Important now: COVID has exposed the magnitude of the need for more outdoor recreational venues, a new prerequisite for cities desiring an improved post-pandemic brand.
For over 300 years the Grand River has coursed through what is now downtown Grand Rapids, MI and for much of its history served as a mistreated backyard waterway whose fate was dictated by industrial growth needs. The city admits it “has a long history of turning its back to the River.”
For one hundred of those years the River was a repository for the city’s sewage and in the late 1800s a polluted transport channel for the logging industry. The damaging mutations were eventually thwarted by 1972 when new federal regulations pushed the city to improve the river’s conditions.
Now its greatest transformation of all time is underway with a $45 million restoration effort to bring a 2.5 mile stretch of the River back to its natural surging self, restore its inherent beauty and become a catalyst for economic development and community inclusion. Several parks, green spaces, trail systems along over four miles of the River’s edge are currently being planned with input from several community groups and local committees.
Funding the restoration effort has been largely through public donations with construction expenses partially funded by state and federal grants and some public funds through local city and county governments, according to Matt Chapman, project manager for Grand Rapids White Water, a non-profit organization leading the restoration projects in the River.
The budget for the River’s edge projects is still being determined as designs for the spaces are being finalized. Once the river is restored and projects along the edges are complete a new net economic impact of $16 million to $19 million annually is expected.
In River Projects
The overall project is massive with work already begun with “in river” tasks including removing five aging dams, restoring the River’s natural flow, improving public safety and the habitat for fish, upgrading flood control infrastructure and enhancing water quality.
“Overall, the restoration will have great environmental impacts,” says Michael Staal, acting project manager for River For All, a plan designed to help restore the River. “We’re removing dams that will help with fish passage and the habitat. The dams were essentially blocking fish from moving from one part of the river to another. Only jumping fish can get through there.”
The effort will also restore historical spawning areas for the threatened Lake Sturgeon and improve the quality of the habitat for native freshwater mussels.
Those projects are expected to be complete in 2023 when work on the River’s edge can begin. Several “opportunity sites” for new park spaces, public access points, riverside trails, neighborhood improvements and commercial development have been identified.
“From a parks perspective, we believe this will allow for significant connections within the urban area,” says David Marquardt, director of Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation. “In the hustle and bustle of downtown there are few spaces for a reprieve from our urban setting. These new parks will be remarkable areas for getaways and to connect with nature and the outdoors.”
And the pandemic has only amplified the demand for outdoor public spaces—more than ever before.
“I think we have a stronger understanding and commitment now for the river revitalization effort,” says Andy Guy, chief outcomes officer for Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., which manages economic divisions of the city involved in improvement and development. “We have a much deeper appreciation for parks and public spaces out of doors for recreational activities. We also understand the growing desire for these types of amenities in midsize cities across America right now.”
Guy thinks once the COVID epoch has passed, it will have helped move the river project forward. “We still have a ways to go but we are more optimistic and have more commitment to the project locally now than we ever had before.”
Seeking Community Guidance
With hope for more profound outcomes than beautification and recreation, the city envisions the restored River to help form a more connected community and counter the “deepening racial inequity” that abounds in Grand Rapids.
To achieve this, the city reached out to local Grand Rapidians allowing them to decide how the River will ultimately serve the community. Thousands of citizens were part of this 18-month process that ultimately formulated GR Forward in 2014, a strategic plan for Downtown Grand Rapids and the Grand River. It was the most inclusive public planning process in the city’s history.
Hundreds of meetings took place with every neighborhood in the city, property owners, community organizations, and formal and informal community forums. It was the most extensive community outreach effort ever conducted by the city, according to Guy.
The river is considered more than just a community-wide asset, it is an asset that belongs to the state, surrounding counties and communities, he explains. “We had all groups involved in the planning process and did extensive outreach, not just to the adjacent residents and neighborhoods.”
“We see this project as the next transformation of our city,” says Tim Kelly, president and CEO of Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc. “Going forward this will be a place that will bring our community together. We view the River project as one that can help us achieve social equity in addition to its economic development and recreational benefits.”
Management of the Completed Project
Importantly, how an initiative of this scope should be managed going forward has been a focus of discussions. Many different community groups and committees were involved in envisioning the finished product now project execution will rely on a quality implementation and management team.
The DGRI studied best management practices of several similar projects such as the 606 Park and Trail in Chicago and the Highline in New York City, an elevated, linear park. Both were converted from former train lines. After an 18-month evaluation process that is just now winding down, the city has concluded it needs to evolve from traditional governance structures to one that includes the community as well.
“We have a history of public-private partnerships. One thing we’ve learned is we need to evolve that model to become more of a public-private community partnership,” notes Guy. “We want local government and the private sector to be involved but we also recognize this is a public asset with public access to the waterway. There are a number of adjacent neighborhoods that have a stake in this, so we are looking to evolve the typical partnership with more of the community at the table.”
Recommendations for the management of the revitalized river are expected to be presented during the first quarter of 2021. Guy also explains that in the state of Michigan, the Michigan Recreational Authority empowers at least two local units of government to come together to deliver recreational services like parks, trails, and sporting facilities. The city will examine whether it will take advantage of this state statute to help with the overall management of the waterway.
Next up are finalizing plans for public access points, designs for parks and open spaces, and other developments along the River’s edge.
Another revelation brought about by COVID is the magnitude of need for more outdoor venues which has pushed one project to the front burner. Considered one of the most important riverfront redevelopment sites downtown, the 201 Market, a 16-acre city owned property, is gaining priority.
While a great deal of conceptual work is still being done, 201 Market is expected to become a significant outdoor entertaining venue with prospects for a 14,000-seat amphitheater, adding tremendous value to what is currently an underutilized part of downtown.
“We are also interested in the potential of the site to deliver on some of our other economic development goals, particularly as it relates to housing,” says Guy. “Because the site is in the middle of downtown and the Roosevelt Park neighborhood on the south side, we also view that corridor as a very important opportunity to strengthen the connections between our two neighborhoods.”
More specifics will be released mid-2021 about the potential development opportunities at 201 Market as the city continues its “very thoughtful and methodical approach to how the redevelopment will be staged.”
Overall,the river restoration effort will be an economic development game changer with hopes of propelling Grand Rapids to a destination of choice. “This is another example of a project that was strategically on the radar prior to the pandemic and becoming more vital post pandemic because it is all about outdoor recreation,” says City Manager Mark Washington (see related interview in this edition of CityRevive).
“I believe this project will be key to transforming our city into a world renown destination where people throughout the country and world will want to come to experience the rapids. It has an economic, cultural and also a tourism benefit and is one of the flagship projects that will be transformative for this community for years to come and we’re excited about it.”
For more information contact Andy Guy, chief outcomes officer for Downtown Grand Rapids Inc.: firstname.lastname@example.org