Volunteers help spruce up State Street by doing everything from laying sod to cleaning out vacant buildings. Courtesy Williams & Works
A grassroots development idea turned into a two-day showcase on State Street on a recent weekend, and the result from the Build a Better Block campaign is that the street is now open for business.
Technically known as a “trial intervention,” the showcase filled a three-block-long section of an area on downtown’s eastern boundary with 19 demonstrations on State Street’s vacant parcels. Thousands of local residents made their contributions as to the type of developments they’d like to see and would support on those empty properties between Jefferson and Lafayette avenues.
“The street was full of people all weekend — probably more than it has had in the last 25 years,” said Lynee Wells, an urban planner with Williams & Works Inc. and a catalyst behind the showcase with Josh Leffingwell and Tyler Doornbos.
“It was very cool to see a new generation of Grand Rapidians trying out concepts that they believe will help create more vibrant communities,” added County Commissioner Jim Talen, also a board member of the Downtown Development Authority, which funded the showcase with a $15,000 grant.
“When the organizers came to the DDA this winter with a request for support, I asked if they could use more money than they asked for. Their response was that they wanted it to be a grassroots effort driven by people, not money. That was refreshing,” said Talen.
One of the State Street blocks is in the DDA’s district, and the organizers had to limit the board’s grant to that block. The Heritage Hill Neighborhood Association also supported the event, which took place on the same weekend as its annual tour of homes.
Build a Better Block originated in the Dallas-Fort Worth area where residents “reclaimed” an underdeveloped commercial sector and initiated such “interventions” as patio dining and pop-up shops to illustrate what types of changes could be made to add vitality and business.
The local showcase mirrored that effort and also added some original concepts, such as an urban garden, a history exhibit of the street, a lending library and a central bike station. Then there was the parklet, complete with tables and chairs, which was built on the parking spaces in front of Grand Rapids Pizza and Delivery at 340 State St. SE.
“One of my ‘aha’ moments was sitting in a chair munching pizza in a parklet. I watched car after car drive by slowly enough to be able to make eye contact with me and usually smile. I was familiar with traffic calming; now I was seeing it in real life,” said Talen.
Many of the demonstrations included educational materials and all reportedly drew positive comments from the participants, which had an array of local business and property owners and members of the metro Detroit Build a Better Block effort. Organizers said the revitalization event easily outdrew the 3,000 they expected.
“We were trying to show the potential of an underused area and we gave them a blank canvas to work on,” said Wells.
DDA Executive Director Kristopher Larson pointed out that grassroots efforts have a history of generating concepts considered avant-garde at the time but now seen as routine.
“The grassroots-driven efforts have since been adopted by more than two dozen American cities and now serve as a collaborative urban laboratory effort to experience progressive urban technologies including bike lanes, bio swales, mid-block crossings, and traffic-calming mechanisms such as curb-line bulb-outs,” he said.
Prior to the weekend, DDA Chairman Brian Harris called the event a “great experiment.”
Wells said the street needs a significant amount of infill due to vacant parcels and surface parking lots, and rehabilitation is needed for some of the structures that dot the trio of blocks. But she added that the people who participated in the Build a Better Block weekend said they want investments to be made on State Street, and they, in turn, will support the results of those investments.
“The event showed that State Street is open for business and is viable,” said Wells.
Talen told the Business Journal he spent about a dozen hours volunteering for the showcase. He cleaned out a vacant building, built retail boxes along State Street, pulled weeds, swept sidewalks and yanked out sod strips to mark the bike lane.
“There was a lot of volunteer effort involving a lot of people,” he said. “The idea is to repeat this in other parts of the city to help people imagine what a people-oriented urban street could be like in their neighborhood. This was a great first effort, and I look forward with great anticipation to similar events in the future.”