Clang Clang Clang Went Grand Rapids

Will the streetcar make a comeback in Grand Rapids? That is the question that industrious developer Guy Bazzani considers as civic leaders investigate the possibility of building – or, more accurately, rebuilding – an urban trolley system. If the answer is ‘yes,’ Bazzani says, get ready for a real estate rush.

Fallow lots beside Division Avenue. The desolate parking lots lining North Monroe. Dozens of vacant and underused buildings along roads like Lake Drive and Wealthy. Put tracks running down the street past any of these locations and Bazzani predicts investor confidence will soar.

"If you build it they will come,” he says. “I know that sounds cliché. But there's no doubt about it. There will be massive land speculation anywhere you see plans for a permanent bed of rails and streetcars running. It will be crazy."

That’s a significant statement considering Grand Rapids already is in the midst of an unprecedented building boom. Since 1990, developers have pumped more than $3 billion into just about every kind of building money can buy. Hotels and museums. Theatres and performance halls. Universities and convention facilities. Medical labs and high-rise condos. A spectacular YMCA. And countless restaurants and pubs. Now entire neighborhoods like Heartside and Madison Square have begun rebounding from decades of decline too.

But what the renaissance continues to lack, a growing number of local leaders agree, is a sensible way to connect it all together and move residents, workers, and visitors conveniently from place to place. So a streetcar system is emerging as quite possibly Grand Rapids’ next big thing.

The Education Phase Begins
The movement is essentially history repeating itself. Electric streetcars launched an "era of opportunity" for Michigan's second largest city in the late 1800's, according to Heart and Soul: The Story of Grand Rapids Neighborhoods. "The streetcar offered mobility, allowing families to live in one place, attend church somewhere else, work downtown, visit friends in other areas of the city, and visit parks each weekend," the authors wrote.

The streetcar also enabled residents to move outside an increasingly crowded central city but still commute to work in timely fashion. So it gave rise to entire neighborhoods like Creston and North Park, spurred new businesses, and grew the tax base. But the extensive network ultimately was dismantled in the 1920's and 30's to make way for the automobile.

Now civic leaders are learning about what it means to rebuild the system. The regional transit agency earlier this month launched an intensive study of the potential challenges and benefits related to building a streetcar system serving the central city. Managed by DMJM Harris, one of the world’s leading transportation consulting firms, the eight month investigation will analyze potential routes in an area bounded by Leonard Street to the North, College Avenue to the East, Wealthy Street to the south, and Winter Avenue just west of the Grand River.

The study will calculate construction and operating costs for the proposed project and recommend a financial plan to pay for it. Funding likely will rely heavily on local – not state or federal – sources. But many foresee a significant return on any investment made in streetcar infrastructure. So the consultant also is charged with evaluating the trolley’s ability to generate jobs and leverage private investment from developers like Guy Bazzani.

"We’re not talking about trolleys for mere aesthetic reasons,” says Curt Wells, senior vice president at Huntington Bank and a member of the special citizen task force directing the streetcar study. “It is a vital part of bringing together key parts of the city and making it a more invigorated, livable, and sustainable place to be.”

Put simply, local leaders aim to understand whether or not a streetcar system makes sense in Grand Rapids. In many ways, however, the writing is on the wall. A convergence of global mega trends suggests expanding public transportation options is not only a smart move for growing metropolitan regions. It's an increasingly urgent necessity. Those trends include:

  • Single professionals, empty nesters, and immigrants fueling population growth in central cities.
  • Increasing traffic congestion, rising gas prices, and the growing financial burden of car ownership.
  • The push to promote green building, energy conservation, and sustainable development.
  • Mounting concerns about homeland security, climate change, and environmental protection.
  • Lifestyle changes that favor walking, biking, and healthy living.

Taken together, these trends overwhelmingly favor growth in vibrant metropolitan areas and, by extension, clean, safe, convenient, and affordable public transit.

"There's a lot of handles on this issue," says Brian Harris, president of H&H Metal Source and a member of the task force studying the streetcar. "We have to build the case around what specifically it is that the trolley system could bring, and how it's different from our traditional understanding of transit."

Building a 21st Century City
It's not that metro Grand Rapids is idle on the transit issue. The region boasts a nationally recognized bus system. And it's preparing to build Michigan's first fixed guideway system – a highly sophisticated network of rapid busses connecting the central business district to the southern suburbs – in nearly a century.

Still, the conventional thinking in Grand Rapids is that public transportation is a nice social service that gets poor people to work and old people to the doctor. But Denver, San Jose, and numerous other American cities are disrupting that perception. They're demonstrating that serious investment in public transit – particularly streetcars and light rail – is a basic strategy to elevate quality of life, attract talented workers, and propel the economy in the 21st century.

Grand Rapids must recognize the trends, local leaders say, and respond to remain competitive.

“We're proceeding at a reasonable pace," Harris says. “But we can’t afford to get lackadaisical about [modernizing transportation]. We're competing with Indianapolis, Dallas-Forth Worth, and all these places. The battle is getting tougher, not easier.”

Not one person interviewed for this article suggests that expanded public transportation is a silver bullet for the lagging economy in Grand Rapids or Michigan. And all were careful to point out that significant questions remain unanswered about major groundbreaking transit projects such as the proposed streetcar. Who will ride it? Why should it be built? How much will it cost? Will it generate a payback?

But a consensus is clearly emerging among young entrepreneurs, bankers, students, manufacturing moguls, and developers that modern rapid transit - like good schools, vibrant urban hubs with parks, public art, and round-the-clock entertainment, and cultural diversity - is a common denominator that defines many of America's most successful regions today.

Local leaders also say permanent transit rails promise to take the city's already brilliant renaissance to the next level.

Developer Guy Bazzani has spent nearly two decades rehabbing old buildings and revitalizing neighborhoods and business districts like East Hills and Wealthy Street. He says no less than a dozen redevelopment opportunities come to mind when he thinks about a streetcar or light rail line moving commuters through the Lake Drive corridor.

The gloomy Kent Records building at the corner of Lake and Robinson Road is the first example he suggests. Today the building is a giant warehouse of moving boxes, manila folders, and file cabinets. But, with transit tracks out front, Bazzani says the building could take on a much higher value as residential housing with ground level retail.

And the surface parking lots behind Wolfgang's and the old Intersection, those could become attractive residential towers that basically double the neighborhood's population density, he says, because the expanded range of transportation options would make the area a more accessible and convenient place to live and visit.

“The image of a fixed track is very strong," Bazzani says. "I'll build around that kind of public investment.”

The streetcar feasibility study will identify potential routes, capital costs, and related development opportunities by March 2008. The study is expected to be completed in June 2008.

Andy Guy, the managing editor at Rapid Growth Media, is a journalist who lives in Grand Rapids. He recently traveled to Portland, San Francisco, and several other American cities to investigate the role of public transit in cities in the 21st century. Andy also serves as project director at the Michigan Land Use Institute and authors a blog titled Great Lakes Guy.

City owned surface lot in Eastown

Guy Bazzani in his East Hills office

A streetcar in Portland, Oregon

Aerial photo of a downtown Grand Rapids surface lot

Kent Records Building - Eastown

Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved
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