Their Mission Is To Unite Division

December 27, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — With a host of the city’s most recognizable institutions straddling its half-dozen blocks, North Division Avenue has been and will continue to be an integral part of downtown Grand Rapids.

Historically Division has been the eastern boundary between downtown proper and the “downtown area.” Now, recent developments at Grand Rapids Community College, the Grand Rapids Public Library and “Pill Hill” are quickly bringing downtown’s outlying eastern portion closer to the center.

And as Second Story Properties’ development of the old YMCA building and projects of Ferris State University and Civic Theatre all are planned for the near future, the face of Division is likely to change dramatically in the coming years.

With that in mind, nearly a dozen stakeholders in the small piece of Division stretching between Fulton and Michigan streets have begun a regular series of informal meetings to help steer the street’s development in a manner beneficial to all involved.

“It’s not a Right Place-sanctioned committee or some blue-ribbon committee the mayor called upon,” said Rick Chapla, vice president of urban redevelopment for The Right Place Inc. “It’s a forum representing property ownership and natural land uses along and adjacent to the North Division corridor. It’s allowing us to have the frank discussions that were needed.”

Earlier in the year, Chapla had engaged in discussions with most of the institutions represented in hopes of involving them in the area’s redevelopment planning process.

“It became apparent that people were not necessarily talking to each other about what each of their institutions and workplaces were doing,” he said.

So he began working to put the diverse group of stakeholders — ranging from MDOT and St. Mark’s Episcopal Church to Ellis Parking Co. and Second Story Properties — together in the same room.

“There are a lot of great things happening on that property around and adjacent to Division,” said Jay Fowler, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority. “The idea is to bring all of them together and see what common interests they have in terms of facilitating a better environment.”

Fowler explained that the city has been working systematically to improve the downtown streetscape, putting in planters and trees where appropriate, improving signage and street lighting, and completing both aesthetic and infrastructure construction on roads and sidewalks.

Within the coming year, according to Assistant City Engineer Rick DeVries, those efforts will be directed toward the streets surrounding North Division Avenue, and the street itself soon after.

“It’s a tough nut to crack,” Fowler said. “It’s an important traffic artery. Yet the situation out there today is pretty unfriendly for folks walking up and down the street or trying to cross the street.”

At recent meetings, held on the first Thursday of the month at the Grand Rapids Public Museum, discussions have included upcoming road construction with city engineers while the most recent meeting concerned the announcement by Ferris State University of Grand Rapids of plans to annex the Grand Rapids Art Museum building and eventually the Commerce Building.

“We’re fairly aggressive about our growth and one of the thoughts when we developed our master plan was to help build up central Grand Rapids,” FSU-GR dean Don Green said. “Division seems to be an avenue that struggles with its identity, and because of where we are located we can play a significant role in the development of Division.”

With the intention of creating a recognizable urban campus and possibly converting a stretch of Pearl Street into green space, FSU-GR was in immediate need of the audience with city planners and engineers available through the forum.

As FSU-GR plans to carve itself a three-block niche along

Division Avenue
, Green’s hopes for that area are all too familiar.

“We believe it’s important to have more accessibility to the street and more accessibility to the neighborhood,” he said. “We want to help bring more merchants there, more culture there.”

FSU-GR’s hopes for Pearl Street mirror those accomplished recently by its neighbor, Grand Rapids Community College. The school was able to convert a segment of Bostwick Avenue into a common green space, dramatically changing the campus.

“That was a tremendous improvement for pedestrians in the area and our students,” said Bob Partridge, GRCC executive vice president of business and finance. “Now, can that be done in other areas?”

While GRCC would like to see a more attractive and greener Division, Partridge said the school’s greatest concern is making Division less of a divider.

“One of the issues, whether longstanding or not, is, ‘Are pedestrians safe to cross?’” he said. “Part of the perception we have in mind, with all the studies of different districts, is how do we make that more cohesive? That’s what we’re looking for.”

Partridge explained that despite its presence only two blocks away, GRCC is not often perceived as part of downtown. Citing Pill Hill and the proposed residential development of the YMCA building, he believes that efforts must be made to make Division more inviting.

“There has always been sort of a conceived barrier between traditional downtown and east of Division,” Fowler said. “And I think there has been so much development on the east side that it really makes sense to knit the downtowns together, treat it as one district and invite people to either walk along or back and forth across Division.

“It’s a balancing act. You might reach a consensus that everyone would like to see wider sidewalks, but you can’t achieve wider sidewalks without eliminating traffic lanes,” Fowler said. “We’ve got to work through the trade-offs.

But at least, Chapla explained, all the stakeholders will have a say in how that balance is achieved.

“I just know in my gut that as we reconstruct areas within that area, that if we have a consensus and a buy-in from several stakeholders that the end result is going to be a much better public space effort,” Chapla said.     

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