City’s transformation of business district to residential has consequential ramifications


Grand Rapids City Commissioners will, in just a few weeks, determine whether to approve the GR Forward plan, a massive reconstruction of the downtown from the Leonard Street area of Monroe North to beyond the Downtown Market — a plan far more elaborate than the failed 1970’s pedestrian mall “revitalized” in the late 1990s at a cost of $6.4 million and reopened in 2000.

Great attention has been directed to just a part of the plan, the next steps for riverfront development and the Grand Rapids Whitewater concepts, and to the issues affecting diversity, but the GR Forward plan is more specific to street restructuring, parking restrictions, mass transit options to replace vehicular traffic in the downtown, and new trucking and delivery routes, to name a few issues important to businesses.

Indeed, like the pedestrian mall built to attract retailers as was the rage across America, the Forward plan proposes to build a residential neighborhood called downtown to attract residents. The business district will become a residential district. The GR Forward plan is accessible at the DGRI website. It is important, time-sensitive information for those who work and own businesses in downtown.  No cost or payment estimates are established.

The plan is a stated “amendment” to the city’s master plan, approved by the city in 2002 — a plan city commissioners then noted as guiding document for development and investment decisions for the next 20 years.

Given the vast number of changes just a month away from approval, the Business Journal finds it curious that the city planning department or city parking department are not held responsible for such a plan. The concept was written by the entity created in 2013 as a “one-stop shop” pulling together the city’s Downtown Development Authority, the Downtown Improvement District, composed largely of downtown building owners and business owners who formed to provide a voluntary assessment district for improvements, and then the North Monroe TIFA — and all of the tax funding of each.

As the associated downtown groups assessed the dusty Grand Action “Voices and Visions” study of the 1990s, the new umbrella group also found itself charged with a new vision plan. The Business Journal takes issue with what appears to be elected officials abdicating responsibility for such planning and tremendous duplication of effort, all at the expense of city taxpayers — and certainly no transparency in what fully is afoot.

The entity created to eliminate duplicated staff and effort among the three groups has assumed new duplicative efforts and goals encompassing master planning, whole-scale street redesigns from four-lane to two-lanes throughout the downtown, rewriting bus routes, eliminating parking within the central city and “reinventing” downtown as a residential community instead of a business district.

Once again, the city may be tilting too far in one direction, just as it did in creating the pedestrian mall to attract retailers. Creating a residential neighborhood to attract residents is a plan far more risky for the most expensive commercial real estate property in the region. Elected city leaders have not been fully transparent. Further, this has not been the stated mission of an umbrella group “one-stop shop” for proposed projects.

When the city finalized its master plan in 2002, planning director Suzanne Schultz noted, “Business and neighborhood groups are finding the need to have dialogue with one another. There are a lot of issues — for instance, parking — that they need to discuss together.”

Businesses deserve as much in 2015. Elected city officials are responsible to explain how an umbrella group of an important piece of the city has evolved to become the master.

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