A grand vision
Big projects are in the works to redevelop public plazas that build community, create more green space in the city’s urban
core and establish new connections with the Grand River.
By By Marla R. Miller
Conceptual renderings show people relaxing on grassy knolls, walking along a multi-tiered waterfront boardwalk near Lyon Square and children playing in fountains near Alexander Calder’s La Grande Vitesse.
It’s a grand vision to transform two of the city’s underutilized spaces into urban playgrounds for all ages, hosting festivals, outdoor dining and concerts, and encouraging waterfront relaxation and recreation. With the realization that the city’s best natural feature has long been untapped and overlooked, all eyes have turned to making the Grand River more inviting and accessible.
Another major component of the GR Forward plan is to connect various portions of a multiuse trail along the Grand River, so locals and visitors can enjoy the riverfront corridor year-round and establish Grand Rapids as the hub in a regional trail system.
City officials hesitate to give timelines or cost estimates for the Calder Plaza and Lyon Square projects as they move forward with recommendations for GR Forward, a 10-year city improvement plan adopted by the Grand Rapids City Commission in December 2015. The ultimate goal is to cast Grand Rapids as an “active adventure city” with a progressive and lively downtown through innovative urban planning and activation of the river and public plazas.
Residents will see some tangible progress this spring with the dedication of the Coldbrook demonstration site and trail extension, a short but important trail linking Canal Park to Leonard Street, said Kristopher Larson, president and CEO of Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. (DGRI), which oversees the Downtown Development Authority. It showcases the possibility of future trail connections, flood control and river access.
“It is the first piece of new trail connection that will help embody and express the vision from GR Forward,” he said. “In this segment, we’ve incorporated an overlook component; this is where people are going to be able to watch individuals begin the whitewater journey.”
Jeffery Roberts’ dog, Maggie, a rescue who also is “reclaimed,” accompanies him on all his scouting missions.
The recent announcement of $5 million in federal grant money to the nonprofit Grand Rapids Whitewater for habitat restoration in the Grand River also is promising news.
If all goes well, some “low-hanging fruit” identified at Calder Plaza will be addressed by summer, and, this past January, the city of Grand Rapids authorized issuing up to $6 million in bond debt for the Lyon Square project.
City officials are optimistic these projects will come to fruition, though the timeline and cost estimates are still being investigated. Securing the funding and approval of various stakeholders for both the Lyon Square and Calder Plaza projects will dictate how quickly it all happens.
“These are really complicated and very expensive public spaces that require the buy-in of multiple stakeholders,” Larson said. “They’re big, bold visions that the community is excited to move forward, but there’s coordination work and budget processes that have to unfold.
“There is a lot of interest to help these projects become a reality, but part of that is the identification of millions of dollars to facilitate the implementation.”
Grand River and trail restoration
Formerly a foot path, the Coldbrook demonstration site and trail includes a new, 15-foot multiuse path on the eastern edge of the river near Canal Park and Coldbrook Street. The project, made possible through a partnership between DGRI and the city, extends the Grand River Edges Trail from Fulton Street north through Leonard Street.
It’s a small piece of the puzzle to connect and widen various sections of the trail, but it’s symbolic of an overarching goal to connect trails along the river corridor.
“It’s just a great visual of how the riverfront can look different in a meaningful way and have it look more like a park,” Mayor Rosalynn Bliss said.
Multiuse trails are popular for sport, recreation and transportation; and accessible, connectible trails have been shown to drive economic development, tourism and quality-of-life measures. Based on the feedback from residents, they want to be able to get on their bicycle and ride along the river, from Millennial Park north to Rockford, or west to the lakeshore.
“Overall, my personal vision is (for Grand Rapids to be) a city where we have a safe, connected trail system; we have green space and parks along the river, and people see that as a place where they can go and enjoy these beautiful natural assets in our city,” Bliss said.
City officials also are working on trail improvements between the Gillett Bridge and the Fulton Street Bridge on the west side of the river, which effectively will do the same thing by providing greater amounts of flood protection, widening the trail and incorporating universal design to allow individuals with disabilities to access the riverwalk. The goal is to have it done by Memorial Day, Larson said.
Another city-owned parcel with promise is 201 Market Ave. SW, a nearly 16-acre riverfront site currently being used to store salt and city equipment. The city plans to sell the property and has started the request for qualifications (RFQ) process. It’s probably a year away from being sold to a private developer and will require public access along the riverfront with green space and trail access.
Still, it’s exciting to see the city investing in public spaces and natural resources and will be interesting to watch how the private dollars follow, said Lynee Wells, an urban planner for Williams & Works and chairwoman of DGRI’s Alliance for Livability, which advises on beautification efforts, safety, mobility and asset management.
“It’s an interesting time in Grand Rapids,” she said. “We have our GR Forward plan that was adopted and parks and recreation’s citywide plan. It’s great to see the intersection of both of those plans in an effort to leverage our natural resources and our unique place-based assets.”
While work is happening along the river’s edge to connect cyclists and runners to a holistic regional trail network, recreationists, conservationists and city officials also have their sights set on transforming the look and flow of the river by restoring the rapids and native habitats. These efforts are expected to promote recreational use of the river, hopefully leading to a dedicated water trail and increased tourism.
Grand Rapids Whitewater, which is leading the slow-moving, multimillion-dollar river rapids restoration project, received a boost earlier this year thanks to federal dollars funneled through the Grand Valley Metropolitan Council. The funding is part of a larger federal habitat restoration grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which will support water quality and erosion efforts, reduce sediment and restore wetlands in upstream watersheds.
A formal contract still has to be signed with the funding agency, slated to happen in July, with work possibly starting in the fall, said Wendy Ogilvie, GVMC’s director of environmental programs.
The grant will help with in-stream efforts to build natural rock, restore the river bottom, take out low head dams and improve flow diversity to support the habitat for mussels and native aquatic life. The activity will be coordinated with the Lyon Square improvements, especially the removal of the current floodwall, to address flood control and river flow issues.
The project still is in the design phase, complicated by the presence of the federally endangered snuffbox mussel.
“There are very specific requirements of what the mussels need and different ways that fish will need to pass up the river,” Ogilvie said. “The mussels have to be removed; the endangered ones will be removed and then placed back in there.”
Although the grant has given the project momentum, and Grand Rapids Whitewater has raised $5 million in private donations, an estimated $20 million more is needed. Eventually, plans call to remove the Sixth Street Dam and reconstruct the riverbed down to Fulton Street, restoring the rapids that were removed a century ago and allowing native fish species to make their way up river to historic spawning grounds.
“There are a number of federal departments you have to work with,” Bliss said. “I’m optimistic; as the permits are approved and we move forward on the funding, my hope is that we start work in the river next year.”
Creating access to the Grand River, providing easy launching and docking for kayakers and space for pole fishing, and showing off the river’s natural beauty are key goals of the Lyon Square project.
Once complete, city officials hope it will become an epicenter for waterfront activity, where visitors and residents connect with the restored river and gain an appreciation for its geological and historical significance.
Lyon Square is envisioned to provide a vibrant waterfront park with a multiuse trail to accommodate a wide range of activities, including a kayak and canoe launch, among others.
The river, dammed to support the logging industry, also was polluted for decades, leading planners and developers to direct efforts away from the river due to its pollution and smell, Larson said. Presently, Lyon Square includes a rarely used amphitheater overlooking a concrete floodwall and boardwalk along the Grand River. The area slated for redevelopment is bound by the river to the west, Monroe Avenue to the east, and includes the length of riverfront from DeVos Place down to Pearl Street.
Buildings overlooking the shared-use corridor on Lyon Street include the Exhibitors Building, the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, the Civic Auditorium and the Windquest Building, which is why getting various public-private stakeholders on board is critical to the scope and aesthetics of the approved project, Larson said.“
Lyon Square is going to be even further behind Calder Plaza,” he said. “We’ve just finished schematic design for Lyon Square, and we have another year’s worth of design to get to a point to where we would have something that would be ready to be built.”
Conceptual renderings from Bishop Land Design LLC, the firm hired to complete designs for the project, depict a vibrant waterfront park with an open lawn, seating areas and a multiuse trail for the community.
Plans call for installing a series of steps and ramps designed to create a terraced approach to the river, while maintaining mandated flood controls and encouraging various interactions with the river. The renderings show people sitting under shade trees, running and cycling on the trail, walking on a river-level boardwalk and pulling up on kayaks.
The Lyon Street corridor represents a key component of the project to draw people from downtown to the river’s edge and establish a lively urban space. An interactive sculptural gateway featuring a programmable sculptural LED lighting feature has been proposed to improve access and safety into the evening hours.
The long-range plan is to create a plaza for events, street fairs and markets while allowing vehicular and pedestrian access to the convention center, hotel and businesses.
The DDA has authorized some of its funds to get the project going, and the city commission recently approved issuing bond debt to the DDA to help finance the project, but city officials have declined to give an estimated timeline.
The site of a famous public sculpture commissioned for the city in 1967, Calder Plaza serves as the hub for city and county government. Yet, the open, concrete plaza is often empty and ignored by residents and community organizers looking to host events in the city.
As another outgrowth of GR Forward, the Reimagining Calder Plaza initiative plans to transform the plaza into an outdoor destination for a variety of arts and cultural activities or a nice, quiet place for business professionals and college students to relax during lunch.
GR Forward revealed residents’ desire to make the large plaza surrounding the Kent County Administration Building, Grand Rapids City Hall and La Grande Vitesse more inviting and comfortable for people to use every day. It’s been a collaborative community process, facilitated by DGRI in partnership with Kent County and the city of Grand Rapids, designed to reimagine an important public park space and realize the plaza’s full potential.
“There’s a number of interventions and adaptations to the existing design that can be built by piece and parcel over time; a phased implementation approach that could begin as early as this summer,” Larson said.
Some low-cost improvements will encourage more utilization in the near term, but it’s not a very aggressive budgetary figure immediately, Larson said. These “lighter, quicker, cheaper” upgrades don’t replace what needs to happen long term.
“It’s really just to keep the momentum going,” Larson said. “Ideally, we’d like to implement as much of the community vision as possible.”
That’s going to require the cooperation of city, county and federal governments, the DDA and convention and arena authority. Working to align those entities is no simple task.“We’ve tried to engage all of these entities along the way. It’s one thing to participate in design; it’s another to prioritize how to portion costs,” he said.
Plans call to make the site more accessible and activate the edge of the plaza along Ottawa Avenue for flexible events and food trucks, Wells said. Other recommendations include additional seating, mobile landscapes and planters to break up the space, installing lighting, trees and landscaping, and improving visual and physical entries. Due to its raised plinth, three sides of the plaza have large stone walls, which make it difficult to see or access.
“The goal is to have multiple access points to Calder Plaza from all four directions and invite people to that space and activate it on a more regular basis,” Wells said. “We want people using that space when they are taking a break on their work day. We want people there on evenings and weekends.”
Conceptual possibilities include a 1-mile integrated “health loop” connecting the Medical Mile with the river and adding a pedestrian bridge across Monroe Avenue to DeVos Place. Other suggestions include new development and retail along Lyon Street and a designated connection to the river on Lyon and the “health loop.” A report by Grand Action suggested the plaza also could be used for a hotel.
A few blocks north of Calder Plaza, at 1001 Monroe Ave. NW, Orion Real Estate Solutions has taken advantage of the renewed interest in the river with its mixed-used development called the River’s Edge.
The project, near the Coldbrook extension, is slated to open in the next year and will feature 32 luxury apartments facing the river, indoor parking and a ground-floor restaurant and bar.
The development caters to executives and business professionals, and the apartments may be sold off as condos, said John Wheeler, president of Orion Real Estate Solutions, the development arm of Orion Construction.
“We have balconies and floor-to-ceiling glass; it’s gorgeous,” he said. “It’s just so unique.”
Wheeler said it has been hard to find property on the river to develop, and he is excited for both the public and private investment in the city’s namesake. Like others, he is anxiously awaiting the rapids.
“I spent my whole youth playing down in Riverside Park,” he said. “It’s such a special gift from God, and it runs through our town and everyone loves to be on the water. To turn it back into a playground and not just lined by walks — it’s a pretty cool thing for our city.” GR