City leaders contemplate river restoration


Officials want the Grand River running through downtown to be a uniting influence, not a divisive one. Courtesy iStock

Placemaking, urban design and public parks leaders convened last week at the Grand Rapids Art Museum to discuss how design through water has been used to bring communities closer and how these plans can inspire future Grand River restoration efforts.

The panel was moderated by David Marquardt, director of the Grand Rapids Parks Department and featured Stephanie Adams; executive director of Friends of Grand Rapids Parks; Steve Heacock, president of Grand Rapids Whitewater; Jeff Shoemaker, executive director of The Greenway Foundation; Lynée Wells, founder and CEO of Aligned Planning; and William Wenk, president of Wenk Associates.

Wells is an urban planner and has been working in Grand Rapids for the past 15 years. Her role in the River for All Project, in which Wenk and Associates also was involved, was to engage the public and find ways to help build awareness of Grand Rapids’ natural resources.

River for All is a $40 million, city-led project that includes the design of trails and six sites along both sides of the 7.5-mile Grand River stretch between Riverside Park and Millennium Park. Plans were finalized in November 2018.

Wells said she was inspired to do so when she took her son and his friends, who lived outside of Grand Rapids proper, to a movies-in-the-park event.

“I was walking across the Bridge Street bridge with this group of 8-year-old boys,” Wells said. “They spent so much time looking over that wall and looking down at the water … and I heard a couple of the boys say, ‘I didn’t know we had a river.’”

One of the ways Wells and her team raised community awareness to River for All and attachment to the Grand River was working with Grand Rapids Public Schools, meeting with students and challenging them to help design an engagement strategy from their perspective.

About six years ago, during ArtPrize, Wells’ team and her students closed a lane of traffic on Bridge Street to create a test site for riverfront design.

“We installed sod, boulders, mulch, woodchips. We had all the landscaping material on this travel lane,” Wells said. “We borrowed furniture from different landscape companies testing out different seating styles, different tables, different ways that we could design the future of this river corridor. … It was a wonderful stage to have a community conversation about the future of the river corridor.”

While River for All is focused on revitalizing the river’s edge, Grand Rapids Whitewater is concerned with what happens in the water. Heacock said his organization means to transform the river from a series of reflecting pools stopped up by the old logging industry into a real flowing river.

“The Grand River is clearly the central corridor, geographically, of our city,” Heacock said. “But for 170 years, it’s been a divider more than a uniter … it’s been more wasteland than parkland … and not so much rapids as maybe a trickle, not so much grand as maybe common, but we’re not Common Trickle. We’re Grand Rapids.”

Heacock said the river was once populated by granite and limestone boulders, which gave the river its “grand rapids,” citing a newspaper from 1854. The foundations of many city buildings came from those large river boulders.

While the native Anishinaabe who originally populated the land along the Grand River valued it as a natural resource, the Americans who came later wanted a better port and a better way to move lumber, Heacock said.

“Maybe the most telling thing we found was some legislation from 1838,” Heacock said. “The state legislature appropriated $30,000 for clearing the channel of boulders ahead of the islands and generally improving the harbor in Grand Rapids; $30,000, by the way at that time, was around $825,000 (now), so it was a substantial scouring that they did of our river.”

Grand Rapids Whitewater plans to remove five aged dams, including the large 8-foot dam on Fourth Street and smaller “beautification dams” installed in the 1920s, designed to keep the water level high enough to dampen the smell of sewage.

The larger dam will be replaced with an adjustable hydraulic structure between Leonard and Ann streets, which is necessary to stop sea lampreys and invasive species to the river from getting into the tributaries.

Wenk said having rapids in a river is practically unheard of in Michigan, although a number of dams are being taken out in areas around the state, none of these undertakings compare to what Grand Rapids Whitewater is attempting.

Wenk presented the case studies of Milwaukee as an example of restoration efforts in other cities.

The restoration of the Menomonee River Valley in downtown Milwaukee was based on the general notion of health, Wenk said. If a community has jobs, clean water and neighborhood parks, the community is going to be healthy.

Wenk said when the Native Americans lived in the area, it was originally a rice marsh and a source of food. By the 19th century, the area had been fully industrialized and the rice marsh was obliterated.

“The entire industrial complex that was there basically collapsed at the beginning of the 21st century, so the city initiated this project, established really high standards for redevelopment,” he said.

The city of Milwaukee established an organization called Menomonee Valley Partners, which is still operating today and exists to advocate for redevelopment of the river corridor.

When Wenk and Associates was contracted to help with the restoration efforts, the company discovered soccer was a key component in the plan. Unfortunately, this component didn’t get built out for about 10 years because although Milwaukee County has a parks department, the city does not and finding a partner to manage and own the proposed soccer fields was difficult.

Wenk and Associates thought the green space under the bypass that crosses the river valley would be an ideal location for soccer fields, as well as concerts, movies in the park and other activities.

“What we’re getting so far is yoga,” Wenk said. “It doesn’t quite live up to the vision, but I think this is the challenge: how a community takes ownership … and the river was so compromised by industrial uses. So, getting people to learn about the valley and learn about potentials, I think, is a process that takes time, commitment and especially bringing young people to the valley.”

Adams said Grand Rapids has a history of being an early adapter of parks. It established its first park, CourtHouse Square, in 1833. In 1910, the city established the Playground Association led by Charles Garfield, who’s namesake is Garfield Park. The organization’s motto was for there to be a park within a half-mile of every child in Grand Rapids.

“That was 109 years ago, and we’re not quite there,” she said. “But we’re passionate about it and we know it is possible.”

The demand for housing in the community eliminates a lot of backyards for children to play in, which leads to equity problems, Adams said. A lot of the work Friends of Grand Rapids Parks does revolves around empowering people in the community to cultivate their own parks.

“I think there was a trend in park design years ago to say, ‘We’re the city. We own these parks. Here’s your playground,’” Adams said. “I think we’ve really flipped that, especially in Grand Rapids, in terms of talking to the community, bringing people around the table, making that space reflective of the people who live there; because if we don’t, then they aren’t going to be used.”

Friends of Grand Rapids Parks has received several communications from Garfield Park neighbors about getting a splash pad installed. The closest splash pad or pool for them is about a 3-mile walk to Martin Luther King Park.

“We heard a story, not that long ago, that the pool got shut down, and the kids walked a mile to the next splash pad over at Joe Taylor Park … so as we look at equity and bringing people together and listening to their needs, how can we do that so we create accessibility to everybody?” Adams said.

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