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Acting As a Region to Tame Sprawl

Grand Rapids Leads the Way in Michigan

May 1, 1999 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

"It 's an embarrassment," said Jim Buck, mayor of Grandville and chairman of Metro Council. "We're the 93rd-largest city in the country. We're an affluent county. And we can't generate enough support to get a millage to pay for adequate bus service."

The reason is that the automobile reigns and has done so since 1960, when a 500-foot wide slash was opened on the west side for the elevated US-131 freeway, forcing more than 1,000 families from their homes and leveling dozens of historic buildings. The city's north side was similarly carved up in 1963 to build Interstate 196. And a 207-acre hole was cut in the middle of downtown as warehouses, homes, commercial buildings, and government offices including City Hall were torn down and replaced with glass office buildings surrounded by concrete plazas.

The massive demolition and construction unleashed powerful and unexpected economic forces. Before the highways and urban "renewal" projects were built, two-thirds of the metropolitan area's population lived within the city's borders. Two generations later, the 188,000 people who live in Grand Rapids account for less than one-third of the region's 550,000 people. And of the 300,000 jobs in the Grand Rapids area, just 25,000 are downtown.

Putting It Together
Ten years is a short time in the life of a city, not nearly long enough to overcome the hollowing out of Grand Rapids during the last 30 years. Grand Rapids nevertheless is doing something unique in Michigan by directly engaging the two most important issues the region has ever faced.

Taming sprawl and guiding new investment to urban neighborhoods can only be achieved if city and suburban governments dissolve old rivalries and begin thinking and working together as a region. The new governing vision that has taken root in Michigan's second-largest metropolitan area recognizes that communities are part of a region, and that successful decisions about the economy, culture, and use of land cannot be made in isolation.

The approach is working for entrepreneurs like Lane McGinnes of the Brittany Café. "Our decision to establish a business here was very deliberate," she said. "We live in the community. We liked the building and the neighborhoods. And we always thought that if we were successful, this would be a place that workers in the neighborhood could walk to, and a destination that would draw people from the suburbs.

"And that's what's happened. Now there are more people here opening businesses. We are reclaiming our city neighborhood."

CONTACTS: Eric R. DeLong, City of Grand Rapids, 616-456-3119, e-mail: <edelong@iserv.net>; John Koches, Grand Valley State University, 616-895-3792, e-mail: <Kochesj@gvsu.edu>; April Scholtz, Land Conservancy of West Michigan, 616-451-9476; Jerry Felix, Grand Valley Metro Council, 616-776-3876, e-mail: <jerry@gvmc.org>.


Networking Toolkit: Key "Smart Growth" Resources

Regionalism: Local Governments Working Together

Joint Center for Sustainable Communities
Carol Everett
1620 Eye Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20006
Tel. 202-861-6773
E-mail: <ceverett@usmayors.org>
Web site: <usmayors.org/USCM/sustainable>
Co-sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National Association of Counties.

Urban Growth Boundaries

Greenbelt Alliance
530 Bush Street, Suite 303
San Francisco, CA 94108
Tel. 415-398-3730
Web site: <www.greenbelt.org>
Check out their report for citizen activists — “Bound for Success: A Citizen’s Guide to Using Urban Growth Boundaries for More Livable Communities and Open Space Protection,” available for $10.

Local Business Support

U.S. Small Business Administration
Michigan District Office
477 Michigan Avenue
Suite 515, McNamara Building
Detroit, MI 48226
Tel. 313-226-6075
E-mail: <michigan@sba.gov>
Web site: <www.sba.gov>
Everything from lessons on starting your own business, to help with start-up financing, to a free on-line marketing service to put you in touch with 171,000 other small businesses.

Sensible Transportation

Michigan Land Use Institute
Kelly Thayer
845 Michigan Avenue
P.O. Box 228
Benzonia, MI 49616
Tel. 616-882-4723
E-mail: <trans@mlui.org>
Web site: <www.mlui.org>

Surface Transportation Policy Project
1100 17th St., N.W. 10th Floor
Washington, D.C. 20036
Tel. 202-466-2636
Web site: <www.transact.org>
Check out the “Smart Growth Toolkit,” posted on their Web site.

Sustainable Business Councils in Michigan

21st Century Business Council
845 Michigan Avenue
P.O. Box 228
Benzonia, MI 49616
Tel. 616-882-4723
A project of the Michigan Land Use Institute.

New Designs for Growth
P.O. Box 5316
Traverse City, MI 49685
Tel. 616-947-7566
Founded by the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

Revitalizing Downtowns

National Main Street Center
1785 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20036
Tel. 202-588-6219
Web site: <www.mainst.org>
A program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Michigan Land Use Institute

148 E. Front Street, Suite 301
Traverse City, MI 49684-5725
p (231) 941-6584 
e comments@mlui.org