City May Sign On

January 27, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — City commissioners will take under consideration a visual change for heavily traveled commercial districts and also regulations for a new transportation venture. Both topics are scheduled for public hearings this week.

The first topic could lead to an urban design change in the city’s zoning ordinance that would allow street signs, banners, kiosks and wayfinding guides to be installed along city streets in commercial districts. Businesses and services, such as hospitals, in each district would pay for the signage.

The hearing tomorrow night will focus on creating an overlay district that would allow signs in the Michigan Street Hill sector, an area that extends east on Michigan Street from Ionia Avenue to College Avenue and is undergoing a lot of new construction for the medical field. Those located in the sector, such as Spectrum’s Butterworth Hospital, want the signs to help visitors find their destination in the dense district with as little difficulty as possible.

“This is not intended for local traffic. It’s intended for those who come from out-of-town to the hill,” said City Planning Director Suzanne Schulz.

“We don’t have a lot of visual clutter along the route,” she added.

The idea for the new signs is similar to the downtown wayfinding signage that the Downtown Development Authority bought and installed in the Central Business District a few years ago. A change in the ordinance is needed for Michigan Street Hill because entities other than governmental units can’t set up stand-alone signs on city streets.

“We do not allow off-premise signs. We consider those billboards,” said Schulz. “We want a more formal approach that we could apply throughout the city.”

But if commissioners do amend the ordinance as proposed, the new regulation won’t cover every commercial nook and cranny in the city. It would only apply to downtown and near-downtown sectors where traffic volume is at least 25,000 vehicles. The city’s 20 business districts already have a separate ordinance covering signs.

“This is not designed for everyone, everywhere,” said Schulz.

Nor would the ordinance dictate that each sign system have the same look. Signs could have a contemporary design, like the ones planned for Michigan Street, or a historic one. But each design would have to be cleared by a trio of city departments.

“They can have their own signage as approved by traffic, planning and engineering,” said Schulz. “Saint Mary’s wouldn’t have to have the same signs as Michigan Street Hill.”

The Grand Rapids SmartZone funded a four-month-long wayfinding study for the hill district, which will also include the new Michigan State University medical school in a few years. The findings were made public last month.

Schulz thought the next district that would apply for such a system would be an area that includes Saint Mary’s Health Care, Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital and Cathedral Square, a development being built by the Catholic Diocese of Grand Rapids. All three are situated south of Fulton Street between Division and Lafayette avenues.

Commissioners will also hear about regulations for a new business category that will begin to cart people around downtown later this year, as two different firms want to start pedicab operations. A pedicab is basically a rickshaw powered by a bicycle. Some pedicabs are open-air models, usually found in warmer locales, while others look something like a horse-drawn carriage without the horse. Another version resembles the vehicle Parking Services uses to check downtown meters.

Darren Galinas is looking to start one pedicab operation, while Barton Chatman and Shannon Sawyer are planning to do the same. Both businesses would serve downtown. The average pedicab ride is expected to be a few blocks. But before either service can start peddling, the city has to lay down the ground rules.

One regulation would require each owner to have at least $500,000 worth of liability insurance in a policy that would protect the city from all potential damages. Another is that the cost of each fare must be agreed upon before the service starts. A third is that each driver must have a valid Michigan driver’s license. In all, the potential ordinance offers 29 regulations.

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