Turning Turner Into A Greenway

October 21, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — Some are hoping that private money and public grants will turn Turner Avenue on the city's near northwest side into a green gateway that will welcome visitors to Grand Rapids.

Their plan is to beautify the land along the southbound concrete wall of U.S. 131 on Turner into an 11-block run of attractive greenspace. About 10 small parks would dot the one-mile stretch from Richmond to Third streets that would take southbound visitors from the expressway's Leonard Street exit into downtown and to the new DeVos Place convention center and to the relatively new Van Andel Arena.

"What if we change the way visitors from Muskegon, Ludington, Rockford and Traverse City come in from 131? How about a better way to bring them into downtown?" asked Rob McCarty, business district developer for the West Grand Neighborhood Organization.

"So we're going to propose that we bring our visitor traffic down Turner," he answered.

The Michigan Department of Transportation owns the property, or the rights-of-way, that has been designated for the project. In fact, MDOT is being looked at as a funding source for the work through its beautification grant program.

Those grants helped support the revival of North Monroe Avenue on the east side of the Grand River. New ones would help build a development on the river's west side that would highlight the agency's rebuilding efforts on U.S. 131 and I-196.

The project also would help bolster the improving, but older, residential blocks that line the west side of Turner, a southbound one-way street, and both sides of Broadway Avenue. Both streets are just a stone's throw from the west bank of the Grand.

The development also would add value to a pair of nearby west side renovation projects that are underway. One has Bob Israels rebuilding former factories and warehouses that once belonged to the John Widdicomb Furniture Co. The other has Pioneer Construction and the American Seating Co. reviving a set of structures currently owned by the furniture maker.

Plus, the plan would complement the city's recent reconstruction of Seward Avenue, just a few blocks west of Turner, and the eastern edge of the West Leonard business district. It also holds the promise of clearing the traffic congestion that often plagues Pearl Street.

So far the project is in the exposure stage, meaning that supporters are trying to gather some funding momentum. Their plan is to search for dollars from the public and business sectors and area foundations. A few sources have shown an early interest in supporting the effort. It's normally difficult, however, to find money for a project in what is largely a residential area rather than a commercial district.

But potential investors should know that the neighborhood is coming back. In the last three years there, McCarty said the ratio of rental houses vs. owner-occupied homes has reversed — having gone from 57 percent rented to 57 percent occupied by owners. Because of that ownership turnaround, a goodly number of the houses have been improved.

Meijer Inc. Co-Chairman Hank Meijer has expressed an interest in contributing to the project, as have the Frey and Dyer-Ives foundations. Integrated Architecture Executive Vice President Michael Corby and AIA Grand Valley have worked long and hard to design the gateway, while the city's Andrea Dekam and Suzette Peplinski of MDOT are trying to find beautification money.

Meijer told the Business Journal last week that he was encouraged by the gateway project and that he supported it.

"It's a wonderful way to think about a combination of neighborhood enhancement and something that has broader implications for our metropolitan area. That section of Turner Street is the face of Grand Rapids to hundreds of thousands of people who drive up and down U.S. 131," said Meijer.

"So it's a great chance to put on a brighter face for people who look at our city that way," he added.

McCarty said he wants the parks along Turner to be financially supported by West Side businesses, which would be given credit for their involvement through signs identifying each park's benefactor. Those greenspaces would be filled with hearty flowering plants that need a minimum of maintenance and would enhance a visitor's drive into downtown.

"We've talked to several businesses on the West Side and there is a lot of interest," he said.

The total needed to fully develop the project isn't known yet, as they're not sure how many curbs have to be pulled, how many bump-outs have to be built, or what type of lighting will go in. But McCarty estimated that it would probably cost about $150,000 to develop each block. Seeing the gateway would run 11 blocks, the price tag should be near $1.6 million.

Once the funding is in place, McCarty expects that the project will be done in sections or possibly even by blocks. It could take up to 10 years to finish it, but McCarty hopes it can be done in five. Supporters plan to have a request for a beautification grant in front of MDOT within months, and if the grant is approved, work could begin next June.

"If we do get turned down, we're going to go back," said McCarty, "as many times as necessary."           

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