Economic Development and Government

DGRI plan reshapes downtown

GR Forward now includes preamble and strategies that measure diversity improvements.

November 13, 2015
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The GR Forward plan is moving ahead with full support from the Downtown Development Authority and Monroe North Tax Increment Financing Authority.

In a joint meeting Wednesday morning, the DDA and TIFA unanimously voted to recommend the final draft of GR Forward, a plan to reshape downtown Grand Rapids around the River Corridor, and one which plots block-by-block changes throughout the downtown including major streets, transportation and trucking routes, parking and public transportation changes and massive amendments to the city’s master plan approved in 2002, its first update in 40 years.

The plan moves on to the Grand Rapids City Commission for final consideration Dec. 15.

After the initial draft was approved by the City Commission in July, a 73-day public comment period began, which yielded more than 750 comments. During that period, one of the most common requests was a more prominent focus on diversity inclusion and racial equity in the plan.

“Early on we knew that diversity inclusion and equity was going to be an important part of it, and we had it in the plan in a lot of different areas, but it wasn’t as prominent and pronounced as people wanted it to be,” said Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. planning manager Tim Kelly. “So we had meetings to understand what are the main issues and how can we address it in the plan.”

In response, DGRI added a preamble that addressed those concerns, moving the discussion of diversity inclusion and racial equity within the plan to the forefront, and also added new strategies and goals for measuring change.

During his presentation, DGRI President and CEO Kris Larson noted that, of 310 businesses operated downtown, only 20, or 6.5 percent, are owned by individuals with minority backgrounds. In addition, 90.1 percent of the downtown workforce is made up of white workers which, contrasted with a downtown residential population comprised of 30 percent minorities, creates a visible disparity the DGRI hopes to correct.

In response, it set forth a target that, by 2025, at least 85 percent of people in the downtown community will view the downtown as inclusive and welcoming.

“These (targets) are somewhat ambitious,” Larson said. “But these conversations with organizations haven’t simply yielded directives; they’ve also yielded partnerships which are ready to begin working with us to help to implement a number of these measures. So we want to set the bar high because we believe real change can and should be possible in our downtown.”

DGRI also increased its target for creating affordable housing options in the GR Forward plan to 30 percent by 2025, up from 25 percent proposed in the initial draft. The hope is that by maintaining this ratio, the downtown will be able to sustain a more diverse population and address the growing needs of current downtown residents by providing more affordable housing options.

Prior to the committee votes, DDA board member Jim Talen recognized DGRI’s effort as a “marathon sprint” in putting together the final draft and praised the importance placed upon community engagement during the plan’s public comment period.

“I’ve been involved in so many of these processes over the years, where both I and others have provided input and went away and said, ‘Did anyone hear anything we said?” Talen said.

“It’s just really significant for the credibility of this plan, that people are able to see that, ‘Yes, I said this, and here’s how to make a difference,’ and that creates ownership.”

Prior to Wednesday’s meeting, GR Forward already had secured recommendations from the Downtown and River Corridor steering committees and the DGRI board of advisors. It was approved for recommendation by the City Planning Commission on Thursday, and the City Commission’s Dec. 15 meeting will be the final discussion.

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