Community leaders emphasize Alpine growth


Changing trends in retail have Walker officials looking at a 2040 master plan that includes ways to take better advantage of the busy Alpine Avenue corridor. Photo by Johnny Quirin

(As seen on WZZM TV 13) The shopping corridor on Alpine Avenue once was the main attraction in Grand Rapids, but a growing downtown and changing retail market has drawn economic attention away from the area. 

Many people are spending time in other areas of the city and spending money shopping online. 

With that, Toys R Us closed last year, and it may be only a matter of time before a similar fate descends upon other big-box stores that were popular in the 1990s.

To prevent continued decline and allow Alpine Avenue to adapt to ongoing changes, community leaders are creating a vision for growth in the area between Interstate 96 and 4 Mile Road.

The city of Walker is working with Kalamazoo-based McKenna Associates to develop a 2040 master plan that will include Alpine Township and other municipalities in the city of Walker.

Plainfield Avenue once was the place to be with a mall and a movie theater. That district’s attention turned to Alpine when its shopping district was built, said Frank Wash, assistant city manager for the city of Walker.

The difference with this situation is there isn’t another major shopping center replacing Alpine. Instead, it’s being affected by changing trends in retail and transportation, said Chris Khorey, McKenna’s West Michigan manager.

To keep Alpine from becoming the next Plainfield, Alpine will have to be allowed to change with the times, Wash said. 

“Cities that don't adapt do not age well,” Wash said. “That is the poison pill for a lot of communities, where they keep grasping onto something whose time has passed.”

Wash said the goal is for the master plan to include an altered land use plan so Alpine can at least be an option for mixed-used, vertical urban development that’s connected to public transportation.

He said it would be important to work with MDOT to create better access points and connection along the roads, addressing the issue of heavy traffic.

Corporations sometimes can just close stores unexpectedly, so community leaders have to be prepared, Wash said. The former General Motors plant on the southern end of Alpine Avenue is an example of that, he said, and 3,000 jobs went along with it.

“It just closed, and that is a huge hole in the community,” Wash said.

When the Walker Meijer threatened closure around 2004, he said the city reacted by taking advantage of renaissance and brownfield zones to allow for development updates. There’s a plan for Alpine redevelopment south of I-96, though developers largely have not moved in yet.

“Here we are 15 years later, further up the road, and we're dealing with a similar situation potentially,” Wash said. “It's our job as planners to be ahead of the curve.”

Wash said leaders already can see Alpine is not serving as many people as it once was because of so much development elsewhere.

Toys R Us was the first big-box store to go, and the ramifications have not yet fully hit Alpine, though other areas in the region have seen the full cycle of this, such as the old Eastbrook Mall, now Shops at CenterPoint, at 3665 28th St. SE in Grand Rapids. 

“As the anchors went, the inside of the mall went, and then they needed to be rescued by a significant investment to be brought back to life and totally rethought,” Khorey said. 

Big corridors are not good incubators for small businesses because they can be hard to find, so they end up relying on attracting customers of anchor stores, Khorey said.

“Then when the anchor store falls, then all the small businesses next to it fall like dominoes,” he said.

Wash said he believes Grand Rapids is leading the way in redevelopment, and he believes it’s up to the suburbs to build on that success. Redevelopment of Grand Rapids has happened through the Alpine and Leonard intersection but largely stops at Ann Street, he said. 

“It takes a while for the market to come around, but all it takes is one development interest,” Wash said. 

On the West Side, Rockford Construction was the developer that invested and then spurred more projects. There’s also been some development over the past few years near Leonard and Alpine. Something similar could happen on Alpine, he said. 

“Once you start to put that stuff on paper, then people can start to envision a future,” Wash said. 

Khorey said he believes Alpine’s high traffic and connections to other areas of the region are an asset for businesses there. That aspect could be improved and turn Alpine into a regional center again, he said. 

“Some of that prestige is waning a little bit, but there's no reason why it can't come back,” Khorey said. 

When making redevelopment plans, Wash said there will be a strong focus on showcasing the views of downtown Grand Rapids, trying to visually connect Alpine Avenue with the area.

Khorey said residents would like to see more small business development in the bordering neighborhoods while keeping the quiet atmosphere they have. 

The English Hills Golf Course, at 1200 4 Mile Road NW for example, has trees and wetlands that should be retained for the sake of ecology and natural beauty.

Whether including a preserved natural space or recreational space, he said any development should respect those existing conditions.

Khorey said each neighborhood should have its own center and should create opportunities for small businesses. The neighborhoods should be places where residents would walk on a daily basis to visit local stores and services, like dry cleaners or ice cream shops.

Wash said he believes it will be important for planners to focus on the future when planning.

“There's a new generation of people coming. Let's hear what those people have to say,” he said.

One of the challenges of planning is people often think in the past, which they idealize, he said. Or, they think in the present, which they think is terrible.

“It's our job as planners to think in the past, current and future at once and try and make things better as we go forward,” Wash said.

“Let's be smart and let's be a little bit bold and try and paint the future in a good way.”

McKenna is working to gather information from residents, businesses and leaders about concerns and opportunities with the area.

The Alpine plans should be completed by the end of August, which will be followed by planning for neighboring communities.

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