Focus, Economic Development, and Real Estate

Study unveils a Grand (River) plan for downtown

Downtown and River Action Plan has six specific goals.

May 1, 2015
| By Pat Evans |
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Grand River downtown plan
The parcel at 201 Market St., above, is seen as a prime development area along the river for businesses and park space. Courtesy DGRI

Grand Rapids has come a long way in a few decades, but there’s still work to be done.

One plan for that work is a step closer to fruition. GR Forward has wrapped up the public engagement phase for its Downtown and River Action Plan with more than 3,000 Grand Rapidians expressing their opinions at dozens of community events.

The public engagement set a record in terms of a public project in Grand Rapids, said Kris Larson, president and CEO of Downtown Grand Rapids Inc.

A draft of the plan should be ready by early June, but the ideas to be put in place already have been identified.

Much of the plan for downtown focuses on making Grand Rapids a more pleasing place to live by putting the river front and center, Larson said.

“A large play is to reposition the city around the river, which produces a large competitive opportunity for us,” he said. “We have assets we are underutilizing that can be a differentiator when it comes to lifestyle that you can’t recreate in another marketplace like you can here.

“It helps us set the stage for what Grand Rapids will be as a city, 10, 20, 30 years from now.”

Last year, consultants finished studies that showed GR Forward what it would need to do to make Grand Rapids a better place to live and prepare for a critical mass of 10,000 residents living downtown. Currently, there’s an estimated population of 5,000 people downtown, but that number is growing.

Since 2000, there has been a 15 percent increase in the downtown population, compared to a city-wide increase of 3 percent. The future needs include a gradual increase in housing, a greening of downtown and job creation.

Originally, the river restoration project and the downtown plan were separate, but the intersection of the two led to the realization that the river provides a transformative feature for the city’s future.

GR Forward has six goals in its Downtown and River Action Plan to take place over the next 10 years:

  • Restore the Grand River as the draw and create a connected and equitable river corridor.
  • Create a true downtown neighborhood as home to a diverse population.
  • Implement a 21st century mobility strategy.
  • Expand job opportunities and ensure continued vitality of the local economy.
  • Reinvest in public space, culture and inclusive programming.
  • Retain and attract families, talent and job providers with high-quality public schools.

During the public engagement phase, GR Forward collected opinions and compiled them into a map to see the commonalities of suggestions, including what to do with 15 riverfront sites.

“We want to create an ‘emerald necklace’ system of parks that is a central attraction of downtown,” Larson said.

Along the river, pathways will be connected and expanded along the length of the downtown waterway. A portion of that will be completed this year along North Monroe near Leonard Street.

The greening of the riverfront is reminiscent of what the Riverlife Task Force has done in Pittsburgh since 1999, which was detailed in The Atlantic magazine in November.

“We’re working to create open, metropolitan space that includes amenities for people of all ages, so that the riverfronts become the center of community life — a rich, public destination,” Riverlife President and CEO Lisa Schroeder told The Atlantic.

Larson uses 201 Market Ave. SW as an example of what could be done with one of the sites along the river. The area currently has a huge sewer line running underneath it. Instead of moving it, half of the land could be used for development, while the other half could be urban park space, including a “Green Living Room” near the water that would be comparable to New York’s Bryant Park or Chicago’s Millennium Park.

U.S. 131 also poses a challenge, but plans to “humanize” it also are on tap. Examples include making the highway underpasses “friendlier” and opening up the west side of Grand Rapids, where Larson said a huge opportunity awaits.

“There is a huge opportunity to build a neighborhood with great density without large towers,” he said.

Retaining some light industrial buildings and protecting them from residential development also is crucial to downtown, Larson said.

He said public input also noted a desire for alternative transportation opportunities, but not something like street cars. He said car sharing could be in operation within the year and bike sharing within three years. Transformation of the DASH bus system into a “true downtown circulator” has also been suggested.

“This is low-cost stuff,” he said. “It’s a ‘car-light lifestyle’ for people who live downtown, or if they commute downtown, they only have to park once.”

A tree canopy also is a high priority. Within the defined borders of downtown there is a relative dearth of green. The few spots that have a tree canopy, such as Monroe Center, was cited by the public as the most pleasurable.

Grand Rapids currently has approximately 25 percent more miles of road per capita than cities such as Chicago, yet the peak congestion level is far below that of those cities. To help cut back on the “concrete jungle” feel, several streets could see some changes.

Larson noted the “psychological barrier” of Fulton Street as a spot for improvement. Making a temporary parking lane, available to traffic during events, and a landscaped median would help make Fulton more pedestrian friendly.

Current one-way avenues Ottawa and Ionia also may be in line for a change. Ottawa could become a two-way street, while Ionia would remain one-way with protected two-way bike lanes. Meanwhile, Sheldon Avenue would become a linear park leading to a greened Calder Plaza.

Similarly, spaces between buildings would be better utilized for people following decades of being used for cars, Larson said.

“We want people who work downtown to love it,” he said. “We want it to be attractive places that capture the identity of downtown.”

A new site plan for Grand Rapids Public Schools’ Innovation Central High School also is in the works.

The whole plan is in hopes of attracting and retaining a vibrant population.

“We hear time and time again of people who left Grand Rapids to move to a larger metro because it wasn’t moving in a direction they felt was what they were looking for,” Larson said.

“We think Grand Rapids can create a competitive lifestyle, quality of life and lower cost of living. Ultimately, it can help attract new talent back to the region.”

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