Grand Rapids’ $10M park targets property

By: Nick Manes, MiBiz

The City of Grand Rapids’ plan to use state funds to convert six parcels of underutilized property along the Grand River into green space has sparked a debate over land use and sustainable riverfront development.

At the core of the discussion: Should the city create parks on property a new master planning process has identified as having a high potential for both mixed-use commercial development and recreational applications?

In mid-February, city officials indicated they want to consolidate six parcels of land currently owned by a combination of the city of Grand Rapids, Kent County and Michigan State University. The property totals 3.68 acres between Monroe Avenue and the east bank of the Grand River from the 6th Street Dam down to the I-196 overpass. The city owns just one of the parcels, while Kent County owns three and the remaining two belong to MSU.

For the city, the purchase price for the five remaining parcels is approximately $10 million, according to an agenda item filed with the Grand Rapids Community Development Department. To pay for the project, city officials plan to make a request for $7.5 million from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund (NRTF), with the remaining funds coming from the city’s Capital Improvement Fund.

But those plans are causing concern among local officials who wonder if it’s a good idea to lock up the entire parcel from any possible commercial development in perpetuity, especially as the city’s yet-to-be-finalized master plan has identified the site as a high-interest property for mixed-use projects.

“This is way ahead of the process,” said Kent County Commissioner Jim Talen, who also serves as a member of the Grand River Corridor Steering Committee.

While Talen insists he is not opposed to adding more public green space along the river, he’s among a growing group of people wondering whether the city’s plans could end up contradicting the recommendations of the ongoing GR Forward master planning process for which the city contributed $440,000.

The GR Forward plan aims to look at the whole of downtown from a planning standpoint, with particular emphasis on increased access to the Grand River. In drafting the preliminary plan, officials have identified the riverfront parcels in question — as well as others such as city-owned land at 201 Market Street SW — as having potential for mixed-use commercial development coupled with green space, according to Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. (DGRI), the organization that is heading up the master planning process.

“It feels like (the city is) circumventing the process,” Talen said.

The budget for the planning process is $1.1 million, including the funding from the city, $553,000 from the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority and $80,000 from Grand Rapids Public Schools.

Since the GR Forward plan is still in-progress, DGRI executives and others are questioning whether the city has all the information it needs to move ahead with its plans.

“It’s about ensuring we use good process to explore and determine the best ideas for the site,” said Andy Guy, chief outcomes officer at DGRI, in an email to MiBiz. “We as a community do not yet have a clear and common understanding of the highest and best use of the land.”

Guy added that he hopes to hear from a range of community stakeholders about all possible concepts for the site — and that the flexibility exists to implement the community’s preferred land use scenario.

Challenges ahead?

Aside from those concerns, the city could also face a roadblock in seeking funding from the NRTF, which states in its policy that it “will not assist in the acquisition of any land that is already owned by a unit of government.” Since four of the six parcels are owned by Grand Rapids or Kent County, observers wonder whether the NRTF board would even consider funding the project.

But Sam Cummings, a board member of the NRTF and managing partner of CWD Real Estate Investment in Grand Rapids, said the fund typically looks at each land acquisition on a case-by-case basis. The NRTF could find reason to fund the project, he said.

If the project does go forward, the city also will need to budget for long-term costs associated with the property such as maintenance of the grounds, Talen said. He sees potential in getting private-sector partners to help offset some of the costs associated with maintaining a sustainable green space along the river.

“We are a community known for innovation,” Talen said. “How cool would it be to have a building block (the sound) of the (nearby I-196) highway? There is huge potential here for nice amenities with a public-private partnership.”

Estimates of the annual maintenance budget for the site were not available because final designs for the project have not been completed, said Steve Guitar, the communications director for the city.

Another cause for concern: The NRTF funds can only be applied to land that will be “retained and preserved in its natural state” so it can be used for outdoor public recreation, which essentially bars any commercial development on the site in perpetuity. However, the NRTF could allow a “reversion” or swap of an equal amount of property at another site if the riverfront parcel were to be commercially developed at some point, sources said.

Dual purpose

From the city’s perspective, the planned land acquisition accomplishes two major goals. It increases downtown recreational areas with direct access to the river — a crucial improvement as plans move forward to restore the rapids to the Grand River — and it helps the city achieve its flood management goals.

Flood management concerns have been top of mind for city planners, who have been wrangling with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) over the city’s floodwall system for years.

Currently, the vast majority of the east bank of the Grand River through the downtown area is inaccessible for recreational use due to the high retaining walls that are meant to prevent flooding. City plans call for those walls to be removed in many places and replaced with stepped embankments that can help prevent flooding as well as offer increased recreational access to the river.

Grand Rapids Deputy City Manager Eric DeLong sees the land acquisition and conversion to green space as an important step in the city’s river restoration efforts.

“It could be a very interesting public space,” DeLong said. “Our sense is that most cities are looking to preserve their riverfront, not develop riverfront. It will activate the riverfront in one of the most active areas of the river.”

By eschewing private development on the parcels, the city hopes to encourage further development in the surrounding areas, namely on the east side of Monroe Avenue, DeLong said.

A matter of timing

While no one contacted for this report opposes consolidating the properties and converting part of the site into green space, they say locking up the entire parcel from development could be short-sighted given the nearby highway and adjacent electrical substation — and given the site’s desirability for commercial development.

Guy from DGRI urged the city to exercise patience before making any decisions on the property as the stakeholders continue to work through the GR Forward plan.

“We’re … evaluating the possibility for some thoughtful mixed-use development — which could potentially shield any future public space from the highway and the power station, help activate the river and street edges, and spread the high cost of the infrastructure over more businesses or households,” Guy said.

Steve Faber, executive director of Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, a nonprofit, non-governmental group that lobbies on behalf of public spaces in the city, agrees.

“No one thinks getting all those properties under one owner is a bad idea,” Faber said. “Where I’ve heard caution is whether we are backing ourselves into a corner. GR Forward shows at least a portion (of the site) being private development.

I don’t think we’ve totally figured out what that looks like.”

That said, Faber understands the sense of urgency on the city’s part to get a grant application into the NRTF board. The deadline for applications is April 1, but it could take the better part of a year before the city knows whether it will receive the grant, Faber said.

Cummings, an NRTF board member, said the city could lose out if it waits too long to apply for the funds.

“If we don’t act on this in this grant cycle, I think it is unlikely we will have the opportunity,” Cummings told MiBiz.

From his perspective as a developer, Cummings said he believes that added recreational opportunities in the downtown area are important to the city’s growth.

As possible models for what the space could look like, Cummings pointed to Clinch Park in Traverse City near the mouth of the Boardman River at the west arm of Grand Traverse Bay, as well as Collins Park in Miami Beach, Fla. or even Detroit’s riverfront.

“Long term, we need to think about our city, and clearly, we don’t have enough green space that is within walking distance to the core of downtown,” Cummings said.

In June 2013, Kent County rejected a $2.5 million offer by Grand Rapids-based development firm SIBSCO LLC, which planned to do a mixed-use development on three of the six proposed parcels.

Reached by email, Sibsco partner Charlie Secchia said he had no comment on whether the site should house future commercial development, simply saying that the city’s plan “would be a great asset for downtown.”

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