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Keisha and Kraig Schneider and their son Kai relax at Ah-Nab-Awen Park on the west side of downtown, with a perfect view of downtown east side.

Living it up downtown

By Angela Klinske
Photography by Michael Buck

Everyone comes downtown for the restaurants and entertainment, but 13 secret truths show there’s not much reason to drive back to suburbia.

Downtown and the livin’ is ... easy. Nine years ago, empty nesters Pat and Jane Scripps sold their suburban home and moved downtown to an 1,100-square-foot, one-bedroom condo in Plaza Towers — “before the kids had achance to move back home,” said Jane.

Kraig and Keisha Schneider, along with 10-month-old son Kai, are the new kids on the vertical block. Living in a Union Square condo on the edge of downtown’s west side, this young family longed for an urban experience that rivals life in the suburbs. They plan to take full advantage of downtown’s family-friendly offerings, such as the Grand Rapids Children Museum, the parks and playgrounds, and ice skating at Rosa Parks Circle.

“We’ll spend a lot of time walking by the river with our son,” said Kraig.

These city slickers aren’t looking back. As downtown has emerged over the past two decades from a sleepy pedestrian mall and too many empty buildings into a bustling beacon for business and entertainment, downtown living is only getting easier.

“Our main focus is to create an environment that people want to be in,” said Sharon Evoy, executive director of the Grand Rapids Downtown Alliance. That includes ameliorating safety concerns and creating and maintaining green space. “This is very much a neighborhood, a little more concentrated than you’ll traditionally find (in the suburbs).”

So just how easy is it to live downtown?

Here’s the inside scoop — where to park, where to walk and where to shop (yes, you can shop downtown), all without grabbing the car keys. Downtown residents know where to catch a sunset and where to catch dinner. They also revealed how to score tickets to sold out shows (legally) and save money at the meter (also legally). Call it “street smart” for a savvy, new generation of downtown dwellers.

Grand Rapids Magazine lets you in on their secrets.

Secret No. 1
Tunnels, bridges and walkways — oh my!
After you’ve been downtown a while, you learn how to get around to area shops, businesses, restaurants and entertainment venues, sometimes without ever going outside. The Grand River Concourse (formal name for the skywalk) connects more than a half-dozen downtown buildings and is a favorite for downtown power walkers, stretching close to a mile. The skywalk extends from DeVos Place Convention Center at its north end to Van Andel Arena at its southern end, with new links being added from the National City Building to the new JW Marriott and its parking tower.

If you prefer walking underground, tunnels run under Ottawa and Pearl streets, connecting various buildings, such as Chase Bank to the Government Center Parking ramp. These tunnels are open to downtown patrons during normal business hours.

 

Jane and Pat Scripps love the view from the balcony of their downtown condo in Plaza Towers.
Downtown also offers two pedestrian bridges — the Gilette and the Blue — to cross the river.
It’s a walk-and-go lifestyle for downtown dwellers. In fact, city residents are skinnier than their suburban counterparts — up to 12 pounds lighter, according to Public Health Journal’s 2004 study “Suburban Sprawl and Physical and Mental Health.”

From their home in Plaza Towers, 11 Monroe Ave. NW, Pat and Jane Scripps can get to their bank, salon, eye doctor and some of their favorite restaurants without going outside. They can also access scenic walking paths near their condo.

“Sometimes we don’t use the car all week,” said Pat, a financial consultant at AG Edwards, 50 Monroe Ave. NW. Jane walks to work at Seyferth Spaulding Tennyson, 40 Monroe Center NW. If they both opened windows, they could converse about where to walk for dinner.

Secret No. 2
The greater downtown area has 10 public parks.
Pick one and take a walk, a run or a picnic.

Best Sunset: Lookout Park, corner of Fairview and Newberry NE. This 160-foot cliff faces west, overlooking North Monroe and the river. Closes at dusk.

Best Walk: Ah-Nab-Awen Park. This park is on the west bank of the Grand River, in front of the Gerald R. Ford Museum.

Best Playgrounds: Sixth Street Bridge Park, between Monroe Avenue and the river, just south of the bridge, and Canal Street Park, between Monroe Avenue and the river, north of bridge (at Mason Street).

Family Fun: Heartside Park, 69 Ionia Ave. SE. Located in the Heartside district (between Ionia and Division avenues), this four-acre park has a water park, picnic shelter and basketball court.

Best Fishing: Fishladder Park, 560 Front Ave. NW.

Best Place for an Outdoor Office Lunch: Crescent Park, 301 Bostwick Ave. NE. One of the oldest parks downtown, it’s near Spectrum Health and Grand Rapids Community College.

Best in Show: Rosa Parks Circle, 155 Monroe Center NE. You can ice skate in the winter, see a concert in the summer, all while enjoying a Maya Lin creation.

“Honorable” Mentions: Veterans Memorial Park, 101 E. Fulton St., offers monuments that honor war veterans, a fountain and large shade trees. Monument Park, 2 N. Division Ave., is a tribute to Civil War veterans.

Secret No. 3
Say goodbye to parking tickets – forever.
Even the most committed walkers need to drive sometimes. Smart Auto Meter (SAM) is a small personal parking meter you can purchase at Grand Rapids Parking Services. It hangs from your rear view mirror and works with a pre-paid SAM Smart Card. Instead of digging for change, prepay monthly and let SAM track your time. Contact Grand Rapids Parking Services at 456-3290.

Secret No. 4
Get a convenient cheap ride to the airport.
Air Porter, a shuttle service provided by The Rapid (Grand Rapids’ public transportation system), runs between Gerald R. Ford International Airport and the Amway Grand Plaza, the Courtyard by Marriott and the Days Inn. The service is available 7 a.m.-9:30 p.m. every 30 minutes, seven days a week (including holidays). Pay $15 one way or $25 round trip. Call (877) 397-4377 or visit www.grand rapidsairporter.com.

Secret No. 5
Visitors are welcome (and encouraged).
When the in-laws come for a visit, forget the spare room and sleeper sofa. Some of the poshest hotels are downtown — for instance, The Courtyard by Marriott inside Plaza Towers, and the Amway Grand Plaza, 187 Monroe Ave. NW. Of course, the JW Marriott is due to open this fall at Pearl Street and Campau Avenue, offering flat-screen TVs and 24-hour room service.

On second thought, let guests stay at the condo — and you get the hotel room.

Secret No. 6
You can live tax free.
The Schneiders took advantage of this secret when they moved to Union Square last November. The couple pays no property or city or state income taxes until 2012 because they live in a designated Renaissance Zone.

Grand Rapids’ Renaissance Zone program has become the most successful in Michigan. Since the program started 10 years ago, the total investment within the 10 Ren Zone areas is $251 million, according to the city of Grand Rapids.

Secret No. 7
There’s a grocery store downtown — and they deliver.
“That’s the first question people ask us,” said Jane Scripps.

The Grand Central Market and Deli at 57 Monroe Center NW offers urbanites access to the same fine foods available at larger suburban chains. Visit its Web site at www.grandcentralmarketgr.com.

Scripps sometimes shops there, and sometimes goes to her suburban favorite, Forest Hills Foods. She says her drive to the Grand Rapids Township grocery store is quicker from downtown than it was from her home in Ada.

Secret No. 8
Residents and city officials say it’s safe.
Virtually all urban areas have more crime than suburban areas, due to the denser population, but downtown residents interviewed by Grand Rapids Magazine say they feel safe. In 2006, two of the 23 murders in the city occurred within the official borders of downtown. Other 2006 downtown statistics included seven of 73 rapes, 72 of 719 robberies, 104 of 1,159 aggravated assaults, 85 of 2,566 burglaries, and 27 of 720 motor vehicle thefts.

Having the Grand Rapids Police Department headquarters literally in the middle of downtown — at 1 Monroe Center, which was originally designed to be the city’s main street — “adds an element of safety,” according to Lt. Ralph Mason of the police department.

“We are here,” Mason said of the downtown area. “We walk to court; we’re walking around near the bars and the downtown business area.”

There also is a bicycle cop who patrols the downtown streets.

Secret No. 9
Downtown is green and proud of it.
Metro Grand Rapids leads the country with more square footage per capita under LEED certification than any other U.S. city, according to the U.S. Green Building Council. The Rapid Central Station, Lacks Cancer Center and the YMCA are just a few examples of downtown’s green buildings. The new Grand Rapids Art Museum, opening in phases through the fall, is the first art museum in the world to be LEED certified.

Secret No. 10
You can find goods and services downtown. Really.
Superb hospitals. Clothing, shoes, gifts, books, music, furniture. It’s all there. Not all in one location, of course, but you can stroll from shop to shop and get everything you need — from Altoids to zipper pulls (see list). And that’s not to mention at least 34 bars and restaurants, 13 coffeehouses and 15 art galleries that stand up to the Motor City or the Windy City or the Big Apple. OK, maybe the Little Apple.

Secret No. 11
Score tickets to your favorite sold-out concerts.
Jane Scripps has walked to the arena and picked up tickets to Tim McGraw, Tina Turner and Cher concerts.

“Time it right and you can hit the arena and find someone trying to get rid of an extra ticket,” she said.
It’s also a little known fact that downtown shows open up seats just before the show starts on a first-come first-served basis.

Local theater is just footsteps away, too.

“There were things we didn’t drive in for,” Jane said. “But since we’re down here … when you’re walking around, you know what’s going on.”

They enjoy seeing plays at Civic Theatre and Spectrum Theater, both within walking distance of home. “It’s very close, very cool,” Pat Scripps said.

Secret No. 12
Downtown condos — now taking reservations.
New condos are everywhere and range from luxurious to downtown chic. Check them out at the Parade of Downtown Living, June 8-10. See Calendar of Events.

13: Future Secrets
Downtown Grand Rapids may not have everything to make it convenient. Not quite yet.

The Scripps and the Schneiders agree that downtown could use more shopping and another entertainment venue. Vertical mall and movie theater, anyone?

And downtown apparently is lacking in one “emergency” service. Said Jane Scripps: “We don’t have any place for the 10 p.m. ice cream run.” GR

   
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