Walker work is big opportunity for planning firm

McKenna also recently solidified master plans for Holland township.
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This section of the Walker Master Plan shows potential development west of the Standale Meijer. Rendering courtesy McKenna

The Walker Master Plan has been one of McKenna’s major tent poles in West Michigan since it opened its Grand Rapids office in 2018. And the city’s most ambitious master-planning process since 1998 presented unique challenges for the Northville-based planning firm.

The Business Journal previously reported the city of Walker hosted a series of open houses through 2019 for the public to give input and ask questions about the future planning of northwest Walker, Alpine Avenue, south Walker and Standale. The draft 2040 Master Plan, based on this public feedback, is now available at the city’s website.

The plan consists of four “books,” with Book 2 divided into four subsets for each neighborhood cluster.

Walker is geographically a large city, said Christopher Khorey, McKenna West Michigan manager and project manager for the Walker Master Plan. Because of old ordinances, most Michigan communities don’t extend more than 6 miles in any direction, but Walker breaks that rule. The city is oddly F-shaped and is 9 miles north to south, which created geographic problems in the planning process and led to the scheduling of individual focus groups for the four “neighborhood clusters” previously mentioned.

“What you get is a community that is distant from itself,” Khorey said. “Someone who lives in Standale is unlikely to get their shopping done in the Alpine corridor. From a master-planning standpoint, it was imperative to look into those individual communities. That allowed us to lend some organization to the process.”

The I-96 and Three Mile corridor is heavily built out but is still populated by farms and orchards. The region’s growth has gotten to a point where there’s a lot of development pressure in the area, particularly with the establishment of the Laker Line bus rapid transit system along Lake Michigan Drive.

“Walker is a rapidly growing community that for a long time – and this is reflected in the history of planning – was focused more on attracting businesses than residents,” Khorey said.

The Alpine/Bristol book, for example, outlines recommendations for new, high-quality, mixed-density neighborhoods on the former English Hills golf course, retrofitting aging shopping centers north of I-96 into a hub for mixed-use development, the preservation of existing neighborhoods and other recommendations for economic development in response to changing trends in retail, housing and transportation.

South Walker has a much more rural character, despite being near the urban core. But residents have expressed a desire to keep it the way it is, and new residential development will likely be “clustered” to maintain a network of preserved open spaces.

In several instances throughout Walker, there is undeveloped land near business and residential districts, and the plan explores what potential development would mean for the quality of life for people who already live there.

“In large cities, the plan usually is to keep an area in its current character and explore future land use around that, or perhaps not, because land development on a site can be potentially negative,” Khorey said.

Khorey said McKenna is uniquely suited to city planning because part of its service includes day-to-day planning and zoning work. The company, in fact, helped the city of Walker with these services when the city went through a staffing transition.

“I bring that up because knowing what it’s like on the ground — someone comes in for a fencing permit, for instance — allows you to better understand the perspective of something major like the master plan,” he said.

McKenna was founded in 1978 in the Detroit area but has been working in West Michigan out of Kalamazoo since the 1990s. The firm recently assisted with the zoning ordinance for Grand Haven Township, is wrapping up the master plan for Texas Township in Kalamazoo County, and also has the Holland Township Master Plan on its list of credits.

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