A grand plan: Coordination, collaboration and creativity spurs a transformation in Grand Rapids

Kara Wood

Kara Wood

By Kara Wood, Economic Development Director, Grand Rapids

In 2011, Newsweek published a story declaring that Grand Rapids, Michigan, was among the top 10 “dying cities” in the United States. But while Grand Rapids was hardly the only city in Michigan — or around the country, for that matte — to feel the full impact of the brutal economic recession of the late 2000s, the city’s subsequent transformation and robust recovery have made it a national standout.

Far from dying, Grand Rapids is thriving: aggressively moving forward with a comprehensive and coordinated constellation of public policy initiatives. The city’s progress serves as an excellent example of real-world application of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) principals outlined in the organization’s recent report, 13 trends behind America’s urban paradigm shift. From new incentives and regulatory changes, to strategic programs, best practices and creative new solutions, Grand Rapids has conceived and implemented a range of practical solutions designed to create new stocks of abundant and affordable housing and spur substantive and sustainable economic growth.

A city that was viewed by some as a cautionary tale not too long ago is now held up as an example of how coordinated planning, civic leadership and community action can effect extraordinary change in a relatively short period of time. Cities across Michigan and the throughout the Midwest are already looking to Grand Rapids as the model for revitalized city planning. Understanding the mechanics of this ongoing revitalization may provide some insights into how related programs and strategies can yield positive results in other municipalities facing similar challenges.

Recovery and repositioning 

Grand Rapids’ rapid economic turnaround and civic transformation in recent years has made the city a highly desirable location, attracting Millennials and a broad cross-section of top talent. While tongue-in-cheek observers may point to the city’s (successful) efforts to market itself as Beer City, USA, the reality is that Grand Rapids has experienced a significant economic rebound that far exceeded the regional and national norm. The explanations vary as to why the Grand Rapids marketplace recovered so much quicker than many other Michigan and Midwestern cities, but there is little doubt that the city’s greater economic diversity played an important role. From automotive, to medical devices to food processing, the resurgence has been dramatic and has been fueled by a wide range of industries.

But that recovery, while welcome, highlighted the urgent need for additional housing opportunities in the downtown area. One of the 13 paradigms identified in the ULI Report — which quickly became a top priority for Grand Rapids urban planners and city officials — is addressing mixed-income housing positively.

In early 2015, to prepare for demographic trends, the City of Grand Rapids released the results of a detailed and comprehensive residential target market analysis, a study designed and conducted to determine the annual market potential for new housing units — created through the adaptive reuse of existing non-residential buildings, the rehabilitation of existing single-family detached houses, and new construction — that could be developed over the next several years.

Among the results of the study were the conclusions that the City of Grand Rapids needed an additional 10,000 downtown residents to appeal to retailers, and that the city could realistically add and absorb about 5,000 new residents annually for the next five years.

Strategies and tactics 

With those housing goals in place, and with a keen awareness of the relationship between rooftops and retail growth, Grand Rapids city officials moved to develop specific strategies that would enhance the city’s growth potential, reshape the downtown housing landscape and revitalize neighborhood business corridors, all while addressing the city’s need for more mixed-income housing, sustainable development strategies and an activated riverfront.

A prime example of the ULI report’s tenant of cementing public sector partnerships, the Great Housing Strategies initiative was the result of a six-month long collaborative effort between various stakeholders, including developers, neighborhood associations, housing service providers, non profit leaders, county representatives and civic and community leaders. The initiative, which has been formally adopted and is in the process of being rolled out, will work to achieve the following:

  • Increases housing choice variety by amending zoning ordinances; 
  • Encourages mixed-income neighborhoods by modifying city economic development and affordable housing tools and policies, to induce developers to provide more affordable housing options;
  • Creates and preserves affordable housing through a housing trust fund initially supported with a $10M investment and selected property restriction tools (community land trusts, deed restrictions);
  • Supports low-income and vulnerable populations by creating a housing consumers’ alliance and by creating a court-eviction diversion pilot program; 
  • Encourages alternate transportation and parking by modifying zoning ordinances to waive or reduce parking requirements, and by providing access to reliable public transportation 24/7 near residences and workplaces; 
  • Changes public perception of affordable housing by developing a campaign to educate the community about the benefits of balanced, mixed-income neighborhoods; and
  • Advocates for the preservation and alignment of existing state and federal housing resources including CDBG, HOME and ESG.

Grand Rapids has moved to support employers and workforce development by implementing new incentives for employer-assisted housing and for employers to locate near neighborhoods with high unemployment, by creating live-work spaces in neighborhood business districts and by developing and implementing cooperative business models. The city also approved a $350,000 investment to begin a process of relocating several public works facilities to open up a prime 16-18 acre riverfront parcel for a future mixed-use redevelopment.

Speed and solidarity

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Grand Rapids revitalization story is the speed at which these profound changes have taken place. In extremely short order, the city has been able to coordinate working groups made up of civic, business and community stakeholders, identify mutually agreeable priorities, develop strategies designed to achieve community goals and implement these new programs effectively and efficiently. The Great Housing Strategies initiative was launched in April of 2015, and the Grand Rapids City Commission adopted the final plan in December of 2015, just seven months from initial meetings to formal adoption.

To anyone familiar with municipal governance, the speed with which this process has proceeded may seem nothing short of miraculous. While Grand Rapids has some built-in advantages — notably a large population of privately held companies that remained fairly resilient during the downturn and a strong culture of philanthropic and cultural institutions that haven’t hesitated to throw their weight behind this work — the leaders behind the Great Housing Strategies imitative clearly did their homework and leveraged the extensive research commissioned by the City of Grand Rapids. Inclusivity and specificity were also keys. Deep community engagement with a wide range of diverse stakeholders from government, business, non-profit and the community helped to integrated a variety of views and ideas and reach consensus on a range of complex topics in a very short amount of time, and specific strategies and programs helped narrow the focus to realistic and achievable goals.

Largely because the City of Grand Rapids has been cognizant of the 13 ULI paradigm shifts throughout the redevelopment process, the results of these efforts are already being realized. From taking on density to developing new approaches to financing, Grand Rapids is the poster child for this modern approach to City planning. It has already gained new downtown retailers and seen more affordable housing come online (about 1,200 housing units are under construction with more in the pipeline) with a diverse influx of new downtown residents that includes artists, photographers, young professionals and empty nesters. With much more to come in the years ahead, it’s apparent that this is just the beginning of some very exciting times for the City of Grand Rapids.

Kara Wood is the economic development director for the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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