Can Grand Rapids stretch to become a model city?


The City of Grand Rapids' urban planners have been recognized by their state peers for the Green Grand Rapids Master Plan. Photo via Facebook

"Never look down to test the ground before taking your next step; only he who keeps his eye fixed on the far horizon will find the right road." —Dag Hammarskjold

Decades ago, our city’s leaders and visionaries dreamt of a Grand Rapids that was far greater than it was at the time. Unfortunately, I was not at those meetings, but I often wonder what those conversations sounded like. 

Urban change

I doubt they would have instantly shot down the idea of overhauling 131.

I would also be shocked if they would have been satisfied by the urban infill that has happened to date. My guess is that they would have predicted more change, more density and more stretching to have happened in Grand Rapids by 2013.

I also suspect they had conversations about projects such as building a state of the art entertainment arena, which a city our size has never seen before.

Maybe they would have considered buying an old, massive, underutilized hotel in the core of the city and re-imagining it into one of our city’s nicest hotels?

I wonder if they imagined it possible that Grand Rapids — a city in a state known for automobiles — could become one of the world’s leaders in medicine and research.

A model foundation

We are lucky.

We have been blessed with an amazing infrastructure here in Grand Rapids, which is unlike that of any other city I know.

We had wise visionaries who set a series of events in motion, which have created a wonderful foundation for today's developers to build on — literally.

I would go so far as to say that I feel a responsibility to infill this great city with people who not only work and play downtown, but also live together in a tightly woven community.

Stretch to expand

The problem with change is that it creates discomfort. Discomfort creates stress. Stress  causes worry — and so on in a downward spiral. 

“Stretch to expand” is one of the mantras our tribe uses in response to change.

We live in a world that is evolving every second, and if we would like to become one of the greatest cities in the world, then we need to not be afraid to talk about strategies for creating urban density — like re-thinking a highway that tears our city in half or investing in an underutilized body of water.

As a developer, that means using big-picture thinking to tackle urban infill challenges. Our team has worked to put this into practice by combining two useless, obsolete buildings into one urban community and revitalizing a key, iconic building deemed unfeasible by traditional development standards.

Finding the far horizon

I opened this post with one of my favorite quotes, because it's a good reminder to keep our eyes up and not get caught up in steps that are singular and small in the grand scheme of things.

The current decisions regarding change that our city is facing are not the “far horizon.” They are incremental steps towards becoming a city that is a global model. You cannot expand without a stretch, and there is a difference between blindly taking a step and taking one with eyes wide open.

We are at a point where our city is full of forward-thinking leaders who have servant hearts. Developers who collaborate and follow-through. And thousands of young, creative millennials waiting for us to build more residential apartments. The talent is here — it's just looking for a reason and place to stay.

What better time for a thoughtful stretch than now?

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