Economic Development, Government, and Real Estate

Downtown plan about to start rolling

Downtown GR Inc. will begin seeking input from the public.

May 23, 2014
| By Pete Daly |
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Downtown Plan
The planning process for downtown development will include the river, as well as the business district. Photo by Johnny Quirin

Come June 5 and 6, Grand Rapids will begin hearing about the new Downtown Plan process, which includes everybody being invited to contribute their thoughts and opinions on what downtown Grand Rapids should be like.

Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., representing a consortium of several public and private stakeholder entities, has hired Interface Studios, a Philadelphia consulting firm, to do the research and write a plan that will steer the city into the future.

DGRI CEO Kris Larson said a new website should be up by the first full weekend in June. Although it does not yet have a domain name, people will be able to enter their suggestions and opinions about downtown Grand Rapids on the website. Access will be promoted at Movies in the Park and at Festival of the Arts.

Larson said the Downtown Plan is expected to cost about $900,000. Interface actually began work a couple of months ago, he said, and while there is no set deadline for completion, Larson said he hopes the task will be completed a year from now.

“Ten or 15 years ago, we had Voices and Visions, the first really robust plans to look at going forward,” said Ray Kisor, an executive at Colliers International and chair of DGRI. There have been studies in the interim, he noted, “but nothing that goes to the depth of what this is about.” It includes a study of the Grand River corridor through the city and residential neighborhoods close to downtown.

Brian Harris, chair of the Downtown Development Authority, which has fiduciary responsibility for the Downtown Plan, said the cost isn’t fixed because the inclusion of other entities in the planning process in May could entail unanticipated expansions of the research. However, he said it would be safe to say the cost will be “south of a million dollars.”

Harris said “without a plan or map, any direction will do.” But if there is an intent to shape the future of downtown Grand Rapids, “you have to have a plan how to get there.”

“There are a number of organizations in this community that effect change and make investments, and spend both private as well as public dollars” on things that shape the downtown, said Harris. “Each one can do their own thing and spend their money how they want.”

However, by merging the various groups behind a single, comprehensive Downtown Plan, “the outcome is better aligned and we spend less money.”

The plan “should have a life of 10-plus years,” he said.

In mid-May, the DDA board approved Memorandum of Understanding agreements between the DDA, Grand Rapids Public Schools and the city of Grand Rapids for funding expanded elements of the Downtown Plan that were not originally budgeted. Those include “a more comprehensive analysis of the Grand River Corridor, downtown parking and transportation, and the Grand Rapids Public School Central Campus.”

Larson said there “really are four different groups” now shaping the Downtown Plan: the city of Grand Rapids, which is involved with Grand Rapids Whitewater, a private group, in the Grand River Corridor project; Grand Rapids Public Schools; the DDA; and the parking/transportation coalition, which includes city departments and The Rapid, the regional mass transit authority.

Larson said each entity is contributing to the cost, with the River Corridor planning project being about $240,000; the parking/transportation share about $175,000; and the GRPS share about $80,000. The balance comes from the DDA.

Harris said the school system is involved because “education is an important component to vibrancy” in the city. The thought is that more people are expected to be living downtown and “a good adjacent school system” will play a role in the quality of life there.

The plan will also include a study of parking in the downtown area and the options available.

“We’re going to spend nearly a million dollars on a study — and people just hate the idea of another study,” said Harris. But he added this one will be “an important way of tying all of the interests of the community into one view, and we need to do it so that it’s got a lot of input from all the stakeholders, not just the people in powerful positions, but the pedestrians on the street, the residents …”

“This is a transparent process to include a lot of voices,” added Harris.

“In early June we will be beginning the process of creating … in-person opportunities for people to start to share with us some thoughts about the community,” said Larson.

“It’s really just kind of touching base and understanding what’s called the temperature of the community,” he added.

“The (Downtown) Plan will have a sort of compendium website for all three elements … the river corridor piece, the schools piece and the downtown piece — one online presence where members of the public can go and review all of the information that’s been collected as well as respond to different prompted questions, according to where we are in the process.”

“We are building it right now and I don’t think we have settled on a domain name with all of our partners yet, but the domain will probably mirror the brand of the plan,” said Larson.

He said last week that “right now we’re doing a huge data collection effort, collecting all different types of stats, and using that to go into this big determination of where we are in a metric-based perspective, to help (Interface Studios) measure everything.”

Kisor said philanthropy is going to play a role in the downtown of the future, “as it has in bringing Grand Rapids to the forefront. Without philanthropy, this town would still be a little backwater. We have just an incredible philanthropic community.”

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