Economic Development, Government, and Real Estate

West side plan offers flexibility

January 9, 2015
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A view of Grand Rapids' skyline from the West Side. Courtesy Experience Grand Rapids

(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Following a half-dozen community outreach sessions, the newly revised West Side Area Specific Plan will again go before the City of Grand Rapids Planning Commission for a public hearing later this month.

On Jan. 22, the planning commission is scheduled to hear the ASP. An earlier version was presented in September but tabled due to some concerns. Since that time, more community outreach sessions were conducted to gather additional feedback from neighborhood stakeholders.

Grand Rapids commissioners Dave Shaffer and Walt Gutowski are confident the updated plan will be approved by the planners and later by the Grand Rapids City Commission.

The updated plan was not made available to the public by press time, but Suzanne Schulz, director of the city’s Planning Department, noted the West Side Area Specific Plan focuses on the types of development that will improve the community, specifically “mixed-use, high-density with a strong commercial mix in and around the Leonard Street and Bridge Street business districts.”

Gutowski noted the key in creating an ASP is to leave room for flexibility to ensure great development ideas aren’t barred due to rigid requirements.

“You want your guidelines, but it has to be a living and breathing document. With that you need flexibility,” he said. “You’d hate to have a rigid plan in place that would stifle a better development.

“We saw that in the use of the U to the Zoo ASP, with the Cherry Street Capital project. You had some people that were involved in the ASP who were saying it was going against what the ASP was, and you had other people — the majority — saying, ‘Yes, it’s taller than what we originally said, but it does work.’ So it can be touchy.”

Shaffer agreed, pointing out that while height guidelines are important to preserve the character of the neighborhood, there can be exceptions that work within the desired outcome of the plan.

“What we try to do is create a framework of what we want,” Shaffer said. “We didn’t want to say you can do X height but you can’t do Y height. What that doesn’t allow for is the ability of someone to think of something you aren’t thinking about then. Maybe it’s a good project, but you have to have some sort of frame of mind.

“You probably won’t be looking to put a Bridgewater Place on the west side of the expressway — it goes beyond the character of the neighborhood — but allowing for some height, as long as that height has elements that help the neighborhood, can work.”

He added, “We wanted to make sure you saw all the steeples in that area. The thought was can you light them all up at night and it draws (attention to) the architecture of the area.”

Shaffer said when looking at new development proposals, the big thing is how many transitional elements there are and do they fit within the goals of the ASP.

Schulz also emphasized the importance of not being overly rigid when creating ASP guidelines.

“An area-specific plan is a policy document that assists the planning and city commissions in decision-making,” she explained. “It provides the overall vision for the neighborhood and what the community hopes to see happen over the next 10 years.

“It is a guide — not law, however, so while it provides a framework to understand how new development projects might fit into the built environment of a community, there are a number of other factors that must be examined when an actual development project is proposed by a developer.”

The idea for a west side ASP originated nearly three years ago along with plans to create a tax increment financing district on the west side. The effort has been led by Schaffer, Gutowski and Johnny Brann Jr., part of the Brann’s Restaurants ownership group.

“The thought was, look at what Uptown and other areas of the city did to joint market and help their area grow. That is how it started,” Shaffer said.

The west side TIF was approved by city commissioners in 2014.

Shaffer said the ASP and the TIF would allow for strategic development on the west side.

“Some things we heard within the area plan process are, ‘I want my neighborhood to be walkable,’” Shaffer said. “What that tax increment financing can do is, you can maybe slow down traffic on Bridge Street or Fulton or Leonard, or we can add a median.

“If people want it to feel homier, we could plant trees. … Those are things the TIF can help out with.”

During the ASP process, Shaffer said walkability was among the top priorities for residents.

“People really talked about wanting to be able to walk their neighborhood and to really see more opportunities in their neighborhood,” he said.

Enticing new homeowners and renters and providing greater connectivity to other areas of Grand Rapids was also on the wish list.

Shaffer noted one project that has already been completed.

“We thought, ‘Can we light up those underpasses?’ That was part of the plan, and if you look at the ornamental railing under the Bridge Street underpass, that was one of the designs we had that is already in place.”

Gutowski pointed out attracting new residents is in the works, too, with a number of new apartments announced in 2014.

“There are going to be another 200 apartment dwellings within a couple hundred feet of my print shop (Swift Printing, 404 Bridge St. NW) in a couple years,” he said. “We are going to have a huge influx of folks, but we can’t forget about the folks who are already here.”

Gutowski noted a big part of creating an ASP is about figuring out how to balance the old with the new, and ensuring the uniqueness and history of the west side aren’t lost in the settling dust of new developments.

“What’s really important is welcoming and celebrating new entities into the west side, but also having the right balance so everyone that is here now knows they are also welcome and celebrated,” he said.

With new businesses and new residences in the works, the west side is in need of improved connectivity, and transportation options are a big part of that.

“We all know any city that really is flourishing has great transit,” Gutowski said.

Gutowski and Shaffer would like to see an increase in service from both The Rapid and Grand Valley State University’s Gus buses on the west side.

“We have been talking to The Rapid about how to get to the next phase, especially along Seward Street,” Shaffer said. “One of the things we thought about is could we put that transit district along the Bridge Street section, where Swift Printing and New Holland Brewing will be, because of the ability to have dense housing in that space. Dense housing is going to have to have a transit option. The Rapid is now looking to plan for that.”

Other ASPs and TIFs created in Grand Rapids have proven successful, but sometimes lead to strong disagreements about proposed developments. Schulz used the Belknap and U to the Zoo plans as an example.

“These plans provide a vision for developers to follow,” she said. “Strong development interest in these areas, however, also has pushed the limits of the plans and their ability to anticipate change, as well as the abilities of the Planning Commission and City Commission to navigate between development approvals and specific recommendations from each area-specific plan.

“The approach of using area-specific plans created by neighborhoods to augment the citywide master plan is quite unique compared to other communities. There are a lot of ‘lessons learned’ that could be shared. The bottom line to all of this is that there’s huge value in discussions about change and development that everyone benefits from.”

Barring any hiccups with the plan, city commissioners are expected to pass the west side ASP by the end of March, at which time it will become part of the city’s master plan.

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