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After almost a decade of development, Deborah Johnson Wood predicts the future

Deborah Johnson Wood

As she leaves her development news editor post, Deborah Johnson Wood reminds us of just how far Grand Rapids has come, reminisces about her favorite projects, and predicts the future in this honest interview. 
After nearly eight years as Rapid Growth's savvy development news editor, Deborah Johnson Wood bids the mitten state farewell and heads to North Carolina to be closer to family and embark on new adventures. As she leaves, we take a look back at how Grand Rapids has changed since Deborah penned her first development story in September of 2006. Read on for her smart take on good urban development, the hits and misses she's seen, and what she predicts is in store for West Michigan.

Rapid Growth: Tell us about Grand Rapids when you started covering development news: What was the lay of the land as far as buildings and development projects, and what was the tone or mood of the city?

Deborah Johnson Wood: In September of 2006, downtown was dead. The GRAM and Rosa Parks Circle were not there. There were just so many empty buildings. Yen Ching was there and that was about the only reason you would go downtown. Steketees was still going and I don't even know if they had anything in the upstairs. None of the retail was there. Monroe Center was just basically desolate and dirty. There was no DeVos Children's Hospital, no Lemmen Holton, no Cook DeVos Center (one of my favorite buildings in town), no Secchia Center. Van Andel Institute was small and new -- I reported on the additions of phase two labs – the hospital was still called Butterworth, not Spectrum, and was much smaller. Emmanuel Lutheran Church is dwarfed now and it used to stand out as one of the biggest buildings in that area.

The UICA was not there, the Junior Achievement building was a mess, Monument Park was just shady, with no grass and so dark and uninviting. The Civic Theatre building was hanging on by its fingernails, but there was so much potential. Where MoDiv is now, that was just a big giant brick wall along N. Division. There were restaurants in there that went out of business. The Pew campus of GVSU wasn't there – the blue bridge was there, but where were you going to walk?

RG: Wow. So what's changed in the last eight years?

DJW: First of all, the biggest change is people's attitudes about GR. It's now a hip, cool place to live work and play. We have big name concerts that come to Van Andel, we've got the Pyramid Scheme and smaller venues for more intimate events and concerts, and we've got that cool factor as a region, with farmer's markets, great restaurants, downtown street performers, breweries, coffee shops, and boutique shopping.

Second of all, people are living downtown. Ten years ago, there were just a few choices: City View Condos, Plaza Towers, and there were a handful of condos above Grand Central Market. And today? Right now I can't even name all of them, there are so many places to live downtown. Everything from 616 Development, Gallery Apartments, Hillmount, the Fitzgerald, Dwelling Place, Boardwalk, Union Square, Riverhouse, and the Fulton Group does 4-6 unit apartments all over the city, little pockets of infill. Plus there's all the new apartments on the west side that Rockford Construction is doing, Orion Construction is developing the Widdicomb Building, then there's Metropolitan Park, Seranno Lofts, 101 Division South, and tons more coming from Brookstone Capital. There's MidTowne condos and townhouses by Third Coast Development, who also redeveloped the apartments above Grand Butchers on Michigan. Grand Central Lofts on Commerce, 38 Commerce, Malone Development doing the projects on Cherry and Eastern, and intermingled is Cherry Street Capital projects, Baker Lofts, and Arena Place high-end apartments. Not enough of these are affordable housing, usually it's poor working class people who aren't section 8 but can't make rent on top of childcare and transportation. It's crazy. And that's just off the top of my head.

Complete Streets is another trend that's been adopted. People in wheelchairs, blind and deaf people, bikers, pedestrians, buses, delivery trucks, cars – we're all using the same streets. It's all coming together. I was part of the Sustainable Streets Task Force for about a year and that was eye-opening to the possibilities. People are biking. It's a huge change from the moped army to all the bike stores going in, they want to walk, they want to walk to retail and restaurants.

And then last, ArtPrize. Of everything I'm going to miss, I'm going to miss ArtPrize the most. My husband, Tom Wood, and I hosted an artist every year for the first 5 years. This year we won't be here to host an artist. As with any place, I think it always starts with the artists – Avenue for the Arts, S. Division, it probably even went back to when the Calder was moved in. And artists don't have any money so they learn to make do with what's there and have their studios in little tiny places and they take what's there and make it into something. Once a sense of place starts to happen, other people want to be here. And they say, you know what you need here? You need an ice cream shop and a hot dog stand and a grocery store and a garden.

One of the biggest changes in the downtown … this whole thing is all about sense of place – having the flowers downtown, the benches, the big rectangles for green space, the trees, giving it some nice lighting at night. When the city started to invest in that, that was when people's attitudes started to change about what it could be. That sense of place – people need to feel grounded, and having green space in the city does that. Whether people live in cities all their lives, or they come from the farm, that makes a huge difference.

Grand Rapids has been great at developing a sense of place in the last 10 years, but there needs to be a place for everybody, not just the rich people. Everyone deserves a safe, solid place to live and to be able to go to the grocery store.

RG: What have been some of your favorite stories to tell? What work are you especially proud of?

DJW: As boring as it is, the CID stories and the area specific plans (ASP). I loved reporting on those because the people and organizers behind them who are going to the meetings and talking to the community and getting all the negativity flung at them, they are laying the groundwork so that developments like the Medical Mile can happen, so that developments like what GVSU is now building in Bellknap can happen, without drastic changes to the faces of the neighborhood. Or promoting drastic change because there needs to be change.

I love to see development happening within a framework that the community has developed. I look at what's happening in Madison Square right there at Madison and Hall, and LINC moving into their new building, and having a nice grocery store in that area; that all happened because there was a vision that people came together and put the pieces together and got the financial support that they needed.

Now the west side is saying, OMG things are starting to change. Rather than just let people come in willy-nilly and put in anything they want in a way that might not benefit the entire community, they're doing the work to develop a CID and an ASP and that's going to help the development and bring in federal and state money to do the placemaking: cleaning up the underpasses so people feel safe to walk through there, bringing light and art and protection from the traffic, putting in streetscaping.

Those are the things that get me the most excited because it brings the visionaries together. It brings them together with the people who care about the details and help get the work done.

Another project that I really got excited about was the ICCF renovation at the DA Blodgett building. I felt like that building was my building by the time it was done. It's gorgeous and Jonathan Bradford had a bit of a fight because the original plans didn't include the Italianate garden that’s in the front, and as the project was developing he started saying, this is going to be an incomplete project. It cost them a lot more money; he had to do a lot of rallying of the troops and going back to the planning commission and changing the way things were but it was the right thing to do. When you walk by the garden in July and the roses are blooming and you sit outside at the Green Well, you can enjoy those gardens. It's almost a seamless thing – it seems like the gardens are part of Richard App's gallery or the restaurant.

I loved talking about the Helen DeVos Children's Hospital – I could have done my entire career on the children's hospital because of what they're doing for the region.

RG: What role do you think smart development plays in good urban growth? How is GR getting it right or wrong?

DJW: Planning and design go hand in hand, and to have anything be successful you've got to have the plans in place to prepare the ground, then execute it correctly. Let's give examples. The planning for the Downtown Market and putting it where it is – extending downtown south of Wealthy St. -- just brilliant. But where did it fall down? The downtown market is such a disappointment to me. It lost track of its purpose. Its purpose was to alleviate the food desert in that area. There were other purposes – teaching kitchens, event space, etc. -- and technically now there's not a food desert there. But very few of the people who live around it can shop at the market. My husband I can't afford to shop at the market. They lost track of their vision and I'm disappointed that the funding did not extend to include a major chunk of operating costs so that tenants could bring down their prices. And it hasn't gone far enough to extend itself into the community; for example Heartside Park, right next door, why is there no extension into that park? Right now the market is an island and they're waiting for things to happen around the island, but it needs to be more integrated. It could influence Heartside Park if it got back to its original vision of being a market for all people. Get prices down, attract more people.

Another example is the Medical Mile. What a marvelous conglomeration of development is there – the healing that goes on, a place where we as humans go in our worst pain. And we've developed this billion-dollar development to help them. And it just went crazy. There was a time when that whole area had 25 cranes towering above it majestically, and the buildings are beautiful. Once the money started coming in and people were seeing that this was the right location for this, and they started building all these fabulous buildings, it just went nuts without having a plan. And now the Michigan St. CID is working hard to backtrack and say, how do we get tens of thousand of cars through this inadequately designed area? People are coming from all over the region and you can't widen the street, so now the CID is trying to see what else we can do to minimize traffic. You have to have transit, you have to have the ability to get places multiple ways – walk, bike, skateboard.

The growth happened by accident. It fell into place and they couldn't wait. Now the planning department is working hard to get all this stuff in place and simultaneously growth is happening. And they're just doing their best to put it all together and make sure it happens to benefit everybody. GR has a ton of stuff happening. I just think we should be held up as a poster child for planning and design for the nation.

When I first started, LEED building and "green" building was this BIG thing – GR was the LEED capital and now, it's (green building) become commonplace, people are no longer enamored with it, and as a result the developers and buildings are not putting in the extra money to get LEED certified, so I'm concerned that we're going backwards.

RG: What do you predict the future holds for development in GR?

DJW: The area I'm most excited about seeing redeveloped is that old hotel by the post office – what a waste of the waterfront to have that ugly post office building there. I can't wait to see what's going to happen with that as the city progresses and the waterfront progresses and GR Whitewater moves forward. I could see that just becoming this fabulous gathering place for restaurants and outdoor spaces and a landing area for the kayakers and fishermen with hot dog stands; it could be awesome. I'd be keeping a real close eye on GR Whitewater because the area attracts people who are supporters of athletics and sports, but GR is missing the boat on that segment of people who really want to do their sports out in nature. They want to fish, they want to spearfish, be on boats, kayak, the crew teams, and we've got this beautiful river and there's room for everybody.

The Michigan St. CID did a study, and the corridor between Fulton to Trowbridge along Michigan from the river all the way out to the East Beltline right now can absorb over 5000 more dwellings. The demand is there; it could sustain that.

And then just a lot of stuff on the west side south of GVSU and north of the Plante & Moran building – if you go to North Monroe on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon there are no parking places for Canal St. Park and 6th St. Park because it's packed.

And then I would invest in Muskegon. Muskegon is going to be unrecognizable in the next 5-10 years. It's moving forward, thanks to a lot of people who are putting a lot of thought into things.

RG: What will you miss about GR? Places, events, people?

DJW: I'm going to miss Gaia Café – we go there a lot – so I'm just going to miss that atmosphere. I'm going to miss the lakes. And of course I'm going to miss my mom, who will be 91 this year. I'll be coming back to visit her frequently.

RG: What are you looking forward to in your new spot?

DJW: In Winston-Salem, NC, I'm looking forward to being with my only child, my son Mason, and his wife Ellie and their three children. In Winston-Salem, there's no lake or river but we're the same distance to the Blue Ridge Mountains. In the time it takes me now to get to Lake Michigan, I can be on the Blue Ridge Parkway. I've already landed some work with a daily online newspaper down there called Camel City Dispatch, writing about development. I've also become part of a poetry writing group. So I've got these two sides of my writing persona that I'm going to be able to feed. Plus they have the First Street Draft House in Winston-Salem – you can get Bells and Founders there – you should have seen the bartenders in there when I told them we lived three miles from Founders! So I can still get great Michigan beer, even in my new home.

Photography by Adam Bird
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