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What’s Healthy for Health Hill?

Amidst construction cranes and blueprints, a road debate brews in Grand Rapids

August 26, 2006 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Biotech hub Health Hill has triggered a transportation debate.

GRAND RAPIDS— Developers are sparing no measure of expense or creativity to transform Health Hill into the biotech hub of this city's 21st-century economy.

The $175 million expansion of the Van Andel Institute, with its futuristic laboratories, offices, and classrooms, aims to advance molecular genetics. The $78 million Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion’s multi-level "life garden" will please the eye and calm the nerves of patients and visitors. And a new $190 million home will make the Helen DeVos Children's Center one of the nation's premier pediatric hospitals.

The expansion of Health Hill lies at the center of an unprecedented boom of development and technology in Michigan's second largest city. But it also embodies the tension between Grand Rapids’ strides into the knowledge economy and its struggles to build a 21st-century city to go with it. A debate is brewing about whether the Michigan Department of Transportation’s $400 million plan to widen the streets, bridges, and highways around Health Hill—and essentially ignore pedestrians, cyclists, and mass rapid transit—will heighten or harm the urban vitality of the surrounding neighborhoods and downtown Grand Rapids.

David Bulkowski, executive director of the nonprofit Disability Advocates of Kent County, sees the decision as a major turning point for the city. "We cannot afford to miss this incredible opportunity to integrate this development with downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods.”

Mr. Bulkowski pointed out that MDOT’s proposal - along with a handful of new buildings currently under construction or on the drawing board - is more in line with the city’s obsolete 1970s-era master plan, which Grand Rapids leaders and citizens replaced in 2002 with “an incredible master plan that talks about transit-oriented development and great streets."

Reviving Street Life
The City of Grand Rapids formally recognized the value of designing dynamic streets with its updated, and widely supported, master plan, which aims to make walking and biking safer, public transportation more convenient, and parking lots less prominent.

So far, the city has had striking success, with several major road reconstructions that cater to people rather than cars. Plainfield Avenue was reduced from four to three lanes to slow traffic near a high school. Landscaped medians and parking bulb outs—wider sidewalks that “bulb out” into the street at pedestrian and bicycle crossings—were added to key sections of North Monroe, South Division, and Fulton Street to calm the flow of cars, improve aesthetics, and make pedestrians safer and more comfortable. And a full block of Bostwick Avenue was closed to cars to make room for a public plaza in front of the community college.

In nearly every instance, the makeover was followed by a wave of new residents, businesses, and street life. City engineers now plan to build a roundabout—the city's first—to reduce traffic accidents and make Wealthy Street even more inviting for walkers. The street recently was paved with bricks and lined with decorative historic style lamps.

Ken Sislak, an associate vice president at the New York-based transportation planning and development firm DMJM Harris, confirms that the bustling commerce on these pedestrian-friendly streets is no coincidence.

"A great street is a channel for economic development." said Mr. Sislak. "First and foremost, streets should facilitate the interaction of people and commerce. That means streets need to be comfortable and safe. And a great street needs to be multimodal. It needs to support pedestrian activity, bicycle activity and, of course, transit and automobiles."

Hesitation on Health Hill
But even as bus stops and unconventional streets draw residents, business, and vitality to once-faded parts of town, state and local transportation planners are hesitant to try those innovative designs on Health Hill. Traffic studies predict the opening of the $150 million Michigan Street Development, which includes the new cancer pavilion, by itself will generate more than 1,100 and 1,300 additional vehicle trips carrying employees, patients, and visitors to the area in the morning and afternoon, respectively. Michigan Street already is jammed with a daily average of more than 20,000 cars, so it's easy to see why public officials are nervous about a looming traffic nightmare.

"The Michigan Health Hill area is not a transit-oriented development," said Pat Bush, public works director for the City of Grand Rapids. "I'm sure some planners would argue that. But patients and visitors are coming in from out of town. People with health issues don’t stick to bus schedules. They're driving in vehicles.”

Though Mr. Bush readily acknowledges that employees would generate significant demand for public transit, he fears development ultimately will make wider roads inevitable.

“There’ll be a tipping a point when people are going to demand more road lanes,” he predicted.

But others say Health Hill is evolving into a prime example of the need for more transit-oriented development. Expansion of the Van Andel Institute and construction of both the children's hospital and Michigan Street Development project now underway will add a projected 4,550 new jobs to a roughly two block area, according to records from the city's economic development office. Some question if there is really room for all of those cars.

They point out that development plans only include 2,308 new parking spaces. That means a growing number of travelers must get out their cars and commute to the area using alternative means. In fact, a May 2005 traffic study of the area prepared by the engineering firm URS found that nearly 400 commuters "would be required to park off-site" by the time the Michigan Street Development project is completed. One area hospital already shuttles employees from lots at various locations around the city.       

Running Bikes off the Road
Other opponents of the controversial MDOT plan for ever bigger roadways say it could also harm existing, adjacent neighbors by squeezing out pedestrians, bikes, and buses. The plan widens several bridges in the district, including a key section of College Avenue—which feeds Heritage Hill, the city's most prestigious historic neighborhood— from five to seven lanes, and adds additional lanes to Interstate 196, which borders the northern side of the medical district and divides it from another neighborhood, Belknap Lookout, where 12 percent of residents already are walking to work.

That is why MDOT’s proposal spurred Belknap Lookout residents to push for a plan that would leverage a portion of the projected $400 million road spending initiative to improve street design and walkability in their district, and strengthen rather than diminish the neighborhood's connection with adjacent job and entertainment centers.

The heavily auto-oriented MDOT proposal also is elevating a debate about how public officials actually intend to implement a visionary master plan, ensure a high quality of life in the city, and attract talented workers and high-tech companies.

"We're investing hundreds of millions of dollars on Health Hill," said Mr. Bulkowski. "But judging by the schematics we're building bunkers. Michigan Street is going to be five and six lanes of concrete with 10-foot-high granite walls on both sides. It's basically designed to speed cars in and speed cars out. And it's at risk of becoming a most inhospitable environment for human beings.”

Debate Rages Online
The debate also is raging online at the popular website www.urbanplanet.org. A discussion group titled Helen DeVos Children's Hospital, once devoted to providing regular updates on the project, has morphed into a debate about whether development in the area should cater to the automobile or strive to nurture vibrant public spaces and stimulate a broader range of transportation choices.

"This [children's hospital] appears to be yet another building which has completely forgotten about the public realm," wrote a contributor identified as “GR Town Planner” on the site on July 18, 2006.

The writer continued: "It appears to go as far as actually having a wall around it at the street. What does this say to the pedestrian? What does it say to anybody trying to walk down the street? What does it say about our society when we cannot build urban buildings that engage and define the street? Are the city of Grand Rapids streets so bad and scary that we need to create bunkers instead of well designed urban buildings? This looks like it belongs someplace under siege, maybe in Bagdad or Beirut."

GR Town Planner adds that "this kind of building should be built in some sterile office park in the suburban asteroid belts, and not be defacing the city."

Others defended the auto-centric style of development on the Web site.

"Why does this ‘have’ to be a vibrant pedestrian area," countered one of them, identified as “DwnTwn Geo.”

That writer added: "It is a hospital. Unless you work there, what would be the reason for going there? To see a sick/disabled family member or friend or maybe to get help for yourself. The times I have been there, I will tell you the last thing I thought about doing was shopping at the vibrant plaza on the street level."

Yet another writer recounted a personal experience that would likely have supporters of New Urbanist design—an approach embodied in this town’s current master plan—nodding their heads.

"I think with [Health] Hill and other areas in the downtown area there is a chicken and egg problem," wrote “grcitydog.”

"I have ridden my bike up the hill and yes, it is a real challenge. The biggest problem was not the steepness of the hill, but the lack of anything but dangerous biking and walking conditions. I don't know if I want to go that way again. The curb cuts, traffic, and outright pedestrian hostility are terrible! If there was an attempt made by the city and developers to make it a more pleasant experience, then the hill would not be as big a problem. They should be encouraging a healthier lifestyle than sitting in your car and driving right up to the door of your work."

Andy Guy is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Grand Rapids correspondent and the director of the Institute’s Great Lakes Water Security Project. Reach him at aguy@mlui.org

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