Sunday, September 20th, 2009

Other Michigan Cities

Detroit gets almost all the national press in Michigan. While Detroit certainly deserves coverage, sometimes one can get the impression that Michigan = Detroit when in fact there is much more to the state.

I got to check one other city out last week when I spent two days in Grand Rapids as part of the CEO’s for Cities Velocity program. I referenced this before when linking to Carol Coletta’s op-ed about creating a new narrative of an American Dream, one rooted in an urban, not suburban setting. As with most good discussions, I learned a lot, but also came away with a whole new set of questions and things to ponder along with the progress made. Much more to say on this upcoming.

But I wanted to highlight a couple of Michigan related items today. First, you may recall the name Dayne Walling from a Slate article I linked to before about the race for mayor of Flint, MI. Well, Walling ended up winning the election and attended this event as well. He was kind enough to record a short statement talking about the readiness for change in Flint, its challenges, and his plans for the city. (If the video doesn’t show up, click here).

As he says in the video, Mayor Walling is very open to ideas, so be sure to send them his way.

As for Grand Rapids itself, any resident of a small Midwestern city is likely to know the meta-story. Namely, it’s a much more interesting place than its reputation would suggest. Grand Rapids is the largest city in Western Michigan. It was originally settled by the Dutch, who logged trees and grew produce to ship across Lake Michigan to Chicago, though it also grew to have industry, especially furniture manufacturing, along with some automotive and other things.

The industry is mostly gone, and Grand Rapids has suffered for it like most Midwestern cities. But there’s a lot more to the story here. The region maintained a lot of its Dutch roots and character. There are still plenty of Dutch names around, extended families are still important – many of them can apparently trace their lineage back quite some time back to the Old World, there’s a certain thrifty state of mind, and enormous charitable giving and volunteer spirit. The city is still more oriented to Chicago than Detroit.

One thing you immediately notice about Grand Rapids is that it preserved a large chunk of its building stock. This is true even outside downtown. Many old factories and warehouses have been restored and repurposed. I visited no fewer than three of them. Here’s one such, though it doesn’t look like it. It’s the headquarters of the local Catholic diocese.

Grand Rapids is home to a culinary school, which perhaps has a bearing, but there appear to be an abundance of quality restaurants there. I know the food I ate was excellent. Grand Rapids also seems to punch above its weight in green building as well. There are 44 LEED certified buildings in Grand Rapids, giving it the 8th most such buildings of any city in the country. It’s the only city in the top ten that isn’t a blue chip brand you’d expect.

Here’s one of them, the Grand Rapids Art Museum. It’s the only LEED Gold certified museum in the world.

Grand Rapids also has a sleek new JW Marriott hotel I was fortunate enough to stay at. I think you are getting the picture. This is a bigger and more sophisticated place than you might credit.

Here’s a peek at the skyline from the interior of the art museum:

People relaxing in a public plaza. You can also see some of that preserved building stock here.

There are definitely a lot of interesting things happening in Grand Rapids. Two of the big local companies are Amway and Meijer. The families behind those businesses, as well as other local philanthropists, have put tons of private money behind revitalizing Grand Rapids.

One of the current projects that has come out of this is the Art Prize. This is pretty big news so you may have heard of this one before. It’s an open art competition that anyone can enter with a first prize of $250,000 cash, making it the biggest art prize in the world. The only real requirement is that you find a local venue in Grand Rapids to partner with to show the art. This attracted a large number of artists as you can imagine. It all goes on display Sept. 23 to Oct. 10th, so if you were ever thinking of visiting Grand Rapids, that would be a good time to do it.

The name “Grand Rapids” might conjure up some majestic images of nature. Alas, the reality is much more tame, but there is a small river running through town. Here’s a shot of it with some art and an outdoor cafe along it. I’m told there’s good fishing in this river too.

Grand Rapids looks to be the emerging hub of Western Michigan. As I see it, the city will have to overcome a couple of structural challenges to really take off. One is that it is just a bit too small. While there is a goodly population in the extended region, the core of Grand Rapids and its MSA is a bit smallish at only 776,000 people. Ideally it would be more like 1.2 million to have minimum scale. You see the challenges in the small number of local flights and such. Also, Grand Rapids is off the beaten path. With Lake Michigan creating such a huge barrier, Grand Rapids is a detour from almost anywhere. It’s not on the trade routes.

I barely got to scratch the surface of Grand Rapids. It was my first trip, but I hope not my last.

Topics: Architecture and Design
Cities: Grand Rapids

15 Responses to “Other Michigan Cities”

  1. Alon Levy says:

    The Grand Rapids museum photo brings back a lot of unpleasant memories of Tel Aviv and its brutalist architecture.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Might be worth a visit.

  3. Anonymous says:

    A close friend of mine is from GR. I've stayed there twice and was able to get both the grand tour, as well as a feel for both a night on the town and a few lazy summer afternoons. As mentioned, it definitely faces all the same challenges of it's peer cities, but I do think it has quite a bit going for it. Aquinas College (a low-key Calvinist school, I understand) has a beautiful wooded campus in a pleasant east side neighborhood. The city struck me as being fairly progressive, especially given the ultra-conservative reputation of the suburbs and rural Western Michigan.

  4. matthew says:

    Wow, I was just visited GRAM a week ago. The building and the plaza are really nice, but their collection needs to expand now to fill up the building.

  5. Carl says:

    I've visited Grand Rapids for the first time recently. I also think it's a place that has a lot things going for it.

    However, I also heard there is some hostility between plan commissions and local business interests that suggest the commissioners have not done their homework on benchmarks and best practices. The fact that they have not been able to exploit the marketplace benefits of their "green" assets makes me think there is void that should be addressed asap.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Grand Rapids is a perennial discussion topic at Urban Ohio due to the reputation as a sucessfull smaller city in the Dayton/Akron/Toledo league. Probably directly comparable to Dayton.

    The question comes up as to why GR is as intact as is, dodging the bullet of urban abandonment and demolition. The fundamentals for GR don't seem promising, yet the place looks good from the pix I've seen at Urban Ohio and here.

  7. Anonymous says:

    In addition to preserving and retrofitting it's older buildings, Grand Rapids has made use of 4" to 6" concrete "overlays" to restore and refurbish their artierials, intersections, neighborhood streets, and even interstates as a way to reduce the cost of maintaining their network of older streets and roads (better cost/benefit due to life cycle). They mill out the deformed asphalt surface and replace it with concrete which is cut into appropriatly sized "panels". Detroit and other Michigan cities also use this approach. Gratiot Ave. in Detroit is a good example of a major urban arterial with a thinner concrete overlay. St. Joseph County, IN placed one of these after visiting Grand Rapids and learning more about the process. It is on Bremen Highway, old SR 331 entering Mishawaka.

  8. Anonymous says:

    If Grand Rapids had 50% more population it would be better off, and the only reason is more daily flights?

    I do wonder Aaron.

  9. pete-rock says:

    I've visited Grand Rapids maybe twice, and the last time was nearly 10 years ago. So I can't speak to what's going on there now. However, I'm familiar with Michigan cities, and GR has for years been the unofficial "capital" of western Michigan (or at least shared that title with Kalamazoo).

    IMO GR hasn't been able to broker its position into growing any influence because of what you pointed out — it's off the beaten path. This may be totally subjective, but I've always felt Grand Rapids was able to rule its roost, but was really not as connected as it could be with Michigan's other power brokers in SE MI or in Lansing.

    BTW, I think the city that is Grand Rapids today should have been located where Benton Harbor/St. Joseph is right now. Unfortunately you can't change history.

  10. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    anon 11:47, all sorts of civic amenities appear to be roughly proportional to population. It's not just flights. More people is what enables you to have a major zoo, symphony, museum, shopping, pro sports, etc.

    anon 4:39, one difference for GR would appear to be the very wealthy families who are passionately committed to the area and are willing to pump huge amounts of money into private investment there. Has that happened in Ohio outside of the 3C's?

  11. Anonymous says:

    Wow, it's very interesting to read the comments about GR from folks who have visited. I'm a transplant living here, originally from the Youngstown, OH area. My wife and I came to GR after having lived in Atlanta, GA, for eight years and found that we hadn't really drifted very far from our midwestern roots. At the time (in the booming '90's) there were jobs everywhere, and the cost of living was (surprisingly) much lower than Atlanta, even with the differential in cost of living. Unfortunately, we have succumbed to the same malaise the rest of the midwest and now the country has gotten, and we're the poorer for it. Like many things in Michigan, we're more tied to the automotive industry than we'd like to admit, and when the auto industry has a cold, we have pneumonia here.

    The real secret to GR and it's wonderful downtown is heavy investment by the local business and industry leaders. GR is the home base for Amway (with all of it's baggage) and the two controlling families (the DeVos and Van Andel families) have had no problems getting local governments to go along with their plans to improve the ares. Additionally, this area is home base to Meijer, an erstwhile Wal-Mart competitor, who again, has had very little resistance with their projects. I personally don't believe that these folks are in a competition to slather their names across the landscape as some locals might suggest, but I really think it is an expression of local pride and a real desire to do good, i.e. the responsibility that comes with great rewards.

    Additionally, this attitude encourages other companies and individuals to do the same. Unfortunately, for my own hometown, this is exactly what is lacking, and why I mourn for it.

    While I have never spent enough time in Detroit or Chicago to get a good feel for this, I don't really think that philosophically GR has the same mindset as Chicago. It may be just a common mindset at this latitude. I think that philosophically, GR is much more tied to Detroit, as many of the people I seem to run into either are from or have ties to Motown.

    Additionally, if there weren't Grand Rapids, quite frankly there could be nothing here. The phenomenom that is GR just as easily could have been Benton Harbor, Kalamazoo, Battle Creek or Muskegon, all of which have their definite attractions and advantages.

    After ten years of living here, I have never regretted moving to GR. It has been a great place to raise kids, the cost of living is reasonable, the area is big enough to attract all kinds of entertainment (without being too close to a big city venue). But if you were so inclined, you can be in Chicago in three hours on Amtrak's Pere Marquette rail line, or an easy drive down I-96 to downtown Detroit for the annual International Auto Show.

    There is a large amount of investment in medical research started in part by the Van Andel family with the establishment of the Van Andel Research Institute (for Cancer) in the early part of this decade, which has spurred other medical institutions, (i.e. universities and hospitals) to put huge buildings in a part of town called the Medical Mile (or Pill Hill, as it is situated on a hill).

    There are some problems, no doubt, but no place is perfect. One thing I can say about this area, people are trying very hard to improve it, which is way more than I can say about other places I lived. Every so often I read or hear about how bad the downtown area was back in 1980's and I can see how far the area has grown in my time here. Granted, it's nowhere as spectacular as Atlanta or Houston or Seattle, but there is a sense that things ARE progressing.


  12. Alon Levy says:

    I just checked the BEA statistics. As of 2007, Grand Rapids' MSA had a lower per capita income than Detroit's, 86% of the national average versus 101%, and the same rate of growth, 3.3% versus 3.2%. For the CSA, which in Detroit's case includes Flint, the figures are 84% versus 99% per capita income.

  13. Lynn Stevens says:

    I've visited GR a couple of times recently as a friend moved there from Chicago. I happened to be there in April, during Chalk Flood ( ), organized by a seemingly bright young mind ( ).

    To anon 5:33's point, my friend still finds it quite conservative, religious and kids-raising centered. Great if you fit that mold, but challenging if you don't.

  14. Paul says:

    Anon, 5:33 – Actually, Aquinas is a Catholic college. Calvin College, on the eastern edge of GR, is the Calvinst school.

    Along with GR's 44 LEED buildings, both Aquinas and Calvin are are the forefront of green buildings for college campuses.

    Thanks for posting on GR Aaron – West Michigan has much going for it (not just GR). And, for reference, I was born and raised in Holland and did my undergrad at Calvin before going to U of M for grad school.

  15. Anonymous says:

    You might want to make that second visit. Some the the amenities you commented were missing are already in Grand Rapids. The symphony has a wonderful venue in DeVos Hall and is very well respected around the country. Frederick Meijer Gardens on the city's east side has an incredible world-class collection of sculpture exhibited outdoors (including a one of a kind Da Vinci design) as well as an indoor botanic gardens. The Grand Rapids Zoo, while small has a unique location on a hillside near downtown and several excellent exhibits. It is in an expansion mode with an agressive far-sighted director. Professional sports include a highly successful Midwest League baseball team with Detroit Tiger affiliation, a Detroit Red Wing minor league hockey franchise, and an indoor football league team that won the championship in 2000. And, in addition to the "green" Grand Rapids Museum of Art within walking distance are the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum and the Grand Rapids Public Museum both built on the Grand River. Scratch the surface a bit more, GR really has a lot to offer.

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