The Arena South Visioning Plan caught the eye of the American Planning Association's state chapter, which gave the DDA its 2013 Planning Excellence Award. Courtesy Grand Rapids DDA
The concise logo for the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority’s Arena South Visioning Plan is: “From the ground up — Arena South.”
Adapting that succinct motto proved to be prophetic because the plan’s focus developed from the ground up through the DDA’s creation of a 15-member steering committee of downtown stakeholders, and its decision to engage the public in the visioning process.
“We had over 300 people participate in only 30 days,” said Lynée Wells, an urban planner with Williams & Works, who with Cornerstone Architects and Virdis Design are consultants for the project.
“We need more residential development. We need more people living there,” added Wells.
At the same time, the two draft design options that emerged from those ground-up guidelines led to moving the parking below ground and building developments above it on the five surface lots the DDA owns. Four surround the Van Andel Arena, while one is about three blocks south.
“These represent some of the last developable sites in downtown,’ said Tom Kelly of the DDA.
Cornerstone Architects President Tom Nemitz said the options the design team came up with reflect the five recommendations. He said both designs have public green spaces filled with the appropriate plantings that will soften the urban setting. He said both also offer attractive streetscapes that use trees to buffer the aesthetic and muffle the sounds from the nearby freeway traffic.
Nemitz pointed out the design’s details include wider sidewalks for activities such as street cafés and sidewalk sales, and flexible scales and densities for buildings. He added that all the design elements are sustainable.
“We are careful not to indicate specific uses, but to allow enough flexibility to envision a variety of uses as the actual market may dictate in the near, and not so near, future,” said Nemitz.
The design team determined there is 600,000 square feet of space for subterranean parking in the area, and ground-level retail, residential and office uses could be built on top. The newly developed areas would look like other streets downtown and would also offer some on-street parking.
Nemitz pointed out that below-ground parking has been done before. The Government Center ramp is underneath Calder Plaza and a few other office buildings in the district have below-ground lots. “This option is kind of a ‘have your cake and eat it, too,’” he said.
Trevor Bosworth of Virdis Design said the second option has more of a traditional block scheme and features a courtyard area for public gatherings and special events.
“The density and mass are similar to what we have in option one,” said Nemitz. “We see that courtyard as being people space. It enables a lot of different activities.”
The DDA lots being considered for development are Area 1, at Ottawa and Weston; Area 2, directly behind the arena; Areas 4 and 5 on Oakes Street just south of the arena; and Area 6A, a DASH lot about three blocks south of the arena.
DDA Executive Director Kristopher Larson said the board is looking for public-private partnerships to develop the sites.
Another DDA-owned lot isn’t part of the visioning project. Area 3 is a small lot on Ionia Avenue just east of the arena and next to The Bank of Holland. It is for sale and is on the Grand Rapids Association of Realtors’ multiple listing service.
The lot was once targeted as a site for a condominium tower until the subprime housing crisis erupted.
Nemitz said the public portion of the visioning process called for more connectivity throughout the district, and that factor played a large role in the design options. Wells said that meant the team had to improve the ability for residents to get around the area on an east-to-west basis.
She said the district is more accessible in a north-to-south direction.
“This included the core city and Rosa Parks Circle, the river, The Rapid station, the Downtown Market, the Grandville (Avenue) corridor, and the educational hubs of WMU, Cooley, Kendall and GVSU,” said Nemitz.
“This connectivity would allow for pedestrian walkways and vistas, vehicular routes, bicycle routes, public transportation and even trolley-type uses for connecting more distant anchor developments.”
The design team said its final report will be ready at the next DDA meeting May 8.