year bonds the city issued in the fall, according to McGinnis. He estimates the savings to Grand Haven taxpayers is about $1 million, compared to a conventional bond issue.

Right after Labor Day, work began on what McGinnis described as a very involved, difficult project that is now "buttoned up" for the winter months. He said it is "very complex underground work in a very tight environment.” The old buildings that are in close proximity make it "slow going," he said.

Jackson-Merkey Contractors of Muskegon won the construction bid on the project. Engineering is provided by C2AE, GMB, Moore and Bruggink and FTC&H.

Design of the Washington Street renewal started in late 2007, according to Ken Shingledecker, special projects manager at the Grand Haven Department of Public Works. He said it is a "full-depth reconstruction" of the street from Harbor Drive up to 3rd Street, including replacement of all water and sewer lines and installation of a snowmelt system for the street and sidewalks, which will also be replaced with new pavement, as well as the street itself.

The work is only being done in the spring and fall seasons to avoid disruption of tourist traffic flow during the critical summer business months.

Shingledecker said it is "certainly the biggest (downtown Grand Haven infrastructure project) in recent history.”

"We're replacing some (water and sewer) lines that were put in in 1910," he added.

During the excavation of Washington Avenue closest to Harbor Drive, work crews found the remains of a railroad two feet below the surface. Shingledecker said the ties were still in place although the rails had been removed.

When the project was buttoned up late in the fall, all utilities had been replaced from Harbor to 1st Street. Work will resume in the spring with the installation of snowmelt coils and repaving of the street and sidewalk, according to Shingledecker. Washington Avenue from 1st to 2nd streets will also be excavated in the spring and the utilities replaced. In the fall, work begins on Washington from 2nd to 3rd streets, with sidewalk replacement and other details completed in the spring of 2011.

The snowmelt system, similar to that installed in the Holland downtown business district, will be installed under the street pavement and sidewalks from 3rd Street to Harbor Drive. Surplus heat from the boiler at the city's J.B. Sims Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant located on Harbor Island opposite downtown Grand Haven, is used to heat water that will be piped under the Grand River to the snowmelt system, according to Shingledecker. The water will be warm, but far from boiling.

"It doesn't take much (heat) to melt snow," he said — just enough to keep the pavement surface above 32 degrees.

"That means we don't have to plow downtown and get all that snow off the sidewalks, which is a major responsibility of the DPW. We don't have to salt that part of the downtown and deal with all the salt corrosion — plus (salt) runoff into the river."

"Many more people will be showing up in downtown Grand Haven to shop in the winter," predicted Shingledecker.

"There's a lot of people who have no idea how much they'll love it," said Grand Haven Mayor Roger Bergman, regarding the snowmelt system.

Bergman, who owns shoe stores in both downtown Grand Haven and Holland, said some people in Holland walk for exercise and relaxation on the downtown sidewalks when snow and ice is blanketing the rest of the city.

Despite the fact that no work is done on the Washington Avenue project during the summer tourist season, Bergman said some downtown merchants still complained to the city council about the project disrupting their business.

"In reality, it's the economy more than it is any construction" that is restricting sales, said Bergman. Noting that he has been in the retail business for 44 years, he said that between his two stores in Holland and Grand Haven, "there is very little difference" in sales activity.

"What's happening is the economy," he said.

Even then, Bergman said he didn't think the economy last summer was as bad as some claimed.

"It certainly wasn't a barn burner or anything like that, but my business was holding its own, and I think most businesses were holding their own quite well."

"We had good traffic all summer downtown," Bergman added.

Dana Kollewehr, director of the Grand Haven Mainstreet Downtown Development Authority, said the Washington Avenue infrastructure replacement is the first such project downtown in at least 50 years. The DDA was heavily involved with city officials in the design of the streetscape, with amenities for tourists a prime consideration.

When asked if the downtown merchants were pleased with the infrastructure replacement, she said, "There's definitely a mixed feeling, because of course, there's always stress with construction."

"I think they all agree that some level of work needs to occur in the downtown," she added.

Bergman said that when business is slow is the time to repair and renovate business facilities, and in fact, the city and the DDA are now encouraging the business community to consider investing in historic preservation and renovation of the older downtown buildings.

"The beauty of downtown Grand Haven — downtown Grand Rapids, Holland — is in the architecture and the beauty of these old buildings, and that needs to be preserved," said Bergman.

"I think we need to impress on downtown merchants and downtown building owners in our communities that these (historic) buildings belong to the greater community," he added.

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