National experts relay recommendations for GR parks


A study group comprised of national land use experts has offered its findings and recommendations to improve public parks in Grand Rapids’ underserved areas.

The city of Grand Rapids previously announced its participation in an Urban Land Institute national study visit this month as part of funding it has received through the National Recreation and Park Association’s 10-Minute Walk campaign. 

The campaign aims to improve walkability to public parks with the belief that everyone in a given community should have access to a high-quality park within a 10-minute walk. Nearly 240 mayors across the country endorse it.

The ULI national study visit brought together national and local ULI members and other national experts to develop recommendations for increasing parks and open spaces in priority park-deficient areas of the city.

The geographic focus of the 10-Minute Walk program was on the underserved areas in Grand Rapids, specifically the first and third wards. Neighborhoods in these areas include Baxter, Roosevelt Park, Black Hills, Garfield Park, South East Community and South East End.

“The focus is really about trying to address some of those disparities that have developed over time, reducing park deficits, and creating and maintaining inclusive park spaces for the future going forward and thinking about access,” said Melani Smith, senior director of LA Metro’s Transit Oriented Communities.

The study group found park access was a critical factor. Rachel Banner, senior program manager of NRPA, said the group heard from residents that entries to and between parks could be improved. Some entries currently are blocked, invisible or hard to access.

“One example we heard, in particular, was between Roosevelt and Clemente Park,” Banner said. “There are organic trails happening between the two parks, but they are along dangerous routes, and folks didn’t feel as comfortable using those connections.”

The study group also found Grand Rapids parks were in need of better lighting to improve attendance at events and community gatherings.

Access for a wide range of populations also was a consideration, including accessibility for older and disabled individuals.

“Wheelchair access at picnic tables has been started, and we’d love to see that success just continue from here,” Banner said.

Banner added Grand Rapids’ bus rapid transit has been successful in integrating with existing parks, and it’s important to consider future land acquisitions in regard to bus routes.

Regarding acquisition for new parks, Doug Hattaway, senior project manager of Florida programs for the Trust for Public Land, said there are land opportunities still available in a fairly built-out community like Grand Rapids.

“That’s what you’ve got to keep in mind is not only the limits of developed land but also the smaller-sized parcels that exist, particularly in those park-deficient areas,” Hattaway said.

“Pocket parks,” for example, have value for people in underserved communities to be able to relax and connect with nature, Hattaway said.

There are other institutions still holding land in the greater Grand Rapids area, the group found. Hattaway said the diminishing Kent County Land Bank Authority was a “low-hanging fruit” opportunity to acquire parcels for park development in the first and third wards.

The Business Journal previously reported Kent County commissioners voted to dissolve the land bank in December 2018. The land bank has less than 12 months to settle its finances and transition assets.

A specific parcel the study group looked at was a 4.6-acre drainage basin owned by the Kent County Drainage Commission on the corner of Division and Cottage Grove Streets.

While much work would have to be done to determine the feasibility of any site work, the study group touted it as a case study for how Grand Rapids can take an underutilized site and meet infrastructure needs while also meeting recreational needs.

A hypothetical site plan detailed a flex lawn with subsurface stormwater storage, bioswales and a pre-treatment rain garden.

“Hopefully, over time, as you make improvements that are strategic and community assets, not just infrastructural pieces, you can help encourage some additional redevelopment to occur around the park, so there’s an economic component as well,” said Ryan Cambridge, planning practice leader for Browning Day Mullins Dierdorf, an architecture firm in Indianapolis.

On the financial end, the Grand Rapids parks millage has been a successful funding stream. Jon Trementozzi, principal at Landwise, an advisory firm in Boston, Massachusetts, said approximately $3 million goes to capital park projects throughout the city, and about $1 million goes toward operations and maintenance.

Another opportunity the study group noted was Grand Rapids’ strong philanthropic culture.

The city already has some pretty strong partnerships with various foundations and entities within the region to help fund parks and other projects, and Trementozzi added it’s not reasonable for the parks department to do it alone.

The study group also discovered the parks department does a lot of work with very little funding. Erin Lonoff, principal at HR&A, an advisory firm out of New York City, said parks operation and management in Grand Rapids is underfunded by about $3.25 million.

According to the study, Grand Rapids averages system-wide operations and maintenance spending of about $4,000 per acre, compared to a national average of $5,400 per acre.

“It’s below the national average of what you would expect for a city of this size,” Lonoff said.

The study group identified several opportunities for the city to grow its operating revenue, including concessions, ticketed events, corporate sponsorships for events and growing the millage for operations and maintenance, provided there is broad voter support.

“Another thing to consider is, if it’s possible, to create some flexibility between the split of capital and O&M (funding), depending on, year over year, what the capital versus O&M needs are for the system and how the millage gets distributed,” Lonoff said.

Hotel and sales taxes often are used to pay for parks as well, Lonoff added.

The Urban Land Institute has over 42,000 members globally and is comprised of developers, designers and other land use professionals in the financial and public sectors.

According to NRPA, 85 percent of U.S. residents identify proximity to parks as an important factor in deciding where to live. High-quality parks also are a deciding factor businesses cite in relocation decisions.

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