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Point and scoot

By Curt Wozniak
Photography by Michael Buck

The shortest path between two points is always a straight line. When that path crosses an unfamiliar urban environment, however, finding it can be as difficult as fishing out a single thread from a swimming pool of yarn.

For many Grand Rapidians, connecting this city’s downtown destination points is fairly simple navigation. It’s not so simple for visitors. One-way streets thwart direct routes. Avenues bend into diagonals, breaking the grid to follow the curve of the Grand River. And the lack of a common language among locals (Is it Plaza Towers or the Downtown Courtyard by Marriott?) can make asking for directions a gamble.

As director of galleries and collections for Grand Valley State University, Grand Rapids Magazine Home & Design Advisory Panel member Henry Matthews regularly hosts visiting artists. Their headaches finding their way around the city become his headaches.

“ Unless you’re taking a taxi, you’re in deep ca-ca just trying to find your hotel,” Matthews observed. “But let’s say at some point you actually find it. … That’s just one visitor, but on some level, that is a very important visitor, because if they don’t have a good experience, if they can’t figure out how to get anywhere, why would they ever want to come back or tell anyone else to come here?”

The Downtown Management Board began discussing ways to improve visitors’ experiences during the 1990s. Money was tight, however, and the board dissolved before taking any action.

In 1999, the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) revived the discussion, hiring Corbin Design to organize a wayfinding system for the city. Based in Traverse City since 1976, Corbin Design has developed similar systems for Atlanta, Los Angeles and nearly 30 other municipalities, as well as several corporate campuses, hospitals and universities.

In June 2000 the DDA tabled the wayfinding system, due to funding problems, but it remained a priority, said Assistant City Planner and DDA Executive Director Jay Fowler. In 2003, Corbin resumed design work. By the end of next month, 135 wayfinding signs will be installed in and around downtown at a total cost of just over $1.5 million.

In their 1992 book, “Wayfinding: People, Signs and Architecture,” signage pioneer Paul Arthur and environmental psychologist Romedi Passini defined wayfinding as “the strategies that people use to find their way in familiar or new settings, based on their perceptual and cognitive abilities and habits.” Grand Rapids’ new signage system provides such a strategy.

“ We all have our own view of environment,” explained Jeff Corbin, Corbin Design founder. “We call that an ‘egocentric’ view. Your egocentric view of Grand Rapids is probably very different as a resident than that of a visitor.”

He continued, “The wayfinding side of this is what we call an ‘exocentric’ view. That is, an understanding of the totality or the whole of something. That’s kind of what wayfinding does. We try to define an environment so that everybody can form their own egocentric view based on the same exocentric view.”

In downtown Grand Rapids, the environment will be defined by four color-coded districts, bordered on the north by Michigan/Bridge Street, on the south by Wealthy Street, on the east by Prospect Avenue and on the west by Seward Avenue.

The districts — CenterCity, HeartSide, HillSide and WestSide — provide the first level in the system’s information hierarchy. Welcome signs identify each district as visitors enter. Vehicular directional signs guide visitors from one district to another or to 40 specific public destinations in or near downtown. Parking ramps and surface lots identify their district and feature pedestrian maps. It breaks down like this, said Corbin: “We’re going to get you close. We’re going to get you parked. And then you’ll be able to walk to your desired destination.”

City dwellers might experience confusion when confronted with the fact that what was once the Theater District, “Pill Hill,” Grand Rapids Community College and the western edge of Heritage Hill, is now one district (HillSide). Of course, city dwellers probably already have an effective strategy for finding their way around.

“ The focus here really is on visitors who are coming downtown,” Fowler explained.

“ Downtown Grand Rapids is becoming more of a visitor destination,” he said. “The Van Andel Arena brings in around a million people per year, many of whom are not familiar with the downtown area. We hope the opening of DeVos Place will bring another million people who are even less familiar, because they’re less apt to be from West Michigan. And we have so many other great venues downtown that all attract people for various events … so the whole idea is to make people who are unfamiliar with the city more comfortable finding their destination.”

If, as with Henry Matthews’ hypothetical visitor, one’s downtown starting point is a hotel room, Corbin’s system promises tremendous improvements. If, however, that visitor’s experience begins at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport, problems remain.

“We worked long and hard with MDOT to try to incorporate these symbols along the freeways, so that you might know which exit to get off to get to HeartSide, or which exit to get off to get to CenterCity,” Corbin said. “We were not successful.”

Corbin has been successful with such endeavors in other states. State departments of transportation in Colorado, Indiana and Missouri all allowed the introduction of wayfinding signage along their freeways in urban centers.

Just as some families are better at making houseguests feel welcome, wayfinding is a choice made by cities that want to emphasize its benefits.

“ You can tell a lot about a city by how it treats its visitors,” Corbin said. “Once this system is up, I think downtown Grand Rapids is going to be a much friendlier place.” GR

   
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