One vision for adding affordable housing to downtown Holland

In the past year, Holland has looked at the future of the city’s waterfront and asked stakeholders and residents to dream about how this natural resource could evolve in the coming decades.

Most of this big-sky thinking likely won’t come to life as depicted in sketches. Significant properties along the waterfront are in use by industrial owners who depend on the waterway to transport materials.

But one project could happen sooner — the development of a “Uptown District,” a 3-square-block area just north of downtown, where College Avenue meets Sixth Street. One vision is a combination of higher density retail, commercial, and residential that includes an affordable housing component. Pricier units would get the view of Windmill Island, while less-costly units would have a street view.

The development has the potential to address the city’s biggest challenge, biggest opportunity, and biggest aspiration, says newly elected Mayor Nathan Bocks.

“I see the three of them as being connected to one another,” says Bocks, who defines the three as the following:
  • The biggest challenge for a city mostly built out is limited housing stock, especially in the affordable range. Slowly increasing density will need to be part of the solution, Bocks believes.
  • The biggest opportunity is developing the city’s frontage along Lake Macatawa. All but four or five parcels from Kollen Park to Windmill Island are owned by the city.
  • The city’s biggest aspiration is to become more welcoming to people, whether they are part of the LGBTQ+ community or hail from another country or region.
“I really wanted to send the message that we as Holland, Michigan, want to attract people from all over and not just accept them, not just make room for them, but celebrate the value that they bring to the community,” Bocks says. 

The potential of the development along Window on the Waterfront reminds Bocks of a Milwaukee neighborhood he lived in while attending law school in the late ’80s. Between his small apartment and a nearby park were million-dollar condos that had a view of Lake Michigan. He remembers the neighborhood as a “wonderfully eclectic” mix of cultures and incomes. 

“We could do that same kind of thing with that area north of downtown and create multi-use, multi-cost housing with probably more density than there is in a traditional neighborhood in Holland,” the mayor says. 

For those who are worried about density and height, he points to Freedom Village, the seven-story, 500,000-square-foot retirement community built next to Windmill Island 25 years ago.

“It’s the tallest, most dense residential development in the city. And it works,” Bocks says. “We need to think a little differently about what a traditional neighborhood looks like.”

The project offers a different type of neighborhood that would appeal to a cross-section of people, he believes. The younger generation — like his son, who is in his 20s — are drawn to living in more dense urban areas, where they don’t need a car and can get around on public transportation, or by walking or biking.

Bocks says there is a swath of city-owned green space that isn’t being used, apart from the popular walkway along the marshy waterfront. He doesn’t see the city as being the developer, but points to the city’s history of successful public-private partnerships. The formula worked for turning around the city’s downtown in the past 30 years.

The last time city officials envisioned creating a development on parkland was a few decades ago, with an idea to relocate historic Dutch buildings onto Windmill Island, using them to create a neighborhood of homes and businesses. That failed plan was a nod to Holland’s past and its Dutch roots. This new vision is about the city’s future, with a focus on creating a place that a diverse population could call home.

This article is part of The Lakeshore, a new featured section of Rapid Growth focused on West Michigan's Lakeshore region. Over the coming months, Rapid Growth will be expanding to cover the complex challenges in this community by focusing on the organizations, projects, programs and individuals working to improve conditions and solve problems for their region. As the coverage continues, look for The Lakeshore publication, coming in 2020.
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