City, partners consult tribes on river work


Williams and Works helped organize a discussion with members of the Anishinaabe nation for them to convey their hopes for the Grand River. Courtesy Williams and Works

New design guidelines are underway for the Grand River restoration initiative, based on new site assessments and input from the Native American community.

The Downtown Development Authority approved its share of the costs associated with added site plan development during its regular meeting April 10.

The city approved a $640,000 contract with Colorado-based Wenk Associates Inc. in July to develop design guidelines for five opportunity sites along the Grand River.

Earlier in March, Wenk Associates requested additional compensation for work done outside of the original contract to the tune of $91,400, of which the DDA was expected to pick up $17,200.

A letter from Wenk to the city’s parks department showed the firm had completed eight trips instead of six, with a ninth trip planned in May. The additional trips were required due to the extended schedule and coordination required for the project.

Wenk also identified Fish Ladder Park, 560 Front Ave. NW, as a sixth opportunity site. The team will provide a preliminary design concept that will incorporate the existing fish ladder.

The additional funds also included costs for coordinating focus groups through late 2017 to early 2018 and a special meeting with members of the Anishinaabe held in January.

The Anishinaabe is a confederacy of related native peoples consisting mainly of the Odawa, Potawatomi and Ojibwa tribes in West Michigan.

Grand Rapids-based engineering consultant Williams and Works helped coordinate the native outreach programs, which were part of the River for All initiative. Lynee Wells, principal and urban planner, said one of the suggestions she heard was to have plants used as traditional herbal medicines along the riverbanks.

“Some of the plant species included the tribe inputs: wild rice, sweet grass, cedar, sage,” she said.

Wild tobacco also was suggested, although Wells said city laws might prohibit it.

She also emphasized including the Anishinaabe name for the Grand River, Washtanog, in the trail signage and incorporating descriptions in the various native languages.

“I want people to understand we have different names for the river,” Wells said.

David Marquardt, director of the parks department, said the meeting with the Anishinaabe provided a “unique opportunity” for the city to understand the river’s significance for the native community.

“I think the information we received is a deep and rich history that will provide sort of a design level for these park spaces that we really wouldn’t otherwise have,” he said.

Levi Rickert, owner of Native News Online and a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, also was present at the meeting and said he was pleased to have native voices included in the discussion.

“The river has always been significant to native people. They’ve traveled on it … and I’m always happy that (native) people are included in future projects in Grand Rapids,” Rickert said.

Tribal members also suggested approval for their ceremonial bonfires to occur on public land. Traditionally, the native community would have a four-day fire to honor the deceased in the belief the fire helps purify their journey into the spirit world.

“Apparently in years past, there have been situations where people have done this in their backyard, and people didn’t know what was going on,” Rickert said. “The fire department has been called in the past.”

The city also is contemplating rehabilitating the old Coldbrook Water building at 1101 Monroe Ave. NW. Wenk plans to coordinate with an architect to determine the scope of the work.

Marquardt said the site possibly could be renovated for use by the parks department. Because the building sits almost directly on the riverbank, it could enhance the department’s ability to access the river.

“Some of the feedback we received from the tribe, particularly with boat building, it feels like a potential for them to be part of that space, as well,” he said. “We think it would be an excellent opportunity for the tribe to pass along these skills in boat building — maybe to inner-city youth.”

Design guidelines still are in the early stages. Wenk suggested the possibility of a 10th trip to facilitate the final public outreach, outreach for Fish Ladder Park and coordination with its core team. No date was specified.

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