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Michigan’s Comeback City

In Grand Rapids, smart investments spur Smart Growth

March 13, 2005 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Bruce Giffin/MLUI

“People are coming back downtown,” says Coney Girl owner Jennifer Idema, “so I figured now was a good time to open the business”

Jennifer Idema opened her Coney Girl hot dog stand in Monroe Center, the new, beating heart of downtown Grand Rapids. Starting a new business venture in Michigan’s second largest city is a carefully planned career step for this former California advertising executive and mother of one son. It’s also a culinary test of the authentic Coney sauce that is a secret family recipe. “Business is great,” Ms. Idema says. “People are coming back downtown, so I figured now was a good time to open the business.”

Mrs. Idema’s Coney stand, which opened last year, 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
Just like Mrs. Idema, Grand Rapids is driven by big aspirations. Since 1990, private developers and government agencies have invested more than $2 billion to rebuild the downtown. The projects range from a $220 million state-of-the-art convention center to a $530,000 park in the historic Heartside neighborhood. The $72 million Van Andel Research Institute opened in 1999 to help cure cancer. A $22 million transit center opened this summer. These big and small projects, a blending of public and private investments, are driving community spending towards the city center in order to nurture an urban area’s economic competitiveness.
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.

Changing Times
Incorporated in 1850, Grand Rapids thrived throughout its first century as first lumbering, then furniture making, auto parts manufacturing, banking, and insurance anchored the region’s development. Its population peaked at 206,000 in 1966 and then quickly fell to under 180,000 residents by the end of that decade. But it will soon exceed 200,000 residents again for the first time in 40 years.
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.

An important player in downtown Grand Rapids’ revival is Mike Devries, one of a handful of builders who have, together, spent more than $600 million turning vacant lots and boarded-up buildings into new housing, restaurants, and office space. For years Mr. Devries and his colleagues endured the derision of their suburban builder friends, who wondered why anybody with a brain would invest in old warehouses on gritty inner city streets. Now the pioneering redevelopment work is attracting new investors.
“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
The infilling is underway. The $55 million Grand Rapids Art Museum will open in 2006 across the street from Coney Girl.  Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan will soon move its 266-person regional workforce from the suburbs to a historic building downtown. “Moving literally to the heart of the state’s second largest city makes a statement,” says Blue Cross Blue Shield Vice President Dale Robertson. “We are here to stay and we wanted to send a signal that we are committed to this region. When you are downtown, with the people, the activity, the buzz of a city, I just think it will add something to our whole operation.”

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.”

Andy Guy staffs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Grand Rapids office. You can reach him at aguy@mlui.org.

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