Construction, Economic Development, and Government

Outdated street work stalls DDA

Plan approved four years ago doesn’t meet today’s intentions.

February 13, 2015
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The redevelopment of State Street in downtown Grand Rapids is a microcosm of how far the city has come in just a few years.

Members of the Downtown Development Authority last week struggled with a decision to approve $675,000 in funding for the reconstruction of State Street between Jefferson and Lafayette avenues, and the reconstruction of Bostwick Avenue between Lyon and Crescent streets.

The DDA agreed four years ago to be a local contributor to the Michigan Department of Transportation project to the tune of $675,000. Other funds were to come from an MDOT grant ($457,653) and the city’s water ($235,007), sewer ($349,551) and vital streets ($93,482) budgets.

Kris Larson, president and CEO of Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., acknowledged that, in the past, the DDA regularly participated in projects that cover streetscape enhancements, new trees, storm-water control, lighting projects, and street and telecommunications improvements.

Now, DDA members say, those types of improvements aren’t enough for what Grand Rapids is trying to become.

“The city was in a much different financial condition and the DDA was picking up the local share of most street projects in downtown,” Larson said.

He noted the struggle the DDA faces in approving a project begun several years ago that does not include the desired design elements of today.

“Much has changed in terms of the public’s understanding of and expectations for streets in the last few years,” he said. “Across the country, ‘complete’ streets are becoming the norm, while locally we have been slower to adapt to streets that better balance the different modes that people use.

“The relatively easy passage of the Vital Streets ballot question is a good reflection that people were driven to the polls under the promise of sustainable, balanced streets that support different modes.”

DDA members shared several concerns about supporting the project, including MDOT’s use of incongruous materials, bike lane infrastructure, storm-water management infrastructure, a lack of public input for the State Street reconstruction, parking concerns and the lack of multimodal street design.

Mayor George Heartwell, who sits on the DDA board, said the overall design does not meet the needs of the neighborhood.

“No one at that table wants to see money go back to state or federal agencies or reallocated to other jurisdictions,” he said. “We want to be able to use it, but we don’t want to simply (approve it) because we’ve got the grant. We don’t want to approve a bad design.”

Heartwell said he would like to see a plan that includes better storm-water management infrastructure, including porous pavement in parking lanes, protected bike lanes and consistency of materials — the current plan would mean some portions of the street would be brick and others would be asphalt.

Without the DDA’s approval of its share of the funds, the project cannot move forward and it would lose its federal funding. The funds could be obtained again in the future but likely several years from now.

The area currently includes existing businesses and restaurants and a strong residential neighborhood. Plans for further development in the area include mixed-use designs with ground-floor retail and upper-level residential, as well as the nearby Grand Rapids Public Schools Museum School.

The expectation is the area will see an increase in traffic from walkers, bikers and transit, and therefore needs to be designed to support those modes of transportation.

Although bike lanes are part of the reconstruction plans, the lanes will not include a protected barrier, something that has been repeatedly noted as a priority by Grand Rapids residents in various listening sessions. To add that feature later would be more expensive.

Jim Talen, Kent County commissioner, raised concerns about the asphalt use, as well, saying he’d prefer to see if there is a way to fund brick so the reconstructed street would better fit surrounding portions.

He also noted community input sessions that were poorly attended, saying he felt area residents hadn’t fully been given a chance to participate in project discussions.

Larson said the conundrum the group was facing signaled the importance of expediting the work of the Vital Streets Task Force.

“We are behind the curve,” Larson said. “We do need to expedite the process.”

Later he added, “My comment was a reflection that this tension is real. People and neighborhoods are asking for a systems approach to street hierarchy. We can’t build an effective transportation system using a limited, block-by-block perspective.”

Based on its many concerns, the DDA strongly considered a no vote, which it said would send a strong message, but ultimately decided to table the motion for 30 days until its next meeting.

During that period Larson said the DDA would be “exploring if the option to ‘design back in’ the brick ornamental treatment is an option” and it will “examine every opportunity to design and fund the street possible.”

“The motion this morning was a reflection of the distance our leaders have traveled to endear a vision of streets that accommodate a greater array of citizen choices,” he said.

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