Spaceship Grand Rapids


    GRAND RAPIDS — Driven by the intense excitement of West Michigan residents in the redevelopment of their region, the Web site has become the region’s most influential online community, and its first credible example of the new media made famous during the 2004 Presidential election.

    “It’s an outlet for people to share and debate like-minded beliefs about the importance of having a vibrant city center,” said Jeff Hill, a local real estate professional and prolific UrbanPlanet user. “It gives people interested in construction, development and urban planning the opportunity to share and brainstorm ideas, critique designs, sound off on public policy and just converse about urban topics.”

    Operated by the 20-employee Urban Planet Institute LLC in Charlotte, N.C., the two-year-old site is an homage to urban development, with sections tailored to individual communities, photos of downtown architecture, and articles on regional and national issues concerning urban living.

    As popular as the main site, the UrbanPlanet forums offer an opportunity for “armchair developers” to swap ideas and share their passion for city life and development. Forums are divided by interest and geographic region. Grand Rapids, despite having no regionalized content on the main page, is the second most popular forum. There were 60,000 page views from West Michigan in April alone, with roughly 5 percent of the site’s traffic directed toward the Grand Rapids sub-forum.

    Locally over the past year, the site has expanded its reach from hobbyists to newsmakers.

    One of the strongest examples of this came last November, when Jack Buchanan, president of Blue Bridge Ventures, wandered onto the site. At the time, he was struggling to forward a controversial plan to develop the former Western American Mailers Inc. building in the North Monroe neighborhood into a mixed-use development atop a city-owned underground parking lot.

    “We were frustrated because we had found that whenever we do a project, especially in the city of Grand Rapids, the facts just don’t get out there,” Buchanan said. “The daily had done a butcher job of reporting the facts to the public. … This was an opportunity for us to get the real story out.”

    Buchanan investigated the forum upon hearing of a discussion about his proposal. Despite the negative coverage, the forum participants weren’t ready to dismiss Buchanan’s plan. Many were even supporters of an earlier embattled BlueBridge project: the Gallium hotel proposal for city hall.

    In the midst of a discussion on the costs of the proposed parking structure, a forum participant noticed the username JackBBV, and asked the new member if he had anything to share on the project.

    Buchanan did, posting schematics and project specifics on the site. For nearly a month, Buchanan fielded questions from interested parties through the forum, finding the access to the common citizen that the mainstream media had not provided, and eventually, finding a group of vocal supporters.

    “This was such a surprise,” Buchanan said. “Here were these people taking the opportunity to voice their opinions or frustrations or support. It was like a town meeting, people rendering their opinion without the distortion you might get from someone that wants to taint your opinion of a certain thing.”

    Poignant for its contrast to the traditional media experience, Buchanan’s experience is far from unique. Several developers have become fixtures on the site.

    Like Buchanan, Lighthouse Communities Executive Director Dave Allen discovered the site as his projects were being discussed, and has adopted the forum into his marketing strategy, posting information on his projects and soliciting feedback.

    Terra Firma Development President Eric Wynsma went so far as to invite forum participants to tour one of his projects, the renovation of

    202-216 Grandville Ave. SW.

    “I definitely think it’s filled a gap,” Allen said. “There are a lot of high-profile projects right now that don’t have to get community feedback, and this is a way for the everyday Joe to sound off.”

    Joe Force, director of marketing at Global Forex Trading in Ada, never imagined the Grand Rapids forum could become such an influential community. Now a moderator, Force was the first West Michigan resident to post on the site. He had no direct connection to the real estate field but was fascinated by the rebirth of downtown Grand Rapids.

    “I didn’t know if there was anyone else like me that drives around on the weekend and looks at the old buildings,” he said. “But I kept posting, and then people started to respond.”

    He didn’t think the Grand Rapids forum would ever surpass Detroit‘s, which at the time had 750 posts. There are now 27,000 posts on the Grand Rapids forum, second only to the site’s hometown’s 37,000 posts.

    “Most of us are armchair developers who just want to see stuff done right in Grand Rapids,” Force said. “It’s nice to be able to say that you really don’t like the design of something and have the developers read it.”

    Some developers do more than read. Realizing his own concerns in users’ horrified response to one of his project designs, Terra Firma’s Wynsma had plans redrawn to make the windows match the classic brickwork.

    “You get different perspectives from people,” Wynsma said. “It’s a pretty diverse group of people, really a younger set, and there are some very informative people. … With all the excitement in the revitalization of our urban core, I think a lot of people have made downtown development their hobby.”

    Forum users range from bar managers to city planners, Web designers and activists to students and salesmen. While most live or work in the urban core, others hail from all over West Michigan. The same discussion could easily feature anonymous input from Michigan Black Expo, the Holland City Council, Bazzani Associates, and an Arby’s shift manager.

    The result is an interesting mix of insider scoop and fantastical rumor, characterized by the six-week hysteria of the RiverGrand “mystery development.” As the story developed, UrbanPlanet became a clearinghouse for breaking news and rumor. There were over 200 posts concerning the original Business Journal story before the issue even reached subscribers.

    When RiverGrand public relations agency Lambert Edwards released a statement debunking a story in The Grand Rapids Press, UrbanPlanet had the information online before any media outlet. It was originally believed Lambert Edwards had sent UrbanPlanet members a copy, but spokesman Don Hunt said that did not happen, although he confessed he would consider the idea, saying “it’s something we and others in our business should look at.”

    The statement was actually distributed to the forum by an unidentified member of either the media or the development team. A common occurrence, information has leaked to the site on everything from the MSU medical school to the 50 Monroe office building, much of it indistinguishable from rumor.

    In fact, the first public mention of the RiverGrand project was on the forum, months before the story broke, when Wynsma posted that the reason Grubb & Ellis broker Deborah Shurlow had not yet renovated the Fox Jewelers building was because she had spent the last 18 months working on a “huge project” he was somehow involved in.

    According to Force, the tendency to occasionally seize on gossip is a symptom of the excitement users have for West Michigan development.

    “Developers are driving the excitement. We wouldn’t have a whole lot to talk about if they weren’t doing so many great things,” he said. “Fortunately, we don’t always have to have all our facts backed up to go on a rant about something.”

    Also, Force said, UrbanPlanet lacks the visceral disputes common on other local Web forums.

    Rachel Lee, an associate at Grand Rapids development firm Bazzani Associates, also appreciates “the critical mass of interest in Grand Rapids development,” but has concerns about the growth of the forum. With increasing regularity, discussion drifts from urban living to suburban or industrial development, and to topics completely unrelated to the forum’s mission.

    Others agree.

    “It has become more heated with ideology and personal discussion rather than issues of downtown development and urbanity,” said Brent McManus, a maintenance worker and regular forum participant. “But in the end, we don’t take ourselves too seriously.”    

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