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Grand Rapids' Blueprint For Redevelopment

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

MLUI/Bruce Giffen
  Grand Rapids is rapidly becoming a more diverse city.
Much of Grand Rapids’ recent Smart Growth progress began with a July 1993 comprehensive downtown revitalization plan. Based on public forums and task force reports, the plan, Voices and Visions, set out a 10-year strategy to make Grand Rapids “the place you want to be.”

It called for establishing “one-stop shopping” for downtown developers, as well as greenspace expansions, environmental improvements, cleaned-up streets and sidewalks, expanded bus service, and a modernized building code to encourage more downtown housing. The plan has had a direct and very positive effect on residents and business owners.
“We want developers to realize that they have a partner in the city,” says Susan Shannon, Grand Rapids’ economic development director. “We’re not here to put up roadblocks. We want to work with them to get the project done.”

The plan emphasizes:

  • Efficient Permitting: In 2000, Grand Rapids established the Development Center to expedite approvals for proposed construction projects. The center, housed in a single office, provides permit applications, building code and other technical information, and quick access to city staff, making construction permitting much easier. In 2003, Grand Rapids issued more than 1,700 building permits of all sorts; in 1991 it issued only 586. Since 1995, the city has added more than 1,800 residential units in its central district.
  • Private Investments: The $60 million Van Andel Arena opened in 1996. Since 2000, Grand Valley State University has spent more than $152 million expanding its downtown campus. Spectrum Health is constructing a $137 million cardiac center. In the past decade the medical community invested more than $400 million building a world-class research hub on “Health Hill, ” which overlooks downtown.
  • Abandoned Property Recovery: One city program encourages property owners to improve sidewalks through matching grants. Since 1990, the city has invested more than $57 million to improve pedestrian paths, narrow the streets to calm traffic in neighborhood business districts, and reconstruct historic brick streets. Another program has encouraged the revival of nearly 70 old buildings through modest financial assistance for improving exterior facades, utilities, or fire safety. According to Jay Fowler, director of the city’s Downtown Development Authority, 40 small grants, costing the city less than $1 million, have leveraged $40 million in private investment.
  • Taxpayer investments: Citizens are voting to invest in Grand Rapids. In November 2003, for the second time in three years, voters in the region overwhelmingly approved a property tax increase to further expand and improve their popular regional bus system, whose ridership increased by 36 percent after an initial millage in 2000 passed. This June city residents approved two bond proposals totaling $165 million to renovate or replace 11 public school buildings, improve playgrounds, and purchase computers and buses. 
  • Infrastructure Investment: The city has invested more than $150 million for new water and sewer lines, upgraded sewage treatment, and river crossings. Community leaders also have focused on improving public buildings. Two recent public projects, the $60 million county courthouse and a $4 million renovation of a building to house the Grand Rapids Police Department, were located in the heart of downtown. Since 1990 the city has also invested $560 million in new parks, improved sidewalks, better streets, and multi-level parking lots.
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