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City's green transformation well underway even as Green Grand Rapids seeks final approvals

The ink hadn't even been placed on the page, let alone had time to dry, before Grand Rapids organizations and individual residents started the "green" transformation of different aspects of the city. And now, four years after planning began, Green Grand Rapids, an environmental and sustainable update to the city's 2002 Master Plan, has been approved by the Grand Rapids Planning Commission and moved to the City Commission for review at its March 22 meeting.

Green Grand Rapids wrapped up by mid-2009, says Planning Director Suzanne Schulz, but there was a lag getting it compiled into a comprehensive document because "we were busy implementing the plan. We wanted to continue the momentum that was underway."

Schulz cites several projects that are part of that momentum:
• Expansion of Joe Taylor Park spearheaded by Friends of Grand Rapids Parks.
• Proposed transformation of an unused parking lot into Pleasant Park at the corner of Madison Avenue SE and Pleasant St. SE.
Grand Rapids White Water's proposed creation of a white water kayak course on the Grand River through downtown.
• Investigation of possible new stormwater management processes headed up by the West Michigan Environmental Action Council.
• A proposed Complete Streets plan being studied and developed in conjunction with the Greater Grand Rapids Bicycle Coalition.

"If we're looking to attract the creative class, they choose where they want to live first, then worry about finding a job," Schulz says. "So the quality of life items are critically important to us, and include retention of what we already have so people who are already here want to stay here. The questions arise: where do we make the changes, when, and how? The Master Plan is the how."

Schulz says 1,800 residents participated in developing the plan, with a 30-member steering committee that kept the focus on five areas: natural systems, greening, connections, the Grand River and local food.

She expects city commissioners to approve distribution of the plan document to city and Kent County stakeholders for a final approval process that will wrap up in about five months.

Source: Suzanne Schulz, City of Grand Rapids Planning Director
Writer: Deborah Johnson Wood, Development News Editor

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Long awaited $15M Wealthy/Jefferson development project ready to move ahead in Grand Rapids

A decade-long plan to redevelop three forlorn city blocks in south Grand Rapids into affordable housing, retail and an urban grocery store is once again rolling forward with plans to break ground before June 1.

The first construction phase of the Wealthy-Jefferson Neighborhood Initiative will spur some $15 million in mixed-use development that will bring retail, 50 apartments and a small condo project to the city block bounded by Wealthy St. (north), LaGrave Avenue (east), Sheldon Avenue (west) and Logan St. (south).

Property owner, Inner City Christian Federation (ICCF), a nonprofit affordable-housing developer, cleared the block and most of two adjoining blocks of decrepit buildings some years ago. The organization has committed to constructing two new buildings thus far, both of which will be built along Wealthy St. between Sheldon and LaGrave.

The initiative's later phases will add a 28,000-square-foot urban grocery store and more housing to the remaining properties, says Jonathan Bradford, ICCF CEO.

Negotiations with an unnamed local grocer are underway, says Bradford, adding that he's "confident that it will go through."

"About 1999, a then-city commissioner proposed the clear cutting of six whole blocks to convert them into an industrial zone," Bradford says. "Neighborhood associations, churches and ICCF fought that and stopped it. A committee studied how to recapture the diversity this neighborhood once had. In 1912, the area had 4,744 people and only about 900 people in 2000."

Bradford says a key motivator was the "resuscitation" of Wealthy St. between Division and Lafayette in 2008. That project, in essence, laid the groundwork for the rest of what is to come.
Bradford envisions an explosion of private retail investment around the Wealthy St. roundabouts.

The proposed Bus Rapid Transit system route passes the development along its north and south boundaries, providing riders with opportunities to stop off and pick up groceries or items from the retail shops, then board the next coach for home or work.

Bradford says Brownfield Authority Tax Credits are under consideration. The project's funding comes, in part, from $5.2 million awarded through the Neighborhood Stabilization Program 2, which will be taken off the table unless construction begins by June 1.

Site plan and design are by nationally renowned development designer Seth Harry of Woodbine, MD. Integrated Architecture is the architect of record for the first two buildings along Wealthy St. Progressive AE is the civil engineer.

Source: Jonathan Bradford, CEO, Inner City Christian Federation
Writer: Deborah Johnson Wood, Development News Editor

Grand Valley Metro Council sets 25-year West Michigan transportation plan, seeks public input

The Grand Valley Metropolitan Council (GVMC) has developed a road map for the area's long-term transportation needs, outlining projects to improve transit over the next 25 years.

The GVMC created the 2035 Long Range Transportation Plan to secure federal funding for everything from bike lanes to road resurfacing to bridge repair in Kent and Ottawa counties. The plan involves dozens of objectives, including ways to develop the region's non-motorized transportation network to improve user access to jobs, services and schools.

Most of the projects are those that are most critical to public safety, including street and sidewalk resurfacing initiatives and road widening projects.

Large-scale projects, like reconfiguring the intersection of I-96 and I-196 for a full range of movement, are included in the plan but won't begin until 2025.

The GVMC's Metropolitan Planning Organization is hosting a series of public open houses to gather public sentiment on the plan, with the last two scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 20. An afternoon session will be held from 1 – 3 p.m. at Georgetown Township Hall in Jenison, and another from 6 – 8 p.m. at Hudsonville City Hall. The group will accept comments from residents for consideration in the plan until Jan. 30, 2011.

"We'll discuss the major features of the transportation system, offer steps and conclusions, and have time for people to give comments," says Andrea Dewey, transportation planner for GVMC, who will be joined by representatives from The Rapid and the Michigan Department of Transportation. "Anyone can come to learn and get a better idea of what is going on."

Dewey encourages public involvement and grassroots support because the transportation initiatives outlined in the plan require $26 to $33 million annually, while only about $15 million in federal funding will be provided. The plan does not factor in expansions such as additional routes for The Rapid, non-motorized projects and other initiatives that are based on competitive state funding and grants.

Source: Andrea Dewey, Grand Valley Metropolitan Council
Writer: Kelly Quintanilla

Grand Rapids DJs have best hangover remedy: waking up at home after taking a Safe Ride

Grand Rapids DJs Chia and DJames have had years of kickin' out the jams at local haunts and they've had it up to here with watching intoxicated patrons stagger out, car keys in hand.

That's why Michael "Chia" Kowalczyk and James "DJames" Littell launched GR Safe Ride this week, a service that provides safe passage home for tipsy peeps… in their own cars.

"We feel passionately about this service," Kowalczyk says. "We see too many people leave the bar and drive home. And we've taken too many friends back to their cars after taking a taxi home the night before only to find they've gotten a ticket. The cost is really high."

Not to mention the extreme costs and complications of receiving a DUI, as well as the dangers a drunk driver poses to themselves and others.

GR Safe Ride sends two drivers on every call; Driver 1 takes the client home in the client's own car -- an arrangement that keeps any unexpected "cookie tossing" within the client's own four walls, so to speak. Driver 2 follows the car and picks up Driver 1 after the client arrives safely at his/her destination.

Riders can make arrangements in advance, but Kowalczyk says he expects most of the business will come from people who didn't expect to have one too many at an office party or at dinner.

Kowalczyk, 34, and Littell, 36, have placed $5-off coupons at various bars and eateries in downtown Grand Rapids. They're getting the word out about the service on their Facebook page and other social media, and they plan to have bumper stickers and T-shirts available soon.

Bartenders, bouncers or folks needing a Safe Ride home from anywhere in downtown Grand Rapids can call 616-401-0359. GR Safe Ride will pick up the rider and drive them anywhere within 10 miles of the pickup point for $45 (cash only, for now). Any ride beyond 10 miles is an additional $5 for every three miles. First time riders get $5 off the ride.

GR Safe Ride currently employs four drivers. Kowalczyk hopes to expand the service area and the number of drivers throughout West Michigan.

Source: Michael Kowalczyk, GR Safe Ride
Writer: Deborah Johnson Wood, Development News Editor
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