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Take It to the River

Grand Rapids rediscovers the Grand

July 23, 2001 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

The DeVos family, one of the wealthiest in Grand Rapids, has convinced some of the region’s prominent business and civic leaders to get awful excited about DeVos Place. That’s the new $200 million river side convention center that supporters say will help revitalize downtown Grand Rapids and beautify the Grand River.

Indeed, there’s merit in seeing the Grand for what it once was, and could be again: The natural center of a thriving metropolitan region. Projects like DeVos Place, then, ought to be praised for at least thinking about re-establishing the link between the city and the river.

But here’s a better idea: Scrap the convention center. Let’s think about what it really takes to showcase an urban river.

Careful study of the American cities that have successfully incorporated rivers into their civic lives shows clearly that all of them rejected enormous construction projects and chose instead to design a greener, more inviting, and more walkable riverfront.

Portland, Oregon, demolished and removed a six-lane highway and replaced it with a riverfront park. Boston rejected proposals for new skyscrapers and chose instead to renovate old warehouses along the Charles River for restaurants, offices, housing, and stores. Even Manistee, 100 miles north of Grand Rapids, built a first class river walk and remodeled its historic downtown with small parks to strengthen the local economy.

Despite all the steps that Grand Rapids has taken in the last decade to grow smarter and to advance its quality of life, the city still struggles to recognize its full economic potential. Why? In part because the city and its residents undervalue access to natural resources. Grand Rapids is still too distant culturally from the very river from which it derived its name.

It wasn’t too long ago that people relied on the river to supply drinking water, transport goods, and power an industrial revolution. Then Grand Rapids simply forgot the role that the river plays in its daily life. Today the Grand is blocked by dams, scarred by floodwalls, and obscured by skyscrapers. The river actually flows through the heart of downtown, but it’s really easy to forget that while walking along city sidewalks.

It’s not that our city leaders have totally ignored their responsibilities to the river. In 1970, Dick Schwaiger, a city commissioner, suggested that several city blocks should actually be cleared of existing buildings. “I’d like to see an ordinance that says any river property the city has or obtains must be converted to strip parks,” he said. “Not everyone can own 80 acres, or a stream, or a cottage. So we must keep lands available for public recreation. And I don’t think we’d really lose tax money. When we turn river bank land into parks, we make the adjacent property more valuable.”

Mr. Schwaiger envisioned a modern community around the Grand River, with a central park thick with trees, crisscrossed by pedestrian pathways, and surrounded by apartments, a music hall, and a convention center.

Sure, Grand Rapids continues to make great strides in improving the downtown quality of life, and riverfront restoration has been instrumental. Continued improvement of the riverside walkway for joggers, roller bladers, and fishing enthusiasts is a fine example.

But the city needs to think bigger. Much bigger.

Improving the local waterfront has become a source of fierce competition in Michigan. Big Rapids recently punched out a dam on the Muskegon River, making it safer for both humans and fish. Last summer Jackson removed the cement “cap” which once entombed the Grand through the city’s urban business district. And Congress is poised to designate the Detroit River, running past a recovering Motor City, as the nation’s first international wildlife refuge. That will surely help polish Detroit’s rust belt image.

This rush to “rediscover” the waterfront is intense simply because the stakes are so high. “In our post-industrial age, businesses are interested in rivers for different reasons,” said Rebecca Wodder, President of American Rivers, a nonprofit conservation group founded more than 25 years ago to protect and restore the nation’s rivers. “In the tough competition for talented employees, businesses know they can get an edge if they are headquartered in an appealing area. Cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland have successfully attracted high-tech industries because companies know their employees will enjoy living there. Today’s highly skilled workers work hard and play hard and you can be sure companies are on the lookout for appealing water and recreation.”

Michigan’s unique network of freshwater streams, then, is an economic ace-in-the-hole for river cities like Grand Rapids. No longer can these cities afford to waste valuable riverfront property by crowding it with huge buildings, grimy dumpsters, and back alleyways. This impairs meaningful appreciation of the local waterway. Green space, outdoor opportunities like kayaking and sport fishing, as well as waterfront dining is what attracts today’s culture.
Putting the “river” back in the “riverfront” may also help Grand Rapids address its immediate environmental dilemma — urban sprawl.

“Revitalizing your riverfront changes the entire image of downtown and puts you on an upward trend,” Wodder said. “It draws people back to the city, draws visitors from outside the city, and even draws business. A well-managed river will make your city not just more livable but economically stronger and more sustainable as well.”

“Who wants to move out to the suburbs when all the action is in the city?” she asks.

Metropolitan Grand Rapids is blessed with a vibrant network of rivers. The Flat to the east, the Rogue to the north, and the White to the west are all protected Natural Rivers. Not coincidentally, these rural areas continue to attract a disproportionate amount of growth. Grand Rapids can attract the same growth by showcasing the Grand as a valuable community asset. Just imagine what kind of place this would be now if, as Dick Schwaiger suggested, we took smart steps 30 years ago to rediscover the value of the Grand.

Andrew Guy is an environmental journalist and organizer at the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at the Institute’s new Grand Rapids office, 616-308-6250, or andy@mlui.org. A version of this article was published in the July 18, 2001 edition of The Paper, the Grand Rapids alternative weekly.


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