Economic Development, Real Estate, and Travel & Tourism

Where do you draw the line?

Definition of downtown Grand Rapids’ boundaries depends on whom you ask.

June 27, 2016
| By Pat Evans |
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For some, anywhere within a 15-minute walk from the Calder constitutes “downtown” Grand Rapids. Courtesy Experience Grand Rapids

(See map below and as seen on WZZM TV 13) Downtown Grand Rapids has official boundaries defined by various government entities, but perceptions continue to change as the city evolves.

When the Business Journal published a story at announcing the partnership of Rockford Construction and Meijer Inc. for a grocery store development on Bridge Street and Seward Avenue, “downtown” in the headline ignited an online discussion.

Emails from area developers suggested that while the news was exciting, it hardly constitutes a downtown development.

In response, the Business Journal asked businesses, residents and politicians how they define downtown.

To the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority, downtown is bounded mostly by Michigan and Bridge streets to the north and Wealthy Street to the south. To the west, the boundary mostly sticks to within a few blocks of U.S. 131. To the east, the boundary sticks to Division Avenue on the north, then jumps farther east by a few blocks to stay near Lafayette Avenue NE.

The Downtown Improvement District, a funding tool administered by Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., lays out similar boundaries. Those boundaries are up for debate and change as developments continue around the downtown area. They most recently changed last year.

Many think of downtown as within Division and Monroe avenues and Fulton and Michigan streets, according to Kim Bode, principal of 834 Design and Marketing, 560 Fifth St. NW.

What Bode describes as the traditional downtown is called Center City on a map labeled “Downtown Grand Rapids” on the city’s website. Also on the map are the West Side, Heartside and Hillside neighborhoods.

If downtown includes those neighborhoods, the boundaries would consist mostly of I-196 to the north, Prospect Avenue to the east, Seward Avenue to the west and Wealthy Street to the south.

Those neighborhoods continue to grow in vibrancy, Bode said.

“If we want to continue to grow as a city, we have to acknowledge our city boundaries have changed,” Bode said. “The West Side, Arena District, North Monroe, West Leonard have all seen significant development and change in the last five years and have expanded our city’s walkability, shopping locations, restaurants, breweries, gyms and more.

“I think each area of town will always be branded by the business and neighborhood associations, but if you ask businesses outside of the traditional city boundaries, they would all say we are downtown.”

Those neighborhoods are developing as their own sort of downtown cores, according to John Wheeler, president of Orion Real Estate Solutions. Wheeler said he considers downtown to be where the residents and workers of the Central Business District can easily walk, but that the developing areas are much needed.

Wheeler included the river and highway systems as natural boundaries for the downtown.

Urbaneer President Bruce Thompson got rid of his car a few years ago and now mostly gets around on foot.

“Downtown is anywhere I can walk from Calder Plaza in 10 to 15 minutes,” Thompson said.

The proposed Meijer on Seward Avenue and Bridge Street is approximately 13 minutes from Calder Plaza.

For Thompson, at least, that’s a downtown grocery store.

Downtown Market sits on Grandville Avenue south of Wealthy Street. The market leases its land from the DDA, so it’s certainly legally downtown, said Mimi Fritz, Downtown Market CEO.

Fritz said because of her municipal background, 10 years with city of Holland, she likes to stick to the “legal” boundaries.

“If someone asked me if something could be located ‘downtown’ and not be in a legal downtown boundary, I would have to say that public perception certainly allows for that,” Fritz wrote in an email to the Business Journal. “I am sure many people would not consider the Downtown Market to be ‘downtown,’ because it is on the fringe of a successfully growing downtown, but our tax and assessment bills say otherwise!”

The real estate market’s definition isn’t a whole lot clearer.

For office and retail, Colliers International West Michigan looks at a Central Business District — bounded by I-196, Lafayette, Cherry Street and the Grand River — as downtown, according to Research Analyst Jeff Hainer.

Colliers has a secondary downtown submarket that captures buildings such as Bridgewater Place, Hainer said.

“In the case of the Bridge Street Meijer, we would classify that in our secondary downtown submarket, but not in our main CBD submarket,” Hainer said in an email.

NAI Wisinski of West Michigan’s Mary Anne Wisinski-Rosely said the firm generally talks about downtown in a similar fashion to Colliers.

“Some people still want to be in the core downtown, which would include the area from Division to the river and Fulton to Michigan,” Wisinski-Rosely said. “Then we have the entertainment area south of Fulton, North Monroe north of Michigan and the Medical Mile. And now we will have the West Side.

“I really think that in the future, ‘downtown’ will include all the ‘districts’ within it.”

Third Coast Development is known mostly for its work on Michigan Street, east of Medical Mile. Principal David Levitt said he believes the developments along Michigan Street are a part of a near neighborhood, much like Chicago’s Lincoln Park.

“Our historic definition of downtown is broadening to encompass near neighborhoods that are also experiencing an evolution of their own,” said Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce CEO Rick Baker.

Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss took a diplomatic view.

“As our city grows, so does our sense of downtown — and I think that’s great,” Bliss said. “The river, for so long, has divided us and shaped our perception of downtown. The development and redevelopment taking place in our city is changing that — and that’s certainly something we should all celebrate.”

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