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Acting As a Region to Tame Sprawl

Grand Rapids Leads the Way in Michigan

May 1, 1999 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Awakening Activism

The trend is readily apparent in the Grand Rapids region. Since 1966, when the city's population peaked at 206,000, Grand Rapids has lost nearly 20,000 residents.

The metamorphosis of once-prosperous Grand Rapids into a struggling city seems almost surreal to those who grew up there. Even after the last decade of the Metro Council's efforts and major investments to bring people downtown — a new civic arena, new museums, and refurbished housing — evidence of improvement is gradual. Center city Grand Rapids still is characterized by a surplus of parking lots that often are half-full. In some neighborhoods entire blocks of old buildings stand empty.

Meanwhile, the population of the suburbs more than tripled since the mid-1960s. In the 1990s alone the amount of developed land in suburban Grand Rapids increased nearly 30%. The Grand Rapids area now is Michigan's fastest growing region. It's also generating a chorus of complaints about traffic-choked streets, increasingly crowded schools, rising municipal costs and taxes, and a deterioration in the quality of life caused by the relentless march of subdivisions, malls, and road construction.

The pace of urbanization outside the city is so swift that it's alarming suburban residents. About eight miles from the Brittany Café, Betty Jo Crosby pours coffee in her roomy farmhouse along increasingly busy Grand River Drive in Ada Township. Mrs. Crosby raised three sons in a setting that not long ago was so rural she could watch mink forage in the winter along the stream that runs through her property. Now forests are falling to new mansions and subdivisions.

Three years ago, when bulldozers moved in across the road to build 30 houses and tore down the woods and hills she had walked through for decades, Mrs. Crosby decided she needed to get involved in helping manage Ada Township's explosive growth. She was appointed to the Township Planning Commission in 1997. As a member of an open space task force she is looking into strengthening zoning ordinances and studying how to join Ada's land preservation plan with those of neighboring townships.

"I knew once I became involved it was going to be a long-term commitment," said Mrs. Crosby. "What I've learned is that contending with growth and the governmental process is really difficult. It comes down to how we lead and how we recognize and respond to influences from inside, and outside, the township."

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