GRAND RAPIDS — Mayor Rosalynn Bliss outlined the “next version” of Grand Rapids during her eighth State of the City address, emphasizing the need for more housing density to meet demand, completing major riverfront projects and improving policing.
A packed room of a few hundred community leaders, elected and city officials, and business owners attended Bliss’ approximately 40-minute address Tuesday night at the Studio D2D Event Center.
Bliss began by stressing the importance of collaboration across the public and private sectors — including on projects at the neighborhood level — to continue the city’s positive momentum from 2022.
“Over the past year, we continued to make progress toward this next vision, this next version of Grand Rapids,” Bliss said. “Dozens of new neighborhood businesses have opened, hundreds of new homes are planned and hundreds are under construction, and major civic work projects will soon break ground.”
Housing in focus
This year’s State of the City particularly emphasized housing, as Bliss called out the need for more density as available vacant land suitable for construction shrinks.
Housing projects need to “go up” and change the city’s skyline, Bliss said, citing the 16-story, 165-unit addition to the apartments at Studio Park as an example.
“This building is changing our skyline and we need more like it to truly change and grow our housing system,” Bliss said. “We need to look at every vacant and underused property across our city as a housing opportunity.”
Bliss also noted the 2023 Kent County Housing Needs Assessment, which recently concluded that the city needs 14,000 more housing units by 2027, or 2,800 homes a year for the next five years, to keep up with demand.
“That’s the equivalent of roughly 580 blocks of traditional neighborhood housing by 2027,” Bliss said, underscoring the need for density in new housing projects.
So far in 2023, the city has approved construction permits for more than 400 homes, which is “well ahead” of last year’s pace, Bliss said. More than 1,000 residential units are in the development pipeline this year.
“We are and continue to be in a housing crisis because we have more people than homes and our population is growing fast,” Bliss said. “Our goal is to support building more homes for everyone at all income levels.”
Bliss also highlighted the city’s years-long efforts to redevelop land along the Grand River, and restore rapids in the river itself, which has had “a few unexpected turns.”
The city announced on March 10 that it withdrew its request with the Michigan Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) for the Grand River Revitalization project with Grand Rapids Whitewater. The city is now hoping to submit another application by the end of 2023, with the goal of starting construction in 2024.
“With the complicated work that we are doing, oftentimes it is two steps forward and one step back,” Bliss said. “Although we chose to withdraw our current applications to remove the dam, work is on the way to submit a modified design. …You can count on our efforts to achieve a design that delivers a transformational project for our entire community.”
Bliss also mentioned the “significant riverfront construction” that is set to take place this year at Lyon Square and the Grand Rapids Public Museum, in addition to closing a 1-mile gap on the riverfront trail system near the Creston Neighborhood. As well, the outdoor amphitheater project continues to move forward, she said.
“We will start a very important conversation about how we meaningfully connect our southeast side to our Grand River,” Bliss said. “The third ward is separated from the river and the broader, regional trail system by political boundaries, the US-131 highway, and significant gaps in the trail network. We see promising opportunities to blaze new connections and improve legacy inequities.”
Public safety programs
Bliss also called attention to Grand Rapids Police Chief Eric Winstrom’s one-year anniversary on the job, before giving her condolences to the family of Patrick Lyoya, who was shot and killed by a Grand Rapids police officer just over a year ago.
“My heart continues to go out to the Lyoya family as they grieve the loss of their loved one,” Bliss said. “Chief, we are all so deeply grateful for you and your leadership this past year. Your ability to listen, build accountability, trust and meaningful partnerships to make sure Grand Rapids continues to be a safe place to live.”
This year the city is expanding evidence-based violence prevention efforts, Bliss said. These programs include the Cure Violence program that is facilitated in collaboration with the Grand Rapids Urban League, as well as a program that pairs mental health professionals with police officers to respond to some service calls.
The efforts come as discontent grows among downtown residents and business owners about public safety, including incidents involving people experiencing homelessness.
“While change is slow and often messy, representation matters,” Bliss said. “We are working together, we are figuring it out and building a system that is better designed to keep all of us safe, especially the most vulnerable among us.”