Focus, Economic Development, and Travel & Tourism

Silver Line looks to boost economic development, local real estate

Officials point to success of such projects in other cities and expect the same to happen here.

May 2, 2014
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Silver Line
Stops serving the Medical Mile, like these near Spectrum Health Butterworth, could encourage more health care development. Courtesy The Rapid

Hi-ho, Silver Line! When all is said and done, it is possible that one of the greatest recent economic development catalysts Grand Rapids has seen will arrive by way of bus.

All aboard Michigan’s first ever Bus Rapid Transit service, known to the public by the nickname “the Silver Line.” It’s an idea a decade in the making, a plan to develop a $39 million, 34-station BRT that will run from Gaines Township’s 60th Street to downtown Grand Rapids’ Bostwick Avenue NE, with most of the travel occurring along Division Avenue.

Much of that decade was spent maneuvering through the Federal Transit Administration’s application and approval process, but the fact that it made it through marks a sign that BRTs are finally receiving the recognition they deserve from the federal government, said Peter Varga, CEO of The Rapid.

“This one is a catalyst for the Division corridor. This one is a response to what happened downtown,” he said. “We’re not going to claim that all these ... dollars of development happened because we always dreamed we were going to put a BRT in, but we know now it’s going to serve it.”

So far, about 30 of the Silver Line’s stations are finished, with construction wrapping up in early June and plans to go operational in August. The project also currently is tracking under budget, said Conrad Venema, BRT project manager, who described the Silver Line as “think light rail, but this is rubber tires.”

Venema said it was important for the FTA to believe the BRT is more than just a “glorified commuter service,” and actually has the substantial and key elements of light rail, bearing qualities that could bring permanent economic development to the area.

How exactly would the Silver Line impact economic development and the real estate it touches in Grand Rapids, Wyoming and Kentwood? Essentially by planting seeds, according to those bringing the project to life.

One of the advantages of a BRT system is that it allows the 34 stations along the route to be designed contextually according to location, Venema said. That flexibility gives an edge to local growth, and provides opportunity to make existing assets more accessible.

“It’s not like you’re trying to hammer in something that doesn’t fit contextually,” he said. “Some stations you’ll notice, like Monroe and Lewis, are 36 feet, they have two bays, and then most of them are 48 feet and have three bays. They vary between 36 and 48 feet, based on location. They’re context sensitive.”

What the Silver Line also could provide is an increase in real estate value. Research from other cities with similar systems indicates property value and investment increased wherever a BRT went in, Venema said.

“The Transportation and Research Cooperative Board points to cities that have built projects and what’s happened. Cleveland has a good one in the Euclid Corridor where properties’ values and investment increased dramatically after the project was built. Kansas City is another. Eugene, Oregon, (also) had an … increase in property values after that project was built,” he said.

“Now I don’t think you can claim 100 percent responsibility … but these projects are definitely a catalyst that really get economic development occurring.”

This kind of economic development also comes with a sense of economic responsibility, Venema added. When going through an environmental process, a project like the Silver Line needs to be conscious of where it is putting stations and what impact they’re having, he said.

“If you have stakeholders — and that’s why the public involvement process is so important — who say, ‘I don’t want this, I don’t want this near me or my business because it’s going to negatively affect me,’ well then, you have to take that into consideration,” Venema said.

Jennifer Kalczuk, external relations manager at The Rapid, said the project has involved a significant amount of outreach toward the businesses along the corridor throughout the construction process.

“As part of that and looking forward, what kinds of things could we do with them? We’re hoping to do some cross promotion, that there might be some business that would be willing to do specials or something fun with that first week opening so that there’s a lot happening along the corridor,” she said.

Part of the process meant being sure to touch economic hotspots like 54th and 44th streets, Venema said, but it also meant marketing to both Silver Line’s customers and its neighbors. One of the biggest factors is higher education, he said, adding that BRT officials spent a lot of time discussing how such a corridor could help students attending downtown Grand Rapids colleges, such as Grand Valley State University and Grand Rapids Community College. The Silver Line could benefit the schools by allowing students to reach their destination without the need of a car, meaning schools could spend less on providing parking and instead spend more on the programs offered, he said.

In some cases, ensuring economic development even meant changing the route.

“ICCF (Inner City Christian Federation) was very adamant that the stations go where they were, as a matter of fact. We were originally going to go down Logan Street for whatever reason, and when we changed that to Division, it actually helped them a lot, so they were very happy about that,” he said.

Varga said a major factor in the route is to serve downtown’s Medical Mile. The Silver Line is designed to create economic development, which includes supplying the community with an alternative means to get to the Medical Mile, in particular, he said, which could help create more jobs.

“Our expectation is that a lot of development has already occurred on the Medical Mile and more is being planned, so we feel that’s what directly needed to be served, which is why the route is designed the way it is,” Varga said. “It means that (with) all the services that come to Central Station, all the people coming in from various parts of the community have a way to directly get to where the major sources of employment are.”

How much of that economic development will occur depends on what kind of zoning the cities put in at stations, Varga said. So far, BRTs seem to encourage mixed-use developments, which the Silver Line’s partnering cities are moving toward, he said.

Varga believes economic development will follow where people are living, working and using an easy transportation system. The project, therefore, provides an opportunity for the character of downtown to change from fringe parking lots to development, which has been gradually happening over time, he said.

“What we would like to see is new residential/retail development combined with sensible parking,” he said. “That means the parking has to be either a really good lot parking/ride lot … or better, with development occurring, is that you have parking on the periphery of residential (and) retail development so there’s an expectation that people using it to park are making use of the retail there.”

At the end of the day, the first BRT is always the hardest to build, Venema said, but once it’s done, the effort will be worth it. Only time will tell.

“Every city, every system has a unique response to these projects. What we do know, based on research, is that when you leverage these projects correctly as a community, you more than get back the money you spent on them,” he said.

“The key is when you build these projects and you have the appropriate land use ordinance to go along with them, then anything can happen.”

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