Riverfront Development Bustling Intentional Or Coincidental

August 27, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — Beginning with the initial opening of DeVos Place in 2003, the three-quarter-mile stretch of Grand River frontage that intersects downtown’s commercial core has quietly amassed total development in excess of $530 million. With a pair of proposed ventures that have yet to break ground, there are now eight projects in some state of development from Sixth Street to Fulton Street.

Whether these developments indicate an increased riverfront appreciation by Grand Rapids developers or a geographic coincidence remains to be seen. Of the eight projects, half are designed to integrate the river, half are not. None include river access as a feature.

“I wouldn’t say we’ve reached a critical mass along the river’s edge,” said Eric Pratt, downtown planner for the city of Grand Rapids. “There are some additional opportunities that could transpire in the future that could support that. Some of the projects there are in early stages, but it does appear that views of the river are important to these projects and something they’re looking to incorporate.”

The two projects currently in the planning stages are 275 Fulton Place LLC, a $51 million mixed-use project to be built adjacent to the Plaza Towers complex, and the two-story, $10.3 million future offices of The Christman Co. and Plante & Moran LLP at 678 Front Ave. NW, which could break ground in the coming weeks. Both of these projects feature glass exteriors that face the river.

“The river is the focal point of the community; that they are orientating themselves to it is perfectly fine,” Pratt said. “But I would argue that views of the city are just as important as views of the river.”

In addition to the aforementioned 275 Fulton Place LLC and Front Street Property LLC (Christman) projects, the $100 million JW Marriott hotel and the $80 million River House at Bridgewater Place residential condominium project at 377 Bridge St. NW both prominently face the river.

Although an addition to Grand Valley State University’s riverfront Pew Campus at 301 W. Fulton St., the new John C. Kennedy Hall of Engineering faces away from the river. The expansion of the Riverfront Plaza Building at 55 Campau Ave. NW also faces away. Because of the riverfront location of the Public Museum of Grand Rapids’ Van Andel Museum Center, the Days Inn at 310 Pearl St. NW does not have direct access to the riverfront, so its renovation will probably have little effect on river use. Likewise, the $80 million Icon On Bond condominium development at 538 Bond Ave. NW has no direct river access, but it does face the river.

“I think we could do a lot more to further activate the river,” said Pratt. “We should be looking at incorporating additional public access and maybe some recreational activities. However, I think any of these projects are an improvement to putting surface parking there.”

One of the more notable aspects of the JW Marriott, GVSU and Front Street Property projects is that each removes or reduces surface parking lots on or near the waterfront.

“No more parking on the river,” said David Frey, co-chair of the Grand Action council. “The river is the source of our being. It’s where the lumber came from; it provided energy and transportation to build the world’s finest furniture. It’s the essence of our history economically and socially, and we’ve overlooked it for far too long. It should be our front door, not our back door.”

While the five riverfront parking lots — all but one on the east bank — are a cause of concern for development officials, they are actually an improvement to the barriers that prevented riverfront development in prior generations. The banks of the Grand River were packed with industrial interests for nearly a century, including the site of the original Bissell factory where DeVos Place is now. All of these plants were heavy users of water, and each pumped its wastewater directly back into the river.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that the city adopted a policy favoring commercial and mixed-use development on the river, and it wasn’t until the late 1980s that the city began investing in cleaning up the river.

“When I became mayor, we were the largest city on the Grand River and the biggest problem as far as overflows go,” said former Grand Rapids Mayor John Logie. “I think the greening of the river we started back then set the stage for what is happening today.”

At the beginning of Logie’s tenure, the city was literally using the river as a toilet. A dual purpose storm and sanitary sewer forced large amounts of untreated waste into the river whenever a heavy rain created an overflow event. Over roughly a decade, the city spent $210 million to upgrade its water system and eliminate 96 percent of the overflow into the river. The city has since committed to eliminating the additional 4 percent, a step that will, over time, cost an estimated $100 million.

Today, most of the pollution in the Grand River originates in Lansing and East Lansing. The cleaner waters have allowed the salmon to return, attracting fishermen who post themselves at the Fish Ladder on the river’s west bank.

“I had so many comments as mayor from people who just liked seeing the fishermen wading in front of the dam,” Logie said.

Jay Fowler, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority, said the opening of the river walk this summer after years of closures at various sites was a significant accomplishment. The river walk was a project launched during Logie’s tenure. Recent upgrades to the Canal Street, Sixth Street and Ah-Nab-Awen parks have also improved the aesthetics of the corridor.

There are still prime spots available for development, Fowler said, including the county-owned parcel on Monroe Avenue where the county may eventually relocate, and The Grand Rapids Press surface lots directly to the north of the county property. Frey has hopes that the U.S. Post Office facility on Michigan Street at Monroe Avenue will eventually fall to private development. Pratt would like to see the now-infamous, city-owned Public Works Island site at 201 Market Ave. SW opened to developers, and its river access opened to the general community. Even if that is not feasible, there are several buildings on the west bank south of Fulton Street currently available for redevelopment.

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