Economic Development, Real Estate, and Sustainability

GR leaders foresee river edge benefit

Projects are many years from completion, but execs say construction will be worth it in the long run.

November 9, 2018
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Grand River Rendering
Plans for six sites along the river to include trail connections, green space, water access, playgrounds, sports activities, and spaces for festivals and special events. Rendering Courtesy River For All

Decades of ideas and plans about the role the Grand River could have in Grand Rapids are finally on the horizon.

Countless hours of planning have gone into transforming the formerly abused river into what community leaders have realized could be a valuable social gathering place.

From when the river was used to transport lumber during the booming 1800s logging industry until not so long ago, some would say it was taken for granted.

“We have long turned our backs to the river,” said Matt Chapman, project manager for Grand Rapids Whitewater. “The Grand River has historically divided the east and west sides of our neighborhood, and we really treated it like a sewer.”

Many improvement ideas have been formed into plans and actions in recent history. Multiple efforts to improve the river and green space have been implemented through the city and other groups since the turn of the century.

The current focus is the nonprofit Grand Rapids Whitewater’s $44-million initiative to restore the river’s rapids.

The increased use that would result is expected to create an annual economic impact of $15 million-$19 million and a ripple effect of development.

“We have really seen the restoration of the river as a catalyst for future river edge development,” Chapman said.

Though the rapids are years from being completely restored, Grand Rapids leaders already are taking steps toward what they see as an economic opportunity in developing underutilized properties around the river.

In conjunction with the rapids project is the River for All initiative, a $40-million plan that aims to enhance trails and develop six parks sites along both sides of the 7.5-mile Grand River stretch between Riverside Park and Millennium Park.

The recently revealed final plans are the result of years of work from many people, including six public focus groups, eight outreach groups, a 26-member advisory committee and leadership from multiple organizations, including Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., Grand Rapids Whitewater, Grand Rapids Public Museum and the city of Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation Department.

Area businesses near the water also are taking notice.

Peter Beukema, Suburban Inns CEO, previously told the Business Journal the coming $59-million Embassy Suites by Hilton, at 710 Monroe Ave. NW, will include amenities yet to be announced, taking advantage of that business opportunity.

River for All plans

Nicole Horst, a principal at Denver-based Wenk Associates, has led the development of the design plans and guidelines, sure to include ADA accessibility, public art opportunities, native culture inclusion and nods to area history.

Local firms also working on the plans include Viridis Design Group, Fishbeck, Thompson, Carr & Huber and Williams & Works. Funding for the planning has come from the city of Grand Rapids and DGRI.

From north to south, the six sites outlined in River for All plans include a Leonard Street to Ann Street trail connection, space at the decommissioned city water department storage yard, Coldbrook decommissioned water-pumping site, Monroe North district property, Fish Ladder Park and Grand Rapids Public Museum.

A major piece of the plans includes expanding green space and creating easy access to the water from the parks, replacing the floodwall with stairs in some areas.  

Horst said the urban parks —Monroe North and Fish Ladder — will be at the heart of activity once the river is restored and expects them to be “prime downtown destinations” for festivals and everyday use.

A goal in more than one group’s development plans is to enhance riverside trails and extend the trail beyond Leonard Street to Ann Street, which will connect downtown to Riverside Park and the larger regional trail network.

The decommissioned water storage site plans include an elevated canopy trail, public outdoor fire pits, logjam-inspired playground, conversion of the water storage tank into an open-roofed event space, a winter lodge, river terraces and an overlook.

Horst said this site also will include a ceremonial fire ring for the native Anishinaabe tribe, which will allow members to reinstate their historical practice of lighting a fire for three days along the river after a death in their community.

Coldbrook plans include an overlook, outdoor education plaza, wetland edge and wall, repurposed water department building, a mixed-use building, lawn space and a bus drop-off for water activities.

Monroe North plans include transforming riverside lots at Monroe Avenue NW and Trowbridge Street NW into green space with an event pavilion and steps to the river. Plans also include a skate park underneath the I-96 overpass.

Horst said there was a lot of public input about using the Monroe North space for performances. The space was used this summer to host the Movies on Monroe outdoor movie series.

Plans for Fish Ladder Park include a plaza for farmers markets or other events, several viewing decks and seating areas, and a sloped event lawn.

Plans for the museum site include a shared-use amphitheater, flume-inspired water play area — referencing the flumes that historically connected the river and canals — a river classroom, multiple terraced gathering areas, a raised overlook deck, a lumber-inspired play area and an expanded plaza between the carousel and museum.

David Marquardt, director of the Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation Department, said a piece of the reason for developing the land is to keep the ratio of park acreage per 1,000 residents above requirements as the population continues to grow.

He said the city aims to maintain between 9 and 10 acres per 1,000 residents. Historically, that number downtown has been at 7-8 acres.

He said adding the developed space increases the downtown ratio to 12 acres per 1,000 people, enough to accommodate continued population growth.

A ‘river for all?’

Latesha Lipscomb, Heartside community engagement project manager for the city’s planning department, voiced concern on whether the development truly will be a “river for all.”

She noted the event spaces, water sports and restaurants, saying many people cannot afford such luxuries.

“I’m in the thick of things, so that’s why it’s important to me,” Lipscomb said. “When we are making decisions for people, we need to make sure they’re at the table.”

Marquardt said planners have been taking concerns like this into account and are working to offer plenty of activities for everyone, such as free outdoor fitness classes, swimming and affordable restaurants.

He said a meeting is being planned with New York-based Bronx River Alliance to learn about how the organization engages those communities.

Suzanne Schulz, managing director of design and development for the city of Grand Rapids, said the river project will benefit all people already living within the district. As new developments are built, she said there is a focus on ensuring people of all income levels will be able to afford housing near the river.

“We're very mindful of that and have already started taking actions toward it,” Schulz said.

Horst said planners are working to ensure equity and diversity throughout the construction process, also hoping to partner with schools to provide education around the river.  

“I was really impressed to hear about all the ways they have been thinking about … equity and inclusion,” Lipscomb said.

Coordinating with restoration

Horst said work on the River for All project likely will not begin for several years, pending completion of construction in the river.

Some spaces, such as Monroe North, will be used as access points to the river during rapids restoration, Marquardt said.

Chapman said the restoration project’s funding goal is at about 63 percent.

Permits and final designs for phase one are expected to be finished by the end of next year, with the first construction phase expected from 2020-22.

A cofferdam likely will be used to divide the river in half to divert the flow from one side to the other. Work will be completed on the dry side, and the same procedure will be completed for the other side.

The next phase is expected for 2022-24, with the Sixth Street dam removal slated for 2025-26.

Chapman said downtown Grand Rapids may be a little “ugly” for the couple of years during construction, but it will pay off in the long run.

“We hope … the community will stick with us through that process and keep that long-term goal in mind,” he said.

He said the organization still is focusing on habitat and water quality improvements, including dealing with the endangered snuffbox mussel, threatened lake sturgeon and invasive sea lamprey.

Horst said the next steps for the River for All plans include city approval of design guidelines and exploring public-private funding options.

She added pieces of the plan, such as building and space conversions, would need to be completed through private investment.

Since rapids restoration is expected to attract more water sports and swimming interest, she said local officials are working on overturning the Grand Rapids ordinance that prohibits swimming in the river.

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