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Downtown GR riverfront vision includes zip line, amphitheater, aquarium along Market Avenue COURTESY RENDERING

Downtown GR riverfront vision includes zip line, amphitheater, aquarium along Market Avenue

BY Wednesday, February 24, 2021 04:27pm

GRAND RAPIDS — A new conceptual plan from Grand Action 2.0 outlines a host of downtown development possibilities along the Grand River and Market Avenue corridors. 

The group lists amenities such as a zip line, downtown aquarium, soccer stadium and 12,000-seat amphitheater that could be incorporated into a vision for mixed-use, equitable riverfront developments. 

The study, which Grand Action 2.0 outlined in a webinar last week hosted by The Economic Club of Grand Rapids, looks at 31 acres along the east bank of the Grand River between Fulton and Wealthy streets. This area includes the city-owned property at 201 Market Ave. SW where the Grand Rapids-Kent County Convention/Arena Authority recently approved an option agreement to purchase to develop into an outdoor amphitheater. 

Planning and design firm Populous developed the riverfront plan in partnership with Grand Rapids-based architecture firm Progressive AE Inc. The plan also considers recommendations from the 2020 Convention, Sports and Leisure International “Grand Rapids Venues & Attractions” study, which was also commissioned by Grand Action 2.0.

The trunk sewer relocation at the 201 Market site that the city of Grand Rapids, Kent County and the CAA are jointly funding “unlocks a lot of potential” for the site and the surrounding area on the waterfront, said John Shreve, principal at Populous. For example, the CAA’s planned outdoor amphitheater could become an all-seasons attraction and be turned into an ice rink in the winter, Shreve said. 

Relocating the trunk sewer is likely the biggest impediment to major redevelopment happening in the Market Avenue corridor, but work on that project is set to begin this spring, said Grand Rapids City Commissioner Jon O’Connor. He noted “a lot of merit” to adding an outdoor entertainment venue, especially in light of the pandemic.

“This follows other cities around the globe and what they are doing, which is reactivating waterfronts,” said Jeff Tucker, senior managing director of brokerage and principal at Bradley Co. 

The proposed developments would serve as a catalyst for other projects in the area, Tucker said. Bradley Co. is working on hospitality projects, and Tucker predicts a need for some brands that are not currently downtown to be on the water. 

“I think (the conceptual plan) is great, and having a public space along the riverfront is beneficial,” Bradley Co. Adviser Drew Nelson said. “What they’re talking about building around it just makes sense. It will offer new housing, workplaces and available retail.”

Long-term policy goals

Conceptual plans presented last week focus on public green space including making the river more accessible to the public, mixed-use development and infrastructure improvements. The planning process took into account a public engagement process that began in October 2020 with 26 one-on-one interviews with community groups, foundations, elected officials and downtown stakeholders, as well as four community virtual focus groups that attracted 15-20 participants each.

The plans also include pedestrian bridges to connect the 201 Market site to the other side of the Grand River, as well as a pedestrian bridge under US-131. Another concept discussed in the plan is a zip line from the eastern bank of the Grand River to Jackson Island, which is located between the S-Curve and Wealthy Street bridges. Shreve said the feature could lead to STEM outreach opportunities, and partnering with local schools and Grand Valley State University, which has a campus on the western bank of the river. 

The vision also proposes a “green ribbon” along the river that would allow pedestrians to walk near the water, which officials compared to The High Line public park and attraction in New York City.

“From a placemaking standpoint, ensuring we are creating great public access to the Grand River has been such a long-term policy goal of Grand Rapids,” O’Connor said. “That will be a huge win for people not just in Grand Rapids but across the region.”

The mixed-use developments along Market Avenue call for building 1,500-1,750 mixed-income housing units. Adding the housing component would help move the needle on the projected demand for 4,500 additional units in downtown Grand Rapids in the next five years, said Amber Luther, planner and senior associate at Populous.

Executives at Populous think the area can support higher density housing, which would in turn help to activate the greenspace proposed along the riverfront, Luther said. 

Additionally, while the proposals specifically focus on the Market corridor, Luther noted the projects need to be considered as part of a district within the larger city that could support developments in other areas, particularly around housing. 

Luther added that the city could potentially use the proceeds from developing its Market Avenue parcels to help create a community investment fund to support affordable housing projects in other neighborhoods around the city. 

The city has discussed setting some money aside from the anticipated sale of its 201 Market parcel for additional affordable housing projects in the city, O’Connor said. 

“We need housing at all price points, so this is just another chunk of that pie that is going to hopefully get built,” O’Connor said. 

The next steps Populous suggested are to identify sites for future housing developments downtown, a soccer venue and possibly a downtown aquarium, which was brought up many times in stakeholder meetings. The plan in its entirety could take 15-20 years to be realized, Luther said.

“We’ve had conversations with the United Soccer League, and they think this would be a prime location for a championship league,” said Grand Action co-chair Carol Van Andel. 

The next big step for the soccer stadium piece will be putting together an ownership group and working with the city to secure financing and a site, Van Andel said. 

When asked during the Economic Club webinar if the aquarium idea is under serious consideration, Grand Action 2.0 co-chair Tom Welch said it was a little unexpected that the idea kept being brought up in the public input process. The concept for some kind of downtown aquarium ended up receiving strong support from many community members, he said, adding that John Ball Zoo would need to take the lead with the city and study it more closely. 

Grand Action could potentially be involved if more due diligence and research happens, Welch said.

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