Business owners like plan to trim down Division Avenue

April 9, 2011
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The opinion Reb Roberts has about the city’s decision to put Division Avenue on a diet is likely shared by other business owners who have set up shop in a downtown section of that busy street: He is in favor of it.

The city calls the work to slim down Division from five and four lanes to three, over a stretch that starts underneath the Michigan Street overpass and runs south to Wealthy Street, a pilot project — one that won’t become permanent, for possibly a year, if it ever does. But Roberts, who owns Sanctuary Folk Art at 140 S. Division, doesn’t care right now about the enduring status of the project; he is happy with what the work promises to do on two fronts — not only for his business but also for the other business owners around him.

First, the project proposes to slow traffic down to a more reasonable speed for a city street. “It has kind of been an extension of the highway. What’s been a big thing for the 12 years that we’ve been here is the speed of traffic,” said Roberts.

“The traffic does move so quickly that when people are driving 50 miles-per-hour, they aren’t able to notice which businesses are here.”

Second, the project proposes to turn the right-hand lanes on both sides of Division into parking spaces. For a retailer like Roberts, parking is a utility that ranks right up there with electricity.

“We lost about 30 spots in the last couple of years with the reconstruction that happened at Cherry Street and the turn lanes on Division. Since the turn lanes were put in a few years ago, my walk-in business has taken a big hit. So I’m looking forward to things being reinstated and some new parking being added,” said Roberts.

“What was two years ago becoming a solid business district with retail starting to happen, all of a sudden, there wasn’t those opportunities for customers to have parking close to where the businesses were. In every other business district in the city, there is parking along the street in those corridors.”

Like Roberts, Sam Cummings really likes the project. Cummings is a well-known developer who has renovated his share of downtown buildings and, ironically, about eight years ago he talked about doing what the city intends to do. Back then, he was working on a renovation project and hired Progressive AE to conduct a traffic-calming study of Division.

“The proposal was ‘let’s try it.’ We joked that, in an afternoon, we could go out there with a can of spray paint and just change it. And if it didn’t work, you could just change it back,” he said. “I think it’s a great idea.”

Cummings’ idea may have been prophetic because the changes are going to be made with paint. The Grand Rapids City Commission, the Michigan Department of Transportation and the Downtown Development Authority agreed to re-stripe the lanes, and the painting should get started this summer. Then MDOT, which is involved because Division is a state trunk route that averages 15,000 vehicles per day, will study the results through next spring and decide whether to make the markings permanent. If not, like Cummings said, the state agency will just change it back.

Similar efforts have been made along Plainfield Avenue and East Fulton Street.

“This is temporary. We’re going to try it out with paint for the next 12 months,” said City Planning Director Suzanne Schulz.

“The cost to repaint is very small. We may find that this improves the corridor,” said City Commissioner David Schaffer.

“It’s our anticipation that this will stay in place for about a year,” said Jay Fowler, DDA executive director.

“We can’t do anything until a thorough (traffic) study is done,” added City Manager Greg Sundstrom.

Besides being a developer, Cummings is also a partner in CWD Real Estate Investments. His firm, along with RSC Associates and Triangle Associates, built the new Gallery on Fulton at Division and Fulton Street. The Gallery will become the new home to the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts and has already become home for its apartment dwellers.

“In slowing the traffic, it makes the street more pedestrian friendly,” said Cummings. “Right now it has such an artery feel. Because traffic is moving so quickly, people are not inclined to pay attention to what’s going on on the street. As a result of that, it’s not a very pedestrian-friendly street.”

Cummings thought making Division more welcoming to pedestrians would give the street more of a neighborhood feel that his tenants would enjoy. He said the change also would be good for UICA, as the arts organization could get a loading zone from the project. “They have special events that will happen with some regularity, and a loading zone will be a tremendous improvement,” he said.

As for regular Division Avenue drivers who might be upset with the proposed changes, Cummings said there are plenty of other north-south downtown corridors that they can take. In fact, he said that is what many did when MDOT shut down the U.S. 131 S-curve in 2000, and traffic moved fairly smoothly.

A major catalyst for the project is the Grand Action Committee. Grand Action has approached the city about finding a way to make it easier for pedestrians to get from Crescent Park, which sits on Bostwick Avenue between Michigan and Lyon streets, to Monroe Avenue. North Division, with its high-speed traffic, was seen by the committee as a barrier to a pleasant walking experience.

The pilot project’s first phase will get started with traffic and crash counts, a public survey and a request for public comment. It’s almost a sure bet that Cummings and Roberts will make their opinions known when that time comes.

“Besides just having parking for our customers, the visual effect of calming that traffic allows people to see what businesses are here, and anywhere along this corridor they’ll be able to pull over and find some parking. But it would be nice if the street parking was so full that they had to go around the block,” said Roberts with a smile.

“It’s too bad we have to undo things, but also it sounds like it’s going to be even bigger and better for us. If they had to do the study, that’s fine. I think it will benefit the whole area.”

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