Michigan Land Use Institute

MLUI / Articles from 1995 to 2012 / As Election Ends, Grand Rapids Readies For Land Use Leap

As Election Ends, Grand Rapids Readies For Land Use Leap

Smart Growth leader considers innovative master plan

November 7, 2002 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Bradford Ryder
  The economic security of cities depends heavily on the lifestyle choices urban areas provide for families, talented workers, businesses, and children who frolic in fountains like this one in downtown Grand Rapids.

Grand Rapids, MI — While Michigan’s other major cities struggle with the basics—a clean environment, reasonable transportation, strong schools, and cultural flavor— the state’s second largest city appears ready to embrace an urban design planning approach that has helped make San Francisco and Portland, Ore., lively and appealing places to live.

The plan, which the Grand Rapids Planning Commission likely will adopt later this month, aims to inspire new growth in the central city by encouraging energetic marketplaces, attractive public spaces for leisure, convenient transportation, and choice neighborhoods rich in ethnic and economic diversity.

That a city so well known for its conservative politics is actively pursuing Smart Growth principles is good news for advocates here who have spent years building the movement. It demonstrates a growing, mainstream awareness that the future economic security of cities depends heavily on the lifestyle choices urban areas provide for families, talented workers, and businesses.

Boosted by Election Results
The consideration of Grand Rapids’ new master plan comes amid encouraging signs here and across the state that more citizens embrace Smart Growth principles. Democratic Attorney General Jennifer Granholm was elected governor on Tuesday in part because she ran on a platform  that stressed halting sprawl, fixing roads first before building new ones, and conserving farmland. Her Republican opponent, Lieutenant Governor Dick Posthumus, barely mentioned sprawl in public.

In addition voters in Peninsula Township north of Traverse City approved a property tax increase to finance adding thousands more acres to the region’s farmland preserve program. And residents of Bear Creek Township outside Petoskey overwhelmingly approved a referendum that halts a proposed 70-acre shopping mall that would have been built on agricultural land.

Yet even as the Smart Growth movement in Michigan gains momentum, skeptics also are stepping up their work. A proposal to raise property taxes in Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties to finance improved public transit was narrowly defeated, 18,848 to 17,808.

Last Revised Almost 40 Years Ago
Grand Rapids’ 2002 Master Plan articulates a tremendous evolution in community values, say its supporters. The old 1963 plan called for bulldozing the urban core, shooing residents out to the suburbs, and linking them with new highways. The new plan couldn’t be more different. It celebrates civic heritage, reduces dependency on the auto, and connects people via the shared identity that arises from having a unique sense of place. It also emphasizes that prosperous communities do not happen by chance. They are designed, say the city’s planners, by decisions that are sensitive to the surrounding context of social and environmental — both built and natural — circumstances.

Planning authorities say if the new Grand Rapids plan attracts steady funding and brisk promotion it could lead the way for other cities and become a pioneering model for how to revive ailing urban areas and economic competitiveness.

“This is groundbreaking for Michigan,” said Andy Bowman, planning director of the Grand Valley Metro Council, a nonprofit group facilitating coordinated growth management throughout the Grand Rapids region. “This plan is a definite departure from the standard urban planning of the past 50 years. Grand Rapids has taken the leading concepts for how we can imagine and provide for new growth and put them into a comprehensive strategy for building great places. It is remarkable to see such a major urban area understand the need for change, seize the moment, and rethink the traditional notions of community development.”

A Start to Real Sprawl Management
Mr. Bowman said the plan is not an antidote for the draining effects of sprawl. But it does provide local officials with a detailed manual that gives clear direction for the pattern and character of urban development — and redevelopment — that creates the type of vibrant communities where more people choose to live and work.

The makeover already is underway successfully in certain parts of Grand Rapids, the state’s Republican stronghold and a rising Smart Growth star. Developers are renovating the central business district’s historic buildings into brew pubs, eateries, office space, and stylish lofts. The city reclaimed a major stretch of the Grand River waterfront for picnickers, joggers, Frisbee golfers, and fishing enthusiasts. And traffic engineers narrowed several streets throughout the downtown area to calm traffic and provide safe places for pedestrians and bikers.

These initial efforts have already yielded a result most big city mayors would kill for: In an era when almost all older Michigan cities continue to lose residents, Grand Rapids’ population is 198,000 and rising, according to the 2000 census.

The challenge is to sustain the momentum. Residents and local officials agree that the city now needs dedicated funding and firm leadership to implement fully its 200-page master plan. Without that, Grand Rapid’s renaissance could fade.

“Innovative plans have failed time and time again in Michigan because they are rarely institutionalized,” said Mark Wyckoff, president of the Planning and Zoning Center in Lansing, Mich. “The essential tools are the action steps. The plan must articulate who’s going to do what, by when, and at what cost. If that process has not been thought out thoroughly, and built into the budget, the plan will not succeed.”

A Guide For Other Cities
Michigan’s major cities historically have lacked the contemporary plans necessary to guide development in any meaningful or sustainable way, Mr. Wyckoff said.

The result is a predictable pattern of negative consequences that are well documented across the state, particularly in down and out cities like Detroit and Flint. Sprawling, low-density development pushes prime farmland and the food it produces further away from population centers. It dilutes economic activity and favors new construction over the maintenance of existing roads and sewers. It increases traffic congestion as commuters become more dependent on the automobile. And it regularly degrades freshwater resources as runoff from thousands of acres of new pavement overwhelms lakes, rivers, and ground water sources.

Grand Rapids’ new roadmap for growth could reverse these costly trends and direct new development back into existing communities. The plan appears to embrace the key elements of healthy urban society, Wyckoff said, and could influence a modern metropolitan agenda in Michigan if it became the focus of a concerted effort led by organizations such as the Urban Core Mayors Association, which represents 12 major cities including Battle Creek, Ann Arbor, and Saginaw.

Until the state’s top leaders recognize the need for a seismic shift away from traditional public planning and begin to raise new expectations about making cities truly prosperous, urban neglect and decline will likely persist.

“This is a major quality of life issue and the governor has to set the standard. Even if the state does not spend a dime, the governor can use the bully pulpit to express new ideas. But Michigan has never had strong leadership on urban policy,” Wyckoff said. 

Granholm Gets Smart Growth
That could change now that the state has elected Jennifer Granholm as its governor. The Democrat campaigned on a “one Michigan” platform that, among other things, emphasized the crucial need for well-managed urban revitalization.

(See: “Is It A Good Place?” and “A Rare Call For Stronger Cities” )

Apparently Ms. Granholm was not preaching in the wilderness. Indeed, the notion of strong cities was a central theme for a broad range of special interest groups in the months immediately preceding Election Day. So the state may be on the verge of reaching a strong, bi-partisan consensus on the issue, with Grand Rapids becoming the unofficial sounding board and something of a center for the burgeoning movement.

For example, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce sponsored a two-day forum here last September highlighting the urgent need to stem the state’s brain drain and create a competitive climate by investing in central cities to lure the next generation of workers.

Last June, at a conference organized here by the Grand Valley Metro Council, planners from around the state learned about maintaining healthy natural areas in urban settings from distinguished speakers like John Frece, the communications director for Maryland’s Office of Smart Growth.

And religious leaders met here in early November at a seminar arranged by the Interfaith Dialogue Association and the Religion, Ecology, and Spirituality Workgroup to explore the role spiritual values play in sustainable community development.

Each of these conferences confirmed what Grand Rapids officials discovered during the two-year process of writing the city’s new growth plan, which include hosting some 250 community meetings: people clearly want ready access to life’s basic amenities—safe neighborhoods, strong businesses, transportation choices, and access to parks and safe waterways.

“The ideas in our new plan come from real people not professional planners,” said Bill Hoyt, the planning director for the City of Grand Rapids. “Real people encouraged us to think about how to accommodate and reinforce some sort of future mass transit system. Real people said the Grand River should become the centerpiece of our community. Real people wanted to protect significant architecture instead of simply bulldozing old buildings. And real people proposed the idea of mixed-use communities—having commercial spaces with residential above, and maybe a church next door, a grocery store on the corner, and houses across the street.”

Money Always an Issue
Finding the means to realize this vision, however, presents an immediate challenge. The city invested $200,000 to translate the community’s voice into the new master plan, its first in 40 years. But the city manager recently proposed a hiring freeze to cope with the slumping economy and current budget concerns threaten swift implementation of the plan. Necessary next steps include rewriting an obsolete zoning ordinance, creating a historic preservation plan, and identifying environmentally sensitive areas throughout the city. All of these projects will cost money.

“It’s going to be tough,” Mr. Hoyt said. “But there is an important consensus around the fundamental ideas about what this community is and what it should be like. We will have to get creative and find the necessary resources. The state also could be a tremendous help with funding and new legislation that enables us to pursue innovative ideas.”

Despite the striking progress Grand Rapids has made in reviving its urban communities, the overriding sense in the city is that the 2002 Master Plan marks a new beginning. As in most of Michigan’s central cities, abandoned gas stations remain an eyesore and environmental threat here. Elementary schools are closing. Hundreds of properties remain ill prepared to receive new development ideas. And residents in most neighborhoods find it a hassle to access basic everyday services.

“It is still inconvenient for people downtown to get a loaf of bread, or go to the cleaners, or get a video,” said Frank Lynn, a community organizer with the Creston Neighborhood Association. “This plan gives us a good framework to start with, but it is just a start. We need to go further and finish the process.”

Andy Guy, who is chronicling the rise of Grand Rapids as a center of Smart Growth innovation in the Midwest, is a journalist and organizer in the Institute’s Grand Rapids field office. Reach him at andy@mlui.org, or 616-308-6250.

Michigan Land Use Institute

148 E. Front Street, Suite 301
Traverse City, MI 49684-5725
p (231) 941-6584 
e comments@mlui.org