Economic Development and Government

River at center of GR Forward’s plans

Organization identifies six goals, including creation of a true ‘downtown neighborhood.’

January 23, 2015
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Following extensive public outreach efforts to gather feedback from all sectors of the Grand Rapids community, GR Forward presented an initial draft vision and set of six goals recently during a standing-room-only public forum.

The purpose of the forum was to let people know how the downtown and river corridor plan is shaping up and provide yet another opportunity for feedback on those plans.

GR Forward is a product of the city of Grand Rapids and Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., and is focused on creating a plan for the city’s future using resident input to prioritize projects and resources.

The six goals identified in the draft plan are: create a true downtown neighborhood, restore the river as “the draw,” implement a 21st century mobility strategy, ensure continued vitality of the local economy, create a connected and equitable downtown and river corridor, and reinvest in public space.

During the forum, Scott Page, principal at Interface Studio, and Scott Bishop, principal at Stoss, discussed how the GR Forward team developed the six goals.

For Grand Rapids to be able to attract the kind of retail and professional services that people have said they want downtown, the number of people living downtown has to increase drastically, turning downtown into a neighborhood.

Page noted Grand Rapids currently is home to 5,000 residents, a big increase in the past 10 years but still significantly less than the critical mass needed to support the range of retail and services on peoples’ wish lists.

Page reported in the next five years downtown will be able to support the addition of 2,000 more residential units, a good start toward reaching the critical mass of 10,000 residents living downtown that Kris Larson, president and CEO of DGRI, has mentioned as the magic number for attracting a grocery store, pharmacy and other types of retailers currently lacking representation downtown.

To turn downtown Grand Rapids into a neighborhood, residential development has to be a priority and it has to be varied, including options like townhouses, condos, apartments and lofts, Page said. That’s because someone interested in moving downtown has to be able to find the type of housing situation that appeals to him or her, or they won’t make the move.

The No. 1 interest expressed during the GR Forward outreach sessions has revolved around the idea of creating spaces. The river and its edges are certainly at the forefront of that desire. People want more access in and around the river and hope to see a variety of activities taking place there.

Focusing on transforming the river and its banks into an activity center will not only benefit Grand Rapids residents but also will turn the city into a destination, attracting tourists and new residents.

GR Forward is hoping to be able to use updated infrastructure to create greater access to the river and allow for active programming along the river. Planners are working with FEMA in regard to how to create a floodwall system that also will allow for river access.

Bishop said creating a connected trail system along the river is also a must. He noted by connecting to a regional trail system, someone could reach New York or North Dakota leaving from the middle of Grand Rapids.

Success for GR Forward planners would be to see residents enjoying four seasons of activity in and around the Grand River. Rowing, kayaking, whitewater rafting, fishing, sledding, skating, cross-country skiing, swimming and urban camping are a few of the activities that have been suggested.

Even with all the attention parking has been getting lately, the No. 1 wish under the topic of transportation has been installing protected bike lanes. Maybe that’s not such a surprise given the many miles of bike lanes Grand Rapids has added in the last few years to meet the demands of bikers.

In any case, when it comes to the future of downtown, people want alternatives to driving, particularly the millennials. There has also been a substantial call to put parking below ground.

Downtown can’t exist without a healthy roster of businesses and jobs, which means the city has to continue to attract new businesses and retain the ones that are here.

Through an analysis of downtown and the surrounding region, GR Forward found that while West Michigan has plenty of high-profile companies, few of them actually have workspaces downtown. In fact, only 16 percent of office workspace in the region is located downtown.

With a dearth of vacant property downtown, attracting more businesses will require redeveloping underutilized sites to create what GR Forward said is the right mix of available spaces: office space, maker space, ready-to-go industrial space and fabrication space.

For downtown to thrive, its surrounding neighborhoods need to be connected to it. GR Forward has suggested today’s east-west connection is almost nonexistent. Underpass lighting is one of the simplest suggestions that could have a positive impact supporting that connectivity.

Activating streets in downtown will also go a long way toward bridging gaps.

Currently, only 37 percent of downtown streets meet the definition of an “active street.” Active streets encourage walking and create the perception of safety, both of which were listed as essentials during the listening sessions. As redevelopment of buildings occurs, mixed-use space with transparent ground floor retail and restaurants is vital to activating streets.

The final goal, reinvest in public space, ties into the previous goals of turning the river into an asset, providing multimodal transportation options and connecting areas of downtown with one another and adjoining neighborhoods.

People want to be able to do things when they get downtown, and public space is where that can happen. Some suggestions GR Forward included in its goals are more parklets, parks, beer gardens and food trucks.

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