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Surviving the 'Zone of Chaos'

Nicci Thomas, Tim Kelly, Amanda Moore, and Layla Aslani.

With the sweeping GR Forward planning process underway, public input plays a big role in the future of downtown Grand Rapids and its biggest asset, the Grand River. Rapid Growth's Development Editor Anya Zentmeyer checks in with city planners and others involved in trying to ensure the massive project reaches its highest potential, and she reports on the challenges and opportunities for the Grand River's future.
When organizers at Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc. first started seeking public input for the massive GR Forward initiative – a comprehensive planning process of DGRI, the city of Grand Rapids, Grand Rapids Public Schools and their partners to engage the public in making plans for downtown Grand Rapids and the Grand River – Director of DGRI Kris Larson says the organization started with one basic question: "What is the one thing you want the most in downtown Grand Rapids?' 

"They almost all began to describe what we would generally say is a neighborhood-based level of retail amenities," Larson says. "So, they'd say, 'We're looking for more shopping, we're looking for more options to get stuff without leaving downtown.'" 

So, along with an interactive window display built by the Grand Rapids Geek Group, DGRI has been hosting a series of public meetings to get the community's collective input for the project. 

This creates something Friends of Grand Rapids Parks Executive Director Steve Faber calls "The Zone of Chaos" – the time in between public input and public and city consensus that the GR Forward initiative currently finds itself in. 

Faber is also a member of the River Restoration Steering Committee, River Corridor Plan Steering Committee and Downtown Steering Committee, and says the number of people in the committees under the GR Forward umbrella alone create a massive need for coordination, including the around 100 people in the River Corridor Planning Committee, the 30 included in the River Corridor Steering Committee and the 30 more included in the GR Forward Steering Committee. 

"…There's a lot of people, a lot of bodies, a lot of meetings," Faber says, adding that in a project whose subject (the river) has no certain ownership, permitting and public engagement are only two of many complex pieces of a much larger puzzle.  

"There's always been this tension between the project and the overall certain means of meeting all of these different goals, including water quality and public engagement along the edges," Faber says. "There are only a limited number of people that are actually going to get into the river, but for every one person who gets in the river, there's going to be nine people watching them do that. So, where are those nine people going to stand?" 

Larson says finding the answer to that question is part of the ethical responsibility tasked to the planners. 

"I would say that planners have an ethical responsibility to ensure that, in particular, we are including any disenfranchised groups of individuals or individuals with non-traditional backgrounds," Larson says. "That we're creating the conditions by which all citizens can participate."

In modern times, he says, that means something different than it did just a decade ago, where most planning was done in the context of public forums. 

"Now, you've got to maintain seven or eight different mechanisms for people to be engaged at their level," Larson says. "Everything from communication preferences to recognizing there are people who don't necessarily have access to technology or have other forms of limited means." 

This, he says, puts the charge on organizations like Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc. to step up outreach and engagement efforts six-fold to ensure that "as stewards of the public trust," they're not only providing equal opportunity for all people to be engaged, but ensuring that they are asking the right kinds of questions. So, in order to create planning initiatives with outcomes that reflect the public's overall request for more neighborhood-based retail amenities, Larson says they have to grow the residential input base – which is at the heart of the outreach initiatives in the first place. 

However, in a project that seeks to improve water quality, reduce environmental impact, create more residential access and recreation opportunities across all neighborhoods, and create avenues for future maintenance and growth, hurdles come in all shapes, sizes and numbers. 

"If it doesn't help us solve environmental issues, then it's not reaching its full potential," Faber says. "If it doesn't help us become a place people want to live and recreate, then it's not reaching its full potential. If it's not seen as a value to everyone, then it's not reaching its full potential…I think moving forward it's our continued challenge with the community to figure out how we develop a project that works well and works well for a long time." 

However, Faber says the one thing people can agree on at this point is that the Grand River is one of the city of Grand Rapids' largest assets, and everyone should get "tremendously excited about the prospect of it being something more than it is."

He also says these kinds of conversations aren't unique to Grand Rapids, having recently done a comparison to Boston's Muddy River Restoration Project in a blog post published by The Rapidian in September

He says when it comes to some things – like the science behind water quality, flood walls, and the recently announced quarter-mile walkway extension along the east side of the Grand River – the public can only have so much input. However, there are other ways to engage communities that work to the overall benefit of both the project and the city at large. 

"You can educate and share knowledge on why this is important and why it's important to (the neighborhood residents) and not just the property owners downtown, or listen to them about why they think it's important," Faber says. 

When it comes to programming, Faber says there are going to be ongoing public hearings, public input events and many opportunities for people to find themselves contributing to the outcomes of the Grand River restoration project and the larger GR Forward initiative – and those are the spaces where asking the right questions, as Larson says, becomes integral to the rest of the planning process. 

"That's where I think the most meaningful space is for the broader community engagement," Faber says, "To create dialogue around, 'What would really get you downtown to use this resource? What does this look like? What does this feel like? What does it feel like for you to have this as your place, as our place?'" 

For more information on the GR Forward initiative, including announcements on upcoming public meetings, visit www.GRForward.org.

Written by Anya Zentmeyer, Development News Editor
Images by Adam Bird 
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