GRAND RAPIDS — Efforts to restore the rapids in the Grand River might be a year or more away from launching, but stakeholders already have started thinking about opportunities the project will create throughout downtown.
Grand Rapids Whitewater (GRWW), the nonprofit initiative working on the rapids restoration project, plans to handle the work in the water, but a wide variety of parties — ranging from city planners to real estate developers and property owners — see significant potential for considerable economic spin-off if the plans come to fruition. The benefits could include new recreational options for residents and visitors and new micro-businesses focused on helping people enjoy the river.
As well, a renewed focus on the riverfront could boost values for adjacent property owners with residential and commercial spaces as people opt to interact with the river on a more frequent basis. Indeed, housing developments have already begun to pop up on both sides of the river, while some restaurant concepts increasingly focus on outdoor seating with waterfront views.
Andy Guy, chief outcomes officer at Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., a nonprofit that administers the city’s Downtown Development Authority tax increment financing tool, calls the initiative the “most significant urban revitalization project” in downtown Grand Rapids in decades.
“It’s going to take a lot of partnership to get this done,” Guy said. “It’s going to require a significant amount of investment to return the types of benefits and amenities we want in the community. I think, generally speaking, everyone agrees that there’s a role here for everybody — state, local, public, private, philanthropic. It will be the most significant urban revitalization project we’ve ever done in downtown. We’re going to need everybody there.”
Property owners along the Grand River — both within the central business district and in adjacent neighborhoods — see significant opportunity for new investments if the river restoration project advances.
Mike DeVries, a principal with DeVries Companies Inc., a Grand Rapids-based real estate development and property management firm, said some of his company’s 20 properties in the Monroe North Neighborhood could be candidates for redevelopment as a result of the project.
As well, public investments could open new possibilities for the company. He cited the possibility of cityowned riverfront land being transformed into a park across the street from the DeVries-owned Clearwater Place, an office building and event space. The new infrastructure and amenities could allow the firm to expand its offerings for outdoor weddings and other events, DeVries said.
The burgeoning Monroe North Neighborhood’s proximity to downtown and the river, coupled with its diversity of new facilities and historic buildings makes for an easy value proposition for office users, residents and visitors, according to DeVries.
“I think you have a lot of those ingredients coming to bear in a great, central location,” DeVries said. “The area is amazing now and will only get better.”
Likewise, one major hotel operator views the planned river revitalization as a potential boon for future tourism that will undoubtedly help drive room bookings.
Rick Winn, president of Amway Hotel Corp., which does business as AHC+Hospitality and operates the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, the J.W. Marriott and Courtyard by Marriott along the downtown riverfront, projects that tourism will increase dramatically as the river revitalization takes hold.
“We view (the river restoration) as one of the single largest gestures the city can make for redevelopment of the urban core and the whole area,” Winn said, adding that public spaces adjacent to Amway-owned hotels could eventually become points for kayakers and boaters to directly access the river. “This will enhance tourism in a major way. We see it as an enhancement of the area as a destination.”
For decades, cities around the country turned their backs to their rivers, lakes and other bodies of water, many of which primarily were used for industrial purposes, leading to significant pollution issues.
But as planners seek to change the Grand River from a passive asset back to an active one, business owners are imagining new ways to interact with the waterfront.
Linear Restaurant opened earlier this year on the ground floor of The Homes at River’s Edge, a newlybuilt mixed-use residential project along the riverfront on North Monroe Avenue. Co-owner Todd Hoort says if the river restoration plans come to fruition, the restaurant is perfectly positioned to offer new dining opportunities.
“Right now, it looks nice and it’s kind of a decorative feature,” Hoort said, describing how his company approaches the riverfront location.
Hoort added that river restoration work would open up the possibility of having boaters and kayakers dock right at Linear and come in for food and beverage service.
“That’d be awesome,” he said. “The river is something that Grand Rapids has lost as a focal point.”
To that end, a 2014 report by East Lansing-based Anderson Economic Group LLC, a research and consulting firm, found the Grand Rapids Whitewater initiative could leverage net new annual economic impact of $15.9 million to $19.1 million. If that estimate holds, the city and other stakeholders could realize a relatively quick return on investment for the estimated $44.6 million project.
The study’s findings showed the “tremendous” economic potential for encouraging more recreational activity, according to a statement at the time from Dr. Paul Isely, an economist and the associate dean of undergraduate programs at the Grand Valley State University Seidman College of Business.
Isely said the economic impact should grow even larger when accounting for “new riverfront real estate development, improved land use, and business and talent attraction that come when a community enhances and maintains its natural resources and quality of life.”
The economic spin-off expected as part of the whitewater initiative has stakeholders working to ensure that future development within the river and on its banks is inclusive for all members of the community.
“I think we need to have this larger vision for the entire corridor, both what’s wet and what’s dry and make sure that’s inclusive and make sure you have a really diverse group of people around the table as you look at that,” Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss told MiBiz in a recent interview.
DGRI’s Guy and Bliss said separately that ensuring equitable opportunity in riverfront development requires an intentional initial focus.
Equitable riverfront development will mean making sure that a variety of housing options are available along the banks, Guy added.
“The transformation of that river is going to create a lot of opportunities for new services, new businesses, new development,” he said. “When we think about what those services are and who’s running those businesses, I think there’s broad agreement that we want an economy and we want business ownership that’s reflective of the demographic of the community. How exactly we do that, I think that’s something a lot of people are working really hard to figure out.”
When actual work within the Grand River will begin remains to be determined. Richard Bishop, CEO of Grand Rapids Whitewater, wrote in an email that the organization hopes to submit necessary federal permits in the coming months and aims to begin working in the river sometime next year.
The work will include removing decades-old manmade infrastructure, most notably dams, and restoring the free-flowing rapids. Planners also need to come up with a method for keeping invasive species such as sea lamprey from accessing the river’s upper stretches, while also protecting a population of endangered mussels found around the dam.
Once it starts, construction is likely to last around five years, as MiBiz has previously reported.
Nonetheless, organizations like DGRI are forging ahead with public infrastructure projects like riverfront parks and trails. DGRI also hopes in the coming months to begin a redesign of Lyon Square where Lyon Street dead ends at the river near the Gillett Bridge.
As hard vertical flood walls come down as part of the river restoration process, Guy said that the design of parks and trails becomes particularly important to guard against flooding, something that’s become increasingly problematic in recent years.
Meanwhile, private sector stakeholders have yet to forge concrete plans for new investments, but many cite a general sense of “optimism” about the new opportunities presented by the river revitalization.
Sam Cummings, managing partner of Grand Rapids-based real estate firm CWD Real Estate Investment Inc., which owns and manages more than a dozen office properties around the central business district, said his firm isn’t planning any specific projects as a result of the river initiative at this time. Nonetheless, he views the plans as being a catalyst event for future real estate development.
“It’s probably a little unclear what the ramifications will be, but I think it’s overwhelmingly positive,” Cummings said. “To restore a river to its natural state is a pretty cool thing. We’re a long-term (company), bullish on West Michigan and downtown. … We look at it as another feather in the cap. Rising tides raise ships and (CWD) looks at it as another amenity to sell our great city. Are we looking to capitalize on the river restoration for one specific project? The answer to that is no. We look at things holistically, and we think it’s a great benefit to the entire city.”