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State Wants More Pavement on Health Hill

But some Grand Rapids leaders have other ideas

August 3, 2006 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


State transportation officials want to widen a number of already pedestrian-unfriendly streets surrounding Health Hill, Grand Rapids’ high-tech medical research center.

GRAND RAPIDS—In a move that it says will give people jobs, relieve mounting traffic congestion, and make Grand Rapids more attractive, the Michigan Department of Transportation has proposed a massive spending program to reconstruct or expand a number of streets, bridges, and at least one major highway cutting through the heart of this rebounding city.

But while most city officials welcome MDOT’s plans to invest heavily in the city, not everyone is convinced that the proposal, in its current form, fits the transportation plans the city has been considering in recent years.

At the center of the road building program, detailed at a recent series of informational sessions sponsored by MDOT, are two historic neighborhoods and an area known here as Health Hill, a high-tech hub of medical research labs, hospitals, and doctor's offices clustering along Michigan Street in the central city. Developers have invested nearly $1 billion in the roughly 10-block area since 1990 and the rising number of cars, delivery trucks, and shuttles is more than the current road network can handle.

MDOT's plan is to widen key sections of vital city streets such as College and Division Avenues, a number of area bridges and freeway ramps, and perhaps as early as 2010, I-196, the formidable moat between Health Hill and the redeveloping Belknap residential neighborhood. The plan is projected to cost $400 million and could take as many as 10 years to implement. 

"This will help the medical corridor greatly," said Art Green, development manager for the MDOT's Grand Rapids Transportation Service Center. "It will improve circulation on the freeway, as well as access on and off the freeway, much better than the current situation. The hope is that if we put in the expenditure and the capacity improvements we'll get the large benefits."

Local officials wrestling with historic budget deficits generally welcome the state spending to upgrade the city streets and highways. But a growing number of residents and civic leaders—including some economic experts and at least one respected urban planner—are wary of MDOT's proposal. They express concern that the public works project largely ignores the key piece of transportation infrastructure the region now needs to prosper in the 21st century: rapid regional public transit.  

Growing Transit Consensus
In the past decade, a local consensus has emerged among business, civic, and community leaders: The metropolitan area’s ability to modernize its economy, attract talented workers and jobs, revitalize neighborhoods, and alleviate traffic jams depends on building a modern mass transit system and reducing the need for cars. Among other things, the consensus is driven by the fact that a growing number of medium-sized cities, like Salt Lake City, St. Louis, Denver, and San Antonio are seeing their prosperity grow as their new transit systems rise.

That consensus helped shape the city’s 2002 Master Plan, which calls for promoting pedestrian-friendly streets, developing buildings that make mass transit more efficient, and locating a transit hub at the intersection of Plainfield and Leonard, just a short ten-minute walk from Health Hill.

Broad agreement also unites a committee of business leaders, mayors, and citizens who are now finalizing a study that will position the city to construct its first serious public transit line in nearly 80 years. Those observing the Great Transit Grand Tomorrow task force predict the group will soon recommend locating the main line of a major street car or rapid bus system along Division Avenue. The initial route could terminate just blocks from Health Hill.

"Intuitively, one can see there is a need for more ways of getting there than just cars," said Jay Hoekstra, a senior planner with the Grand Valley Metro Council, an association of local governments working to coordinate regional growth and development decisions. "We'll need more choices. Considering the number of jobs generated and all the people that will come to this urban place, we will need to think differently about how we move these people around."

"Aggressively going after mass public transit is one obvious solution that would benefit the employees, visitors, and the city as a whole," Mr. Hoekstra continued. "Another is orienting the context of the street to people. Right now, the first impression is a feeling of danger for pedestrians."

Harsh Hill
That feeling is particularly strong around Health Hill. Despite intense public and private investment—including a $3.75 million reconstruction of Michigan Street, the main route through the sprawling medical campus—Health Hill remains a remarkably harsh and unattractive place for people who are not traveling in automobiles.

Bike lanes are nonexistent. The sidewalks are narrow and put people uncomfortably close to speeding traffic. Pedestrian walkways across busy roads in the area are poorly marked and generally ignored by drivers. And the kind of lush greenery, public art, and street-side furniture that have helped transform many of the city's once-rundown neighborhoods into vibrant business and residential districts are simply missing.

Such inhospitable conditions, observers point out, is not for lack of funding. The world-renowned Van Andel Research Institute, an anchor of Health Hill focused intensely on curing cancer, will soon launch a $175 million expansion. Construction already is underway on the massive $150 million Michigan Hill project, which will house the Lemmon-Holton Cancer Pavilion and, potentially, Michigan State University's new medical school. And the groundbreaking for the $190 million Helen DeVos Children's Hospital, touted as one of the nation's most technologically advanced pediatric institutions, is scheduled for later this year.

Meanwhile, developers have read the market and begun building luxurious new housing projects such as the $50 million Park Row Condominiums and the $80 million, 34-story River House, both within walking distance of the new medical facilities.

Taken together, the hefty investments suggest Michigan Street is competing to become the Wall Street of the booming global health sciences industry. And state and local transportation planners readily admit that they are struggling to keep pace with the aggressive level of development and figure out how best to manage the thousands of new jobs, visitors, and residents projected to gravitate to the area.

"This is all moving very quickly in terms of how government can move and react," said MDOT's Art Green.

Shifting Gears
Transit advocates say the real question is whether or not state transportation planners can shift gears quickly and completely enough to reorient their planning and spending efforts away from their more traditional charge—promoting automobile travel—and toward a development strategy that embraces a key statistic defining the knowledge economy: 77 percent of modern companies rate access to mass public transit as an extremely important factor in deciding to where locate.

One indication of whether MDOT can come to view Health Hill not as an auto-centric transportation hub, but as a diverse center offering a range of convenient travel choices will come later this summer. That is when the department releases its preliminary plan for the reconstruction of a vital concrete bridge carrying Michigan Street over Division Avenue, the primary north-south route through the central city.

The department intends to completely replace the dilapidated structure, sidewalks and all, and widen the bridge’s road deck, which serves as the chief western gateway to Health Hill. MDOT says it wants the new bridge to have an additional turn lane, in order to improve traffic flow to and from a major development currently rising at that busy intersection.

The project, which will cost approximately $9 million in state and local funds, would also realign and widen Division Avenue below the Michigan Street bridge to improve vehicle access into a parking ramp scheduled to open next year. The Michigan Street bridge reconstruction is a key component of both MDOT's proposed road-building program for the area and Governor Jennifer M. Granholm's Jobs Today Initiative. The project is one of 158 road and bridge projects across the state that received "greenlight" status from the Granholm administration in an effort to spur job growth and stimulate local economies.

"The investments will help put more Michigan workers back on the job,” the governor said in a November 2005 statement announcing the $618 million spending program. “Local communities will benefit from transportation system improvements, and our state will benefit from the significant economic impact of the more than 11,000 jobs supported by these projects."

But city staffers say the project also is a crucial test of the state's ability to design transportation infrastructure that fits into an urban context and enables people, goods, and services to travel safely and efficiently in a variety of ways, including by car, foot, bike, bus, or streetcar.    

"I'm convinced that what we're doing [on the Michigan Street Bridge] is required," said Eric DeLong, deputy city manager for the City of Grand Rapids, which supports the bridge expansion project. "But as we design the bridge, we'll look at pedestrian amenities to make sure that people can get across it in a pleasant and safe fashion. Right now, it's not a very hospitable walking environment. This is an opportunity to make it better serve pedestrians and the medical corridor."

Andy Guy directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Grand Rapids office. Reach him at aguy@mlui.org. Read Andy’s in-depth report on a recent transit summit in Grand Rapids here.

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