A city for everyone: Changing what development means for Grand Rapids in 2017

From a dramatically different riverfront that’s meant to transform the city into an “urban playground for all ages” to a massive downtown theater complex and city-led talks centering around affordable housing and displacement, 2017 is shaping up to be a pretty monumental year for development in Grand Rapids.
From a dramatically different riverfront that’s meant to transform the city into an “urban playground for all ages” to a massive downtown theater complex and city-led talks centering around affordable housing and displacement, 2017 is shaping up to be a pretty monumental year for development in Grand Rapids. Big and small, these projects are changing the face of our city with renovated parks, bike lanes, downtown grocery shops, and a whole lot more.

The developments bringing people together

Thanks to the approximate $3.8 million generated annually by a seven-year dedicated parks millage passed by 60 percent of Grand Rapids voters in 2013, the past few years have ushered in a truly impressive round of upgrades to most of the city's neighborhood parks, bringing repairs, rehabilitations and new improvements to the parks, pools and playgrounds that families both rely on and deserve. Planning stages for the first round of eight neighborhood park upgrades kicked off in 2014, with construction and re-openings in 2015. In 2016, neighborhoods saw the reboot of parks for which the planning process completed in 2015, including Camelot, Douglas, Mulick, Mary Waters, and Richmond parks, with upgrades that included everything from new picnic shelters and playground improvements to renovated ball fields and the installation of bike racks. 

Since each park receives upgrades tailored to the specific needs of its community members, which the city identifies through multiple rounds of community meetings and public input efforts, exactly what upgrades are in store for each are yet to be seen. However, most of the neighborhoods in the final round of upgrades— including for Aberdeen, Alexander, Ball Perkins, Clemente Park, Huff, and Bike parks — are either finished with the second round of community meetings or have it on the schedule coming up in the next few months, so construction and reopening is still on track for late summer of this year.

The Lyon Square project.

In 2017, Grand Rapidians can also expect to see the first pieces of a massive riverfront redevelopment project begin along the banks of the city’s Grand River. The project is part of the mammoth GR Forward initiative, a collaborative effort between Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc., the city of Grand Rapids and the Grand Rapids Public School District that utilized months of community meetings, resident input, and public surveying to generate a 10-year community plan and investment strategy because, as the GR Forward executive summary puts it, “Grand Rapids is poised to become a resilient, waterfront city and an urban playground for all ages centered around a progressive and lively downtown.”

The sweeping project is slated to improve habitat, restore the river's rapids, ensure the city's riverside spaces are lively and recreational (think a robust trail system, space to listen to live music and attend other outdoor events, activities like kayaking, and a whole lot more), and ensure equitable riverside access for all of the city's residents. Much of the city's key restoration efforts are geared toward this idea of transforming downtown Grand Rapids into what GR Forward is calling an "active adventure city," centered around a very cool notion that Grand Rapids, because of how the Grand River is positioned geographically, can offer a unique connection to natural resources through activities and recreation designed to maximize the value of the river. 

One of the first pieces of the projects comes thanks to efforts from Grand Rapids Whitewater, a nonprofit dedicated to restoring the river that was very recently awarded $4 million in funding by the Grand Valley Metro Council to help advance its efforts in the Grand. The funding will go toward such initiatives as restoring the habitat for fish and endangered species in the Grand River throughout downtown Grand Rapids. 

The Lyon Square project.

Though the Lyon Square project, part of the larger river restoration, probably won’t be completely in its entirety until 2018, city officials are currently preparing to issue $6 million in bond debt to the Downtown Development Authority to begin initiating financing for the redevelopment of Lyon Square — which, right now, is basically a modest amphitheater overlooking a concrete flood wall with a boardwalk along the river. New designs for the space include the installation of an impressive looking series of steps designed to create a terraced approach to the water in an effort to create a central gathering point along the Grand River. Other plans for the area include additional green space, a pathway to the river, a waterfall fountain, and a launching spot for kayaks and other recreational vehicles.

Lastly, Veterans' Monument and Memorial Park will re-open after the $3.4 million face lift to one of the city’s oldest and most triangle-shaped parks wraps up this year with a big memorial walkway down the center serving as a focal point. 

The projects sharpening Grand Rapids’ competitive edge
GVSU's health expansion.

Grand Valley State University will continue construction on expansion efforts of its health sciences campus in downtown’s Belknap Lookout neighborhood with its $37.5 million, 84,000-square -foot Raleigh J. Finkelstein Hall at 500 Lafayette. The five-story space will help alleviate GVSU’s overcrowded College of Health Professions and Kirkhof College of Nursing and boasts student study, organization and work spaces alongside its four classrooms, 15 teaching labs, a computer lab, and 90 faculty and staff offices and parking spaces. The university has also been eyeing the parking lot next to its existing health sciences facility with future expansion in mind. 

Just down the road, on the corner of Michigan Street and Monroe Avenue, the old Grand Rapids Press building is completing its transformation into the new Michigan State University Grand Rapids Research Center, a project that is projected to create some 728 jobs and an estimated $95.6 million in economic impact to the region. The six-story, 162,800-square-foot facility includes research program spaces and five core labs with bioinformatics, flow cytometer, long-term storage, and analytical and advanced microscopy capabilities. When it opens later this year, the new building will support 260 members of MSU’s College of Human Medicine’s scientific research teams, as well as researchers from MSU’s partnering institutions

Making the city friendlier for pedestrians, bicyclists & public transit riders

Over the past year, mixed-use projects like the redevelopment of the historic Rowe Hotel and 616 Development’s lofts have been sprouting up alongside Medical Mile research centers and medical facilities in an effort to meet the housing needs of a still-growing healthcare industry centralized along the Michigan Street Corridor. As a result, city leaders have spent a lot of time talking about what Grand Rapids City Planning Director Suzanne Schulz calls “mobility on Michigan Hill,” and this year we’ll see more city-sanctioned muscle behind not only public transit accessibility, but also the walkability and bike-ability outlined in the Michigan Street Corridor Improvement Plan. Schulz says this year, the city will begin construction on Michigan Street’s Ottawa exit ramp to make it more pedestrian and bicycle friendly along with other “multi-modular” mindful improvements that are defined pretty succinctly here in the recently approved Vital Streets Plan. Schulz says the city also bulked up its braintrust with the recent hire of pedestrian and bicycle mobility expert Kristin Bennett, who will help advise on design choices and implementation as they roll out.

Grand Rapidians can also expect a slow but steady roll-out of more bike-friendly infrastructure throughout the rest of the city, as well as the city Planning Department finalizing plans to implement a more extensive system of bike lanes. Meanwhile, Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc. will be working hard on developing a strategic business plan for the implementation of a citywide bike sharing system (something identified by the earlier mentioned GR Forward initiative as a top community priority) that will be the product of an extensive feasibility study still currently underway.

Transit will start using smart cards.

In public transit news, The Rapid is in the final planning stages of a new fare collection system that will use “smart cards” to give a paperless option to bus riders. Individuals using the cards can then refill and access their account information online or via mobile devices, as well as at the kiosks located outside new bus stations in the city -- making getting on and off the bus just a little bit easier for travelers in a hurry. The Rapid's Public Outreach Coordinator of Community Engagement Michael Bulthuis says his organization will likely begin beta testing in August or early September for GVSU students, with a larger public distribution slated for early 2018.  

Go big or go home: Developments that are changing the downtown landscape

20 Monroe Live.

There’s been no shortage of hype surrounding some of the city’s biggest downtown development projects over the past few months, and 2017 finds eager downtown dwellers just a few weeks away from the opening of its newest main attraction: 20 Monroe Live. The 70,000-square-foot entertainment complex, which is opening in partnership with The B.O.B., is located in hub of the city’s downtown, across from Van Andel Arena, and features a movable performance stage and space for as many as 2,600 people. The new entertainment mecca announced its first line-up of shows late last November with big acts from all over the board, including names like Trombone Shorty, Umphrey’s McGee, Peter Frampton, Dropkick Murphy’s, Ms. Lauryn Hill, Slightly Stoopid, and The Flaming Lips. 

Studio C.

Ground is also expected to break on the Studio C project, the $140 million movie theater, retail, and housing hybrid coming to downtown’s Arena District through a partnership between Loeks Theaters Inc. and 616 Development. The 187-unit residential space will include a public piazza in front of the theater and ground-floor retail, with plans for a 900-space on-site parking ramp that will be managed by the city of Grand Rapids. Keep an eye out on the corner of Fulton and Ionia for the Hinman Company’s new 42-story hotel and residential tower, as well as Orion Construction’s Warner Tower project at 150 Ottawa Ave., which will house a bank, a law firm, and retail space alongside more than 100 apartments units.

Hinman Tower.

Oh, and get ready for more breweries and market-rate apartments than you can shake a stick at. Renovations on the new Bridge Street taproom Jolly Pumpkin are scheduled to begin this spring, while the West Side’s first whiskey bar, One Bourbon, will hold its grand opening just next month. If the some 50-odd dedicated breweries in Grand Rapids somehow aren’t enough, 2017 ushers in more of the good stuff with beer and booze-related openings in nearly every neighborhood throughout the city, including — and certainly not limited to — The People Cider Co.’s new 539 Leonard St.  taproom, 7 Monks at 740 Michigan Street, and City Built Brewing Co. on Monroe Ave. NW, to name a few. 

Among the many market-rate, mixed-use residential units planned and underway in Beer City include:
  • A collaborative overhaul by Maplegrove Development and Bazzani Building Co. of the historic Kingsley Building’s at 1415 Lake Drive.
  • Plenty of mixed-use build-outs by Orion Construction Co., which recently announced plans for Heritage Place, and 84-unit residential/office space hybrid with on-site parking in Heritage Hill, while continuing work on market-rate units all the way from Fulton Street to new Riverfront apartments along Monroe Avenue. 
  • 234 Market Ave.’s transformation from the former Lady Godiva Showroom strip club to 23 market-rate multi-family units.
Developments that are (starting to) tackle accessibility & equity issues

Diamond Place.

For many families living in Grand Rapids' neighborhoods, things like reasonable access to affordable housing and grocery stores are far from a given. Though new developments that bring affordable housing solutions into the mixed-use residential/retail fold are only a drop in a very big bucket, projects like Third Coast Development’s upcoming Diamond Place at 20 E. Fulton and Rockford Construction’s “Meijer” development on Bridge and Stocking might be the first baby steps in figuring out how development can work for everybody.

Located a stone’s throw away from the New Holland Brewery Knickerbocker on the city’s West Side, Rockford Construction’s new unnamed development on Bridge Street and Stocking will not only be home to West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology’s new headquarters, but will feature both market rate and workforce housing with a proposed Meijer store that will mark the city’s first large-scale downtown grocer. While the first phase of the project is expected to kick off sometime this year, Third Coast Development’s similarly geared $42 million Diamond Place development breaks ground this month, with 165 residential units — 100 of which will be income-restricted units, three retail spaces — one of which Third Coast is hoping to make a grocery store, and a 240-car parking deck .

Rockford's continuing Bridge St. development.

City leaders are also having intensive conversations about the state of housing and business equity in Grand Rapids neighborhoods, most notably in the Southtown area and along the South Division corridor. To address increasing rents and other gentrification issues for both business owners and residents, which can push out the longtime community members who can no longer afford the area many have spent decades working and living in, the city has begun a study of the area called the South Division Equitable Development Plan to help avoid such issues as displacement. Schulz, the city's planning director, says before leaders launch into the public input phase, they’re taking the time to seek out local community advocates who can help to lead their own communities in discussions about the future of where they live. 

So, what’s next?

What does development mean for Grand Rapidians in 2017? Depending on who you are and where you live, it could mean a lot of things. But whether it’s a community beginning to worry about the over-saturation of residential units and new breweries in a market where supply is beginning to outpace demand or an underserved neighborhood struggling to approach new development without losing residents’ voices along the way, one thing is clear: it’s time to have some pretty frank discussions about how we build our communities so that they work for everyone.

“The neighborhoods in Grand Rapids are going to be challenged with trying to figure out how to integrate change into what their paradigm has always been before now,” Schulz says. “Things have been going really, really well, so do we keep pushing forward, do we take a moment to hesitate? As a growing and changing city, there’s going to be a lot of debate and discussion about how we continue to grow and change while still meeting these new realities. I think that’s going to be the part that people will find themselves challenged to wrap their minds around.” 

Written by Anya Zentmeyer, Development News Editor
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