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Grand Rapids' History of Self-Inflicted Wounds

January 17, 2005 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Like so many other unwary cities, Grand Rapids allowed itself to be dismantled by the American Dream of cars, suburban homes, and freeways. Its residents helped pay for emptying their town and facilitating the suburban boom.
In 1960, bulldozers cut a 500-foot-wide slash across the city’s west side for an elevated freeway, U.S. 131, forcing more than 1,000 families from their homes and leveling dozens of historic buildings. Three years later, it happened again on the city’s north side for I-96: Crews tore down warehouses, homes, and commercial and government buildings (including a historic City Hall), dug a 207-acre hole, and erected steel and glass office buildings and large concrete plazas. These massive, multi-million-dollar projects, financed largely by federal and state tax dollars, unleashed powerful, unexpected economic and social consequences.

Before Grand Rapids’ new highways, two-thirds of its metropolitan population lived in the city. Two generations later, the 197,000 people who live in the city account for less than 25 percent of the 850,000 people who live in the two surrounding counties. Of the 300,000 jobs in metropolitan Grand Rapids, approximately 7 percent are located downtown.
In a move recalling the federal government’s simultaneous funding of tobacco farming and cancer research, 2004 saw the city opening a new $22 million downtown transit center while the state finished its $700 million South Beltline expressway, which will accelerate sprawl south of a downtown that’s striving to remain the Comeback City.

Grand Rapids Timeline

 1960 State builds US 131 through downtown, demolishing hundreds of buildings and relocating more than 1,000 people.
 1963 City adopts first Master Plan; north side demolished to build I-96.
 1967 Eastbrook Mall opens in suburbs.
 1968 Woodland Mall opens near Eastbrook Mall; Sears closes downtown store; Heritage Hill residents form city’s first neighborhood association.
 1969 Old City Hall razed despite citizen opposition.
 1971 Heritage Hill neighborhood listed on National Register of Historic Places.
 1979 City creates Downtown Development Authority (DDA).
 1980 City adopts DDA’s Tax Increment Financing and Development Plan.
 1983 Amway Grand Plaza Hotel opens downtown.
 1985 City expands Heartside Historic District to preserve South Division Avenue.
 1987 City celebrates 150th anniversary.
 1988 Grand Valley State University opens $22 million downtown campus.
 1990 New Grand Valley Metro Council begins regional planning coordination.
 1991 Voters defeat proposal to raze historic Peck Building for parking lot.
 1992 City builds $1.5 million boardwalk along east bank of the Grand River.
 1993 Voices and Visions plan proposes making downtown “the place you want to be.”
 1994 $33 million Grand Rapids Public Museum opens downtown.
 1995 Housing Task Force recommends doubling downtown residents by 2005.
 1996 $60 million Van Andel Arena opens.
 1997 Developers invest about $10 million in bars and restaurants near Arena.
 1999 $70 million Van Andel Institute for cancer research opens downtown.
 2000 Metro Grand Rapids voters approve Interurban Transit Partnership and millage. GVSU spends $71 million on downtown campus expansion.
 2001 State transportation department opens Phase I of South Beltline. County builds $60 million courthouse downtown. City renovates City Center for police and completes Rosa Parks amphitheater and Monroe Center pedestrian mall.
 2002 Planning Commission adopts new City Master Plan.
 2003 Region’s voters support renewal and increase of transit millage by two-to-one margin. City buses provide record 5.8 million rides; $220 million DeVos Center opens.
 2004 Bus system opens $22 million transit center. State completes $700 million South Beltline.
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