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East Grand Rapids has a Successful Suburban Downtown
By Steven J. Van Steenhuyse
SUCCESSFUL SUBURBAN DOWNTOWNS FLOURISH when they provide an alternative to typical suburban commercial areas. Downtowns that cater to entertainment, dining, and services in a vibrant, mixed-use environment attract not just the young creative class, but also families and older citizens who enjoy walking, dining, and shopping in an active downtown center. The city of East Grand Rapids, about four miles east of downtown Grand Rapids in Kent County, is a prime example of how small business districts can be “re-ignited” with a vision for a more vibrant downtown, and a partnership with private developers who share that vision.
EARLY 20TH CENTURY PLACEMAKING
East Grand Rapids is the perfect example of the streetcar suburb—it was the Grand Rapids Street Railway Company, in 1897, that built the Ramona Park amusement park on the shores of Reeds Lake, bringing people from nearby Grand Rapids to enjoy the park and lakefront. The streetcars first brought people to play, then later to live. The village (later city) of East Grand Rapids grew around Reeds Lake and Ramona Park to become an affluent and desirable location as the Grand Rapids area grew and prospered in the 20th century.
Although Ramona Park was demolished in 1949, the small business district across from the park had established itself as the downtown area for East Grand Rapids. This small center, known locally as Gaslight Village because of its gas fueled street lights, contained several small stores and businesses serving the growing nearby neighborhoods and visitors to the parks and beaches at the Reeds Lake shore. In the 1960s, East Grand Rapids High School and the city hall/community center and library were built near Gaslight Village, further cementing the district’s status as the central focus area of the city. In 1966, the Jacobson’s Department Store chain built an upscale store that anchored the district and brought shoppers from a wide area.
A DEVASTATING LOSS
Like many small downtowns, however, Gaslight Village declined in the 1970s and ‘80s as shoppers began choosing malls and “big box” retailers. Vacancies were common and the business mix failed to bring shoppers to stores other than Jacobson’s. The city adopted a master plan in 1999 that recognized the decline of downtown and suggested ways to encourage new retail and services, provide convenient parking, and encourage pedestrian interconnection with neighborhoods and the Reeds Lake parks. In 2002, however, the Jacobson’s chain declared bankruptcy and the store was closed. With a large, vacant shell dominating the streetscape, many wondered if this devastating loss would lead to further decline in Gaslight Village.
“Reeds Lake had always been an economic engine for East Grand Rapids,” said Brian Donovan, city manager since 1993. “All of the planning was done with the idea of connecting the lake, parks, and business district into one walkable area, just like in the Ramona Park era. All that was needed was a developer to see the vision and turn it into reality.”
JADE PIG COMES IN WITH A VISION
However, a local developer saw the potential in Gaslight Village. Jade Pig Ventures, a Grand Rapids firm that had developed several commercial centers in the Grand Rapids area, had a vision for a revitalized Gaslight Village. In 2004, Jade Pig submitted a Planned Unit Development (PUD) rezoning request to demolish the vacant department store and a nearby medical office and construct new, pedestrian-oriented shops and offices. These businesses would be bolstered by the construction of four new condominium buildings, ranging from five to twelve stories high. Jade Pig hoped that bringing new residents to Gaslight Village would provide a larger core market for the planned new stores and restaurants and bring vitality and safety to the area. This strategy had been successful in suburban downtowns elsewhere in Michigan, such as in Royal Oak and Birmingham.
“This is perhaps a classic example of a private/public partnership,” said Scott Wierda of Jade Pig Ventures. “The city manager, city staff, mayor, planning commission, and elected city commissioners understood the importance of working together with the private investment community to bring about reinvestment and change. Without their willingness to be open to fresh ideas and engage in conversation about the importance of Gaslight Village to the city, the level of reinvestment likely would not have happened.”
CITIZENS WEIGH IN
The East Grand Rapids city charter allows citizens to circulate a petition to force a zoning decision to go before the voters in a referendum. The SaveEastGR coalition gathered the requisite number of signatures, and the approval of the Jade Pig Redevelopment was placed on a referendum for the next election. The next several months saw a spirited campaign between the SaveEastGR coalition and the Re-Ignite Gaslight group that had formed to support the project. On February 22, 2005, 58 percent of the eligible voters came to the polls (for an election at which there were no statewide or nationwide races). The project prevailed, with 56 percent of the vote favoring construction of the approved project.
GASLIGHT VILLAGE IS RE-IGNITED
The retail/office phase of the project was completed in 2007. Several new two-story retail buildings evoke the character of a small, village downtown. The façade of one of the new buildings was salvaged from an old bank building that had been demolished in downtown Grand Rapids. The result is a pleasing mix of old and new, that encourages strolling and window shopping.
The development includes reuse of the old two-level Jacobson’s parking structure, now set off by a striking sculpture. Public art and sculptures adorn the streets. With its fountain, the plaza on Bagley Street provides a focal point as well as an attractive area to sit or stroll. Today, the revitalized Gaslight Village (complete with new gas-fueled lamps) has several new restaurants, upscale shops, and offices. Existing businesses on the south side of Wealthy Street have rehabilitated their buildings and existing businesses have expanded, leading to a vibrant, charming downtown.
This redevelopment has leveraged other improvements as well. Working with Jade Pig and other Gaslight Village property owners, the city completed a $2,500,000 streetscape plan on Wealthy Street in 2006. This project included a snowmelt system, intersection improvements, new sidewalks, street furniture, street trees, and landscaping. New gaslight street lamps add to the ambiance. In 2006, the community center/library was replaced with a new LEED-certified building, with a green roof, solar energy system, and water-conserving plumbing. A dramatic deck overlooking Reeds Lake behind the new community center is completely pervious, preventing runoff that affects the lake’s water quality.
REDEVELOPMENT ENCOURAGES NEW DEVELOPMENT
In 2006, the city revised its master plan for Gaslight Village, to recognize the redeveloped downtown and to encourage further development. This plan encourages more residential development near Gaslight Village and recommends allowing a mix of densities in the nearby neighborhoods, and also allowing a mix of small scale businesses and dwelling units adjacent to the business district. The plan further encourages pedestrian access and interconnectivity with Reeds Lake and area trails.
Although the downturn in the housing market has stalled development of the condominium buildings, the Gaslight Village redevelopment has thus far been a success. Public festivals, such as the East Grand Rapids Clothesline Art Fair and the Reeds Lake Run, bring thousands of visitors to Gaslight Village. Football at East Grand Rapids High brings out legions of fans who pack the restaurants and shops before and after games. Outdoor concerts are held on the Reeds Lake deck, and the library/community center hosts numerous public events.
With the ultimate addition of new housing to the area, Gaslight Village and East Grand Rapids have positioned themselves for a strong future. As such, Gaslight Village can serve as an example for how other communities can work with the private sector to “re-ignite” their downtowns.
LSL PLANNING, INC.
LSL Planning offers a complete range of community planning services including master planning, zoning, downtown and waterfront planning, training seminars, parks and recreation, community visioning, development reviews, corridor studies, traffic calming, and transportation study. www.lslplanning.com
Steven J. Van Steenhuyse, AICP, is a senior planner at LSL Planning, Inc. in Grand Rapids. You may reach him at 616-336-7750 or firstname.lastname@example.org.