GRAND RAPIDS — More than 4,700 people once lived in the neighborhood immediately surrounding Trinity Health’s Saint Mary’s Hospital campus back in the early 1900s.
Today, after more than a century of development and change, fewer than 1,000 people call the neighborhood home.
A project that Trinity Health envisions would begin to bring density back to the neighborhood by transforming a four-block area that’s currently used for parking across Jefferson Avenue from Saint Mary’s Hospital, founded in 1893 by the Sisters of Mercy.
“The concrete parking lots that surround the hospital are a far cry from the sort of image that the Sisters of Mercy had 130 years ago when they set up and established the first hospital here in what they called a park-like setting that really was designed to promote health and well being and a healing environment for those that sought out care,” Trinity Health Saint Mary’s President Matt Biersack told MiBiz. “We have a vision for transforming the campus back to what the Sisters envisioned many years ago, and I think there’s an opportunity to bring back a lot of the residential feel and neighborhood-like feel of the immediate (area surrounding the) campus in a way that benefits not only us but the community at large.”
County opts against ARPA support
Currently, the so-called Heartside Health District Revitalization mixed-use development is in the conceptual stages. Plans call for the redevelopment of space now occupied by 10 surface parking lots into retail space anchored by a grocery store, plus 200 apartments leased at market and affordable rates. Rooftop solar panels would power the nine-story structure, which would include four residential stories atop the ground-floor retail space.
The project also would have 33,650-square-feet of office space and meeting rooms with “services aimed at improving access to education, jobs placement, and so on. These spaces can include community services recommended by key community leaders and current residents,” according to Trinity Health’s proposal to Kent County seeking financial support using federal American Rescue Plan Act funding.
In addition to a grocery store “to erase the food desert problem” in the neighborhood, the proposal envisions the development also housing cafés, childcare, massage therapy, a gift shop, bakery, fitness center, bookstore, and a restaurant.
Trinity Health estimates the cost for the project at $151 million to $197 million.
“At this point, it’s really an idea. It’s really us putting something out there that’s a vision for ways in which we can not only meet our needs, but ways in which we might be able to help and invest in and revitalize the community surrounding this Grand Rapids campus,” Biersack said.
Trinity Health this past summer submitted the Heartside Health District Revitalization to Kent County for consideration to receive partial funding through ARPA money. Kent County commissioners did not include the $19 million that Trinity Health sought in a list of projects the ARPA funding will support.
Submitting the project to Kent County for funding gave Trinity Health an opportunity to start a process to check public opinion and gauge support for the concept and potentially forge partnerships that can carry the vision forward.
“We’re not interested in being a property management company. We’re interested in continuing to provide affordable, high-quality health care to the communities that we serve, but we see the opportunities surrounding the Grand Rapids campus and we see that with some investment and with some revitalization, we could really transform the community in which we serve,” Biersack said. “We hope to bring interested parties together to talk through how this might be realized in the future. The ARPA process just gave it a jumpstart in terms of putting a vision together to put on paper, but we’ve long talked about how we could continue to develop our campus, clinics and the infrastructure that we have as part of the Grand Rapids market.
“As we looked at our broader footprint, there’s certainly ideas like this that came up that we think would not only be a benefit to us as a health care system, but to the community that surrounds us.”
Revisiting prior plans
The initial concept for the project dates back to 2006, when Trinity Health Saint Mary’s “developed a facilities plan featuring additional green space, mixed-use retail, expanded residential options, and fewer surface parking lots” surrounding the hospital campus, according to a project summary submitted to Kent County.
“Due to corporate health system changes, administrative turnover, the COVID-19 pandemic, and lack of resources, this plan was never fully implemented,” according to the submission.
Trinity Health now looks to proceed as Grand Rapids faces a shortage of affordable housing.
The project has gained support from Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss. In a letter of support submitted with the proposal to Kent County, Mayor Bliss wrote that the Heartside Health District Revitalization “could fundamentally have desirable economic, environmental and social outcomes in our city.”
“I believe it will help address our housing crisis, enhance greenspaces, and improve public safety with a more walkable and vibrant design for the area,” Bliss wrote.
Trinity Health’s submission as well included letters of support from the nearby Custer Inc. and the Grand Rapids African American Health Institute.
Vanessa Green, CEO of the Grand Rapids African American Health Institute, wrote that the project “excites me because it can dramatically transform a neighborhood with affordable housing, access to healthy food, space for small businesses and community organizations, and more attractive green spaces. All of that contributes to the overall health of our community.”
Todd Custer, president and CEO of Custer Inc., wrote that he believes the development “can be the catalyst for future development that could revitalize a neighborhood filled with housing, retail, communal spaces, park-like areas that could make a positive impact on the health of our overall community.”
Taking the temperature
Trinity Health’s vision for the Heartside Health District Revitalization project is rooted in addressing issues that can affect a person’s health. Improving access to fresh foods and affordable housing are key elements driving the development.
The development reflects how health systems over the years have expanded their mission as providers of medical care.
“Health is far more than just access to acute-care services,” Biersack said. “We know that social determinants of health — like healthy behaviors, like access to transportation, housing — play a huge role in determining life expectancy and quality of life. When we think about our mission ‘to be a transformative and healing presence within our community,’ to me, a project like this to address some of those social determinants and meet our own campus needs is a win-win situation.”
Trinity Health presently has no timetable for proceeding with the development and first wants to engage more with neighbors, community leaders, public officials and potential partners, as well as philanthropy and other sources of financial support.
Biersack views the coming dialogue as figuring out how to proceed with the development. He expects the conceptual plan will change as Trinity Health engages interested parties, including developers, who can help to hone the vision.
“I see there being a lot of appetite very broadly for making a project like this possible,” he said. “Whether it looks like this in the end, I don’t know. But that was part of the reason for us putting it out there: to spark conversation and hope that we can really take the temperature of how willing partners may be to come together to make something like this possible.”