Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Where Things Went Wrong 50 Years Ago

(Photo Credit: PhotoLab507)

Since I have been very busy with work over the past few months, I have neglect writing on the blog. However, I had a GR Press reporter ask me a few months ago about my article about planning in Grand Rapids between 1949 and 1959. In particular, he asked what I thought would have worked better than the reformers' strategy to work with the business coalition and pursue downtown urban renewal.

As far as specific decisions go, the rejection of the 1959 consolidation measure by the voters was a blow, but I don't think it would have changed the underlying development of the GR region. If I were among the powers that be back in 1961 (and I'm not among them even in 2011), I certainly would have focused more on neighborhood revitalization strategies earlier than working on downtown renewal. The city lost almost 20,000 people between 1970 and 1980, although some of the neighborhoods surrounding the downtown were already losing people by 1960. However, the two biggest blunders that occurred this time period was 1) the siting of Grand Valley State University (GVSU) in Allendale, and 2) the locating of GR Airport southeast of Grand Rapids.

(Photo Credit: Tyler Vogt)

GVSU was located in the farmland of west Michigan largely because the land was available and it was the policy of the state of Michigan to locate new campuses in greenfield developments. GR could have done something similar to what was done in Chicago with the University of Illinois-Chicago campus-put a new large institution on the edge of downtown to shore of the business district. I think locating the school somewhere on the existing GRCC campus, or to the west of Downtown where the Pew campus is now located, would have done a lot of creating a commercial base so needed in downtown. A thoughtful acknowledgment of the role a community college has in the region would move GRCC from its downtown campus to Calvin's old campus at Franklin and Fuller, and the creating of a new branch campus in Wyoming near the city's commercial core. Putting four different GRCC campuses in the larger metropolitan region (one in the urban core, one in "downtown" Wyoming, one on the west side of Grand Rapids, and a final campus in Kentwood) could have tied the metropolitan core closer together along educational and institutional lines.

The other single pressing mistake was the location of the airport in its current placement on the far edge of southeast Kentwood. The metropolitan region of west Michigan is the Holland/Muskegon/Grand Rapids triangle, and by all accounts the airport should have been located at some point on the west side of the Grand, most likely in Walker near the intersection of 96, Kinney, and Richmond. the later addition of Interstate 196 could have been easily moved Wilson Road to M-45, and then cut to downtown. This relocation would have made the west Michigan much more of a unified economic region and the west side of Grand Rapids would have been easily available for zoning as industrial, thus preserving the city's industrial fabric.

Finally, while highways are necessary but often done in a poorly designed fashion, I am a big fan of parks. The city had a master plan drawn up in 1917 that has some beautiful sketches of parkways along Plaster and Silver Creeks, as well as the Grand and Thornapple River. If we had developed a parkway system, as well as creating a greenbelt park system around the metro region as proposed by Fred Meijer in 2004 (before it was voted down). The broader Grand Rapids needs to have a land use policy that makes it stand out among other Midwestern communities. Right now it does not.

In his new book The Triumph of the City, Edward Glaeser argues that the American city, long the whipping child for ever failing in American social policy since the Revolution, is much more environmentally sustainable and the hotbed of American economic innovation in the revitalizing economy. To continue pushing federal policies that subsidize sprawl, underwrites mortgages for large homes built in greenfield developments, and enforce euclidean zoning as opposed to form-based zoning is a recipe for doom.

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