City approves agreements with GVSU and Belknap Lookout


A workgroup representing three separate entities has come together to compromise on future development in Belknap Lookout.

Elected city officials voiced their support last week for a series of agreements between Grand Valley State University, Neighbors of Belknap Lookout and the city of Grand Rapids for the potential development of property owned by the university in the Belknap Lookout neighborhood.

GVSU plans to construct a health professions classroom facility in the 500 block of Lafayette Ave. The plans are being redesigned after hearing feedback from the neighborhood, according to Patricia Waring, community relations director at GVSU.

The three memoranda of understanding are the culmination of discussions among the city, the neighborhood and GVSU in terms of their relationship and the short- and long-term development of the property.

Waring said in the past several years the university has experienced an increase in student enrollment in the College of Health Professions and College of Nursing, which both are located along the Medical Mile.

“We ran out of classroom space … and at the same time we are seeing such an increase by our students who are wanting to enter into the health professions, mainly because that is where the jobs are,” said Waring. “That is what caused our need to expand.”

The collaborative process, which began last year, was comprised of a series of joint work sessions focusing on neighborhood values and concerns, the development of the 500 block of Lafayette for a classroom facility, and a long-term master plan for future development.

“It is all about working with the city and working with the neighborhood and trying to hammer out results, and it took a long time,” said Waring. “Really what I think was the reason it worked was that we entered into this working committee with a gentleman’s agreement that we would treat each other with respect and be honest and be truthful about what it was we were talking about.”

NOBL, GVSU and the city came to an “informal consensus” on design principles for improvement and use of the university-owned property, according to the agreement. Some of the criteria were: exterior finishes and characteristics should reflect the neighborhood; desire to create livable spaces; GVSU must design and use facilities aligned with its educational mission; and GVSU has a need to begin construction in the 500 block of Lafayette.

Kristi DeKraker, executive director and community organizer with NOBL, said there is always going to be concern about development, but she felt the neighborhood will be a part of the process.

“In the end it was a long process, but I think, through consensus, it was a win-win for most, for all,” said DeKraker. “(You’re) still going to have a small amount of neighbors who don’t want any type of Grand Valley development.”

Steve Faas, executive director of Clancy Street Ministries and a Belknap Lookout representative on the workgroup, said when GVSU first came into the neighborhood, there was not a lot of excitement since it seemed to diminish the work done for the Belknap Area Specific Plan.

“We heard the concerns of the city, heard the concerns and issues that Grand Valley faced with building a building in a timely manner, and I think, from our perspective as a neighborhood, we felt like Grand Valley was able to start to hear some of the things we were saying about our neighbors and neighborhood and treating them neighborly,” said Faas.

Faas indicated his role with the workgroup was to educate the other parties on what the neighborhood issues were, such as what happens to residents and properties, maintaining mixed economic housing, and continuing to value the diversity in the area.

“How can we help Grand Valley understand that we have an idea on how an institution building should look in a neighborhood — and it should look different than it does on Michigan Street,” said Faas. “I think both parties listened and talked.”

The initial memorandum of understanding outlines how the 500 block of Lafayette may be developed; gives consideration to provide residential parking and permits for tenants of GVSU-owned homes; establishes a payment in lieu of taxes to the city that will be reinvested into the neighborhood annually; and provides a framework for continued collaboration.

Faas said while the initial rendition was met with “vociferous” and “passionate” reactions from the neighbors, by the end of the workgroup process, it was apparent GVSU had made movement on some of the issues raised. Some of the compromises were lowering the tower from 90 feet to about 65 feet, changing the siding to an earth-tone hue and hiding the parking better.

“We were all quite comfortable with the changes being made and addressing the parking issues and the traffic study issues,” said Faas. “They made a good faith effort to change some of the design.”

The second memorandum of understanding links the neighborhood group, the university and the city to complete a collaborative master planning process for the remaining GVSU-owned property. GVSU has partnered with SmithGroupJJR, an Ann Arbor architecture firm, to facilitate the master plan with input from the neighborhood.

“The workgroup will continue meeting throughout this master plan process,” said Faas. “(SmithGroupJJR is) paid by Grand Valley so they are going to be beholden to Grand Valley, but they also have a good reputation of making things fit into an urban context.”

The second MOU also indicated the university will reserve 140 feet on the north end of the 500 block of Lafayette for affordable housing, and consider employment opportunities for area residents during construction and after the building is developed.

The final MOU describes how the city will provide “a means for NOBL to ensure the city’s and GVSU’s accountability” for complying with the first two agreements. GVSU also provided a supplemental protocol for relocating tenants living within the university-owned property area.

Relocation assistance includes paying for moving truck expenses, a full transfer of security deposit, rent would not increase and no additional background checks. If a tenant relocates, GVSU would pay or reimburse up to $2,000 in relocation costs, provide a positive tenant reference letter, offer a full security deposit and assist with resources to find housing.

Second Ward Commissioner Ruth Kelly said during the Feb. 9 Committee of the Whole meeting the entire process reflects the level of sophistication in citizen engagement within the community.

“We recognize that we need more nursing professionals, more health professionals, and we also recognize there is pressure on the neighborhood when change occurs,” said Kelly. “This agreement is so important because we have resolved problems ahead of time. To have that conversation in advance and clarify expectations as best we can and ensure everyone will be involved in this master planning process is critical.”

The NOBL board of directors approved the memoranda Feb. 1, and the GVSU board of trustees was expected to vote on the agreements Feb. 12.

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