Michigan’s Comeback City
In Grand Rapids, smart investments spur Smart Growth
January 17, 2005 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service
“People are coming back downtown,” says Coney Girl owner Jennifer Idema, “so I figured now was a good time to open the business”
Mrs. Idema’s Coney stand, which opened in May, is both an example of one woman’s bid for a better life and a colorful signpost marking the exceptional progress this city is making in a decade-long campaign to rebuild its economy and quality of life. Grand Rapids’ government leaders, business executives, and citizens are working together to invest public and private dollars in ways that literally fill in the blanks of a civic landscape that until recently was being abandoned.
Office buildings now stand where parking lots lay for decades. Apartments enliven the upper floors of once-vacant warehouses; below them are restaurants and saloons. There are new parks and recreation and exhibition centers. The city now shows its best face to the Grand River instead of using it as a sewer. And while it still has much work to do, especially with its neighborhoods and public schools, few American cities its size have done nearly as well recovering from the familiar cycle of urban decay and despair.
Big Aspirations, Big Results
|One key to reviving downtown Grand Rapids was the restoration of its riverfront.|
The strategy is clearly working:
- Grand Rapids has gained 6,000 more residents since 1990, while all but one of Michigan’s other major cities — Ann Arbor — lost population.
- In the past decade, Grand Rapids’ income tax revenues have more than doubled, to $59 million annually. In the past 13 years, its taxable property values have nearly doubled, to $8.7 billion; median household income has risen by more than $14,000.
- Diversity is increasing; the central city’s Latino population tripled during the 1990s. Meanwhile, demand for downtown housing is growing, according to an independent 2004 study of the local residential housing market.
Sidewalk eateries, a less precise but important measure of a city’s success, have exploded. The Chinese restaurant up the block from the Coney Girl now sells fried rice to passing pedestrians. Most of the dozens of new spots offer alfresco seating.
|Enjoying star architect Maya Lin’s eye-catching downtown park|
What undid Grand Rapids were new interstate highways and towering glass office buildings that tore at the downtown’s heart. Elected and appointed government leaders, business executives, clergy, and neighborhood leaders united in the late 1980s and began putting it back together again. Led by Mayor John H. Logie and others, they redeveloped old buildings, vacant lots, and abandoned industrial sites, financing them with a steady wave of well-planned public and private investments and incentives. They listened carefully to public input, used enlightened community planning, and are making Grand Rapids more prosperous and attractive.
“You have some major institutions that now are fully committed to this community — they can’t leave because of the dollars they have invested,” said Mr. DeVries. “So you have these pillars of economic activity and it just makes sense to start filling in around them with new residential and commercial projects.”
A Real City Again
|Grand Rapids’ new downtown transit center|
Down the block from Blue Cross, the aroma of Coney Girl’s steaming sauce is in the breeze. Mrs. Idema’s hot dog cart sits at the center of a $15 million street reconstruction project that transformed a bleak pedestrian mall into the focal point of Grand Rapids’ revival, the Monroe Center. The three blocks of attractive urbanity boast heated sidewalks, a brick street, and an eye-catching elliptical park designed by Maya Lin, an internationally respected architect.
Real cities have Coney stands on street corners. Grabbing a chilidog, finding a park bench, and just watching people flow by is a classic urban experience. Mix in a beverage and a saxophone player and you’ve got what millions of people know as a great night on the town. Where there is food in the streets there are signs of intelligent and industrious life.
“Just look around,“ Mrs. Idema says. “This city really has begun to thrive. In a couple years I could have five or six carts.”