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A Tale of Two Rivers

By Kendall Beck

Location: Portland


bridgeThe city of Portland has a new boardwalk that has created a second storefront for downtown businesses. Business owners literally have “turned their businesses around” by orienting part of their store or restaurant to overlook the river and the new boardwalk. They have begun to see increased activity due to the draw the riverfront redevelopment has had in the community. It also provided a solution to second story loft development. The boardwalk provided the required secondary access points for lofts.

“I love it. To me, it is by far the crowning jewel of the city of Portland,” said Michelle VanSlambrouck, owner of the Cheeky Monkeys Coffee House. “Especially on Saturdays—I meet people from all over the state who come here to visit, shop, and use the outdoor trail.” An avid runner herself, Michelle testifies to the fact that those grant dollars have been put to good use. “I’ve been out there at every time of day, and never once have I not seen people using the trail.” But people are doing more than merely visiting—many are deciding to stay awhile: “I meet people all the time who are thinking about moving to Portland, and the scenic downtown and trail system are what sells them.” The loft apartments above the riverfront businesses are especially a draw.

Tom Dempsey, Portland’s City Manager, was especially pleased with the results. “The project is having an immediate impact,” he said. “Portland is benefiting from this newly discovered treasure with new interest and development in the downtown area. This project has become the focal point of our growing and expanding community and is a tremendous addition to our vibrant and ‘Cool City.’”

Portland—City of Two Rivers
In the early 1830s, pioneers were trickling into a small Michigan village where the Looking Glass River and Grand River met. As more settlers became established, the time came to name this popular area. Since the location proved to be a great landing for all passing boats to stop, the pioneers decided that “Portland” would be a fitting moniker for their new hometown.

Today, that beloved village is the city of Portland, home to a population of about 4,000. However, by the end of the 20th century, the riverfront area that had initially attracted those early settlers was in desperate need of attention. Building facades were beginning to show their age. Trees and brush obscured the river. Portions of the downtown area were inaccessible to the riverfront. Compounding the problem was the fact that the area was very visible when driving down main thoroughfares and it, sadly, was a bit of an eyesore.

With its location halfway between Lansing and Grand Rapids, Portland had all the markings of a great locale for the weekend day-tripper. The city is a charming gathering place for residents and visitors, a place where entrepreneurs would feel inspired and where urbanites would want to live.

Creating the Vision
Enthusiasm for downtown revitalization grew and was one of the first cities to be recognized as a Michigan “Cool City” and a Michigan Main Street Community. Portland was awarded the Cool Cities Catalyst Grant of $100,000 in 2004. In addition, the city received a $625,000 MSHDA Grant for businesses to develop loft apartments above downtown buildings.

The Cool City designation gave a lift to the city and traction for further reinvestment. In the end, the city decided on a multi-phase Downtown Waterfront Development Project with an objective to encourage people to come downtown and enjoy Portland in a new way. The project would provide public access to the scenic beauty surrounding the area. But it was a tall order: The project had to be constructed in a way that was cost-effective and safe. Moreover, it had to honor the environment and history of the area.

The city worked with Fleis & VandenBrink Engineering, Inc. to bring this special project to fruition. The company provided site design concepts and grant administration for the waterfront redevelopment, which consisted of a system of paved paths, Grand River Boardwalk Riverfront façade improvements, a new pedestrian bridge, band shell, and landscape improvements. The city of Portland, the Portland Downtown Development Authority, and local business owners provided critical input and direction. Redevelopment was designed and coordinated to be compatible with the existing neighborhood. Façade replacement included eliminating potential safety hazards, correcting minor structural deficiencies, minimizing water and air infiltration, and upgrading building appearance. 

Grand River Boardwalk Riverfront Façade Improvements

portland before
portland after

Before & After Photos: The once neglected riverside façades have been completely made over. Now downtown businesses have two storefronts.

Of course, the project did not come without its challenges. No access to the work area made construction especially difficult—the river was too shallow to allow barges. A narrow alleyway south of Bridge Street solved the problem of getting construction equipment to the site. The MDEQ agreed to a cofferdam and a temporary construction road beneath the Bridge Street Bridge. There were also strict state permitting requirements, along with the issue of protecting the historic buildings and their aesthetics. F&V worked with the State Historic Preservation Office to provide a safe environment for visitors and proposed aesthetic changes that still complemented the character of the area, since downtown Portland is listed on the Historic Register. The railing system, for example, was designed to mimic the nearby unique Veterans Bridge while still meeting pedestrian railing codes. It was important to protect the scenic natural resources while constructing the Riverwalk; construction impact on the Grand River was minimized.

Despite these challenges, the improvements were dramatic and beautiful upon the project’s completion in 2007. The once-neglected riverside façades have been completely “made over,” enhancing the vitality of the city. The trail system provided a scenic way to get about the city and created more areas for various physical activities and leisure for both residents and day-trippers.

Portland’s Riverfront Development Project is a testament to the city’s commitment to the future of downtown, while simultaneously honoring its past. By guiding the public’s attention back to the city’s unique scenic beauty, this downtown revitalization project truly brought the “river” back to “The City of Two Rivers.”

Kendall Beck, P.E., is project manager for Fleis & Vandenbrink Engineering, Inc. You may reach him at 616-977-1000 or



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