Grand Rapids mayor believes downtown living revitalizes a city


There is nothing better for sparking the “revitalization of a city than having people live downtown,” says Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell.

Right now, the news in Detroit is that apartment rent prices are going up, pricing some people out of that market, but also being celebrated as another positive sign that the Motor City is — at long last — on the road to economic recovery.

Heartwell pointed out that about 3,500 residential units — apartments and condos — have been built in downtown Grand Rapids, from scratch or the result of repurposed existing buildings.

Heartwell, 65, said that as a child growing up in Grand Rapids, he walked the vibrant retail district that once existed downtown, including such notable retailers as Wurzburg’s and Steketee’s. Later, as a young adult, the impression left by a walk through the downtown was “tumbleweeds.”

But now, the vibrancy is returning, marked by and fueled by the increasing number of individuals who live downtown.

The first ripple effect will be that growing downtown population’s ability to support key retail services such as groceries, drug stores, dry cleaners and others, according to Heartwell. Another ripple effect will further encourage the vitality of the downtown: “An active downtown is a safer downtown,” said Heartwell.

To some extent, the safety “may be a perception,” said Heartwell, but the crime rate downtown is lower than in most other districts throughout the city. The crime that does take place is more of the nuisance category, such as noisy inebriates or panhandlers.

“Rarely violent,” said Heartwell, although he knows that some suburban residents persist in believing that downtown Grand Rapids is “an unsafe place.”

Parking can be an issue for downtown dwellers — if they have a car. A growing number of young urban dwellers today do not own cars and find that more feasible if there is public transit available.

If enough people live downtown, said Heartwell, “they will support a good local transit” system.

Downtown Grand Rapids has a strong commercial office environment, providing jobs for those downtown dwellers who prefer to walk to work. The entertainment venues downtown further add to the appeal for those who want to live there.

“People want to live in interesting places,” he said, with the Grand River adding immensely to the other attractions of life downtown.

Art has also helped improve the vitality of downtown Grand Rapids — and it did not begin with ArtPrize. In fact, the first major art movement downtown was 40 or 50 years ago, when Art off the Pedestal brought sculpted works to be displayed in the city. That was followed by La Grande Vitesse, the Alexander Calder sculpture that has graced the downtown area since 1969.

“For me, it’s just a real personal gratification to see how our downtown has blossomed from a near-death state two-and-a-half decades ago,” said Heartwell.

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