Imagine A Different Muskegon

October 10, 2003
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MUSKEGON — If all goes as expected in downtown Muskegon in the years ahead, the stroll up Western Avenue toward Third Street may very well have a decidedly different perspective.

Peter Sartorius and Terry MacAllister, and a good many other community leaders, say they want that change in the landscape to occur in an orderly fashion.

The two men say they would like to see a transition that has continuity and adheres to a consensus for the business district's future that has emerged over the past several months.

The pair said that the consensus essentially represents what they regard as a community vision of what downtown Muskegon can and should become — a cohesive commercial, residential, recreational, entertainment district for people to work, live and play.

"That is what will make downtown vibrant and make it alive," said MacAllister, a board member for the Heritage Neighborhood Association.

MacAllister, owner of an advertising and public relations firm and a downtown resident, co-chaired a comprehensive planning process that outlines conceptual plans for downtown Muskegon's future.

Dubbed Imagine Muskegon, the planning process builds on the city's 1997 master plan that envisions revitalizing downtown with mixed uses that combine office, retail, residential and recreation.

The outcome of Imagine Muskegon is essentially a guide for developers to follow that offers them a conception of the kinds of developments and redevelopments desired for downtown.

"It's an exercise in what this community could become, grounded in what it already is and the past," said Sartorius, the co-chair of Imagine Muskegon and a long-time resident of the community who spent much of his career in urban planning.

"It's to get people to envision what downtown could really look like if we were to just focus our resources."

Among the concepts offered in the Imagine Muskegon document are making downtown "a focal point for the region offering events, services, shops and dining not found elsewhere in the county," and following design concepts so residents are attracted to the downtown which represent various age groups, socio-economic backgrounds, cultural and racial heritages."

The document asserts that Muskegon should promote mixed-use developments that generate a high level of activity and should push the redevelopment and restoration of historic structures to house businesses and residents.

The Imagine Muskegon's vision also calls to fill in development throughout the district.

Major themes emerging from the downtown planning process are to develop the Western Avenue corridor and its adjoining waterfront, create a core area downtown, and encourage developments that allow for the free flow of pedestrian and vehicular traffic.

What the Imagine Muskegon report does not do is advocate or advance any particular project or aspect of a project.

It takes no position, for instance, concerning the location of a terminal for cross-lake ferry service that is to resume next summer after a hiatus of nearly three decades.

Neither does it get into specifics concerning how commerce might be oriented to the terminal.

Instead, Sartorius said the process set out to build as broad a consensus as possible by bringing together a wide confluence of interests from "virtually every sector" to formulate and offer broad concepts for the future of downtown Muskegon.

He said the idea is to articulate to those developers who may wish to invest downtown the results the community wants to see — the kinds of developments that stand a good chance of earning support in the community, both politically and financially.

"What we are creating is a general public awareness of what the possibilities are in downtown," Sartorius said.

Downtown Muskegon today — even with the $100 million-plus in new investments made in recent years — remains largely a mixture of non-descript early 20th century buildings.

And though downtown Muskegon has a waterfront fully as long as that of downtown Grand Rapids, it lacks a focal point — particularly since the closure of the Muskegon Mall, property that awaits major redevelopment and some use of the wrecking ball.

Many long-term Muskegon observers believe the absence of focus is about to change —or already has begun to change — in a big way.

Leading the way are projects such as the mall's pending redevelopment plus development of its adjoining Edison Landing commerce and residential park which faces a small arm of Muskegon Lake.

Also important to the downtown was the transformation of the Amazon Building from a vacant and deteriorating garment factory into a modern condominium. And, recently going through its second upgrade is the Hartshorn Centre — a former manufacturing plant — and the nearby Heritage Landing upgrades, a community concert center which draws hundreds of thousands of visitors during the summer.

Sartorius, who currently does health planning for the Muskegon Community Health Project, says creating as much consensus as possible for downtown is "absolutely paramount" to the future.

He describes Imagine Muskegon as following a "bottom-up process" designed to flush out ideas.

Advancing downtown Muskegon's revitalization, after all, is an endeavor that no one public or private, nonprofit, or community entity can accomplish alone, he said.

"If you're really serous about implementing a plan, it takes broad energy and the energies of a broad sector," Sartorius said.

"It has to be a confluence of interests and it has to be a symbiosis of a commitment to make things happen."

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