Grand Rapids Isn’t Portand

It’s increasingly obvious that the George Heartwell regime has embraced the New Urbanism and has slowly but surely set into motion a secret, grand plot to turn Grand Rapids into the Portland, Ore., of the Midwest.

OK, so maybe I exaggerate. But recent trends in my fair city do offer grounds for concern. Consider:

  1. Revision Division. One of the most singularly idiotic changes I’ve witnessed downtown is the “Revision Division” project. Picture it: Division Avenue — the primary north/south surface-street corridor on the east side of the river, and the only one that extends uninterrupted from the southern to the northern suburbs — has been a four- or five-lane road for many years. Much of the street runs parallel to US-131 (in fact, Division is the 131 business loop). Over the last two years, Division has been consolidated from two lanes in each direction, to one lane in each direction, between Wealthy Street and Oakes Street. In other words, the major north-south surface artery is reduced to one lane precisely in the downtown area where two lanes prove most useful. The rationale for this change? To add bike lanes. You know how many cyclists I see on Division? For locals, the question answers itself — in that stretch of road, you’re more likely to see homeless panhandlers than cyclists —  but unasked is this: Why, if dedicated bike lanes are so damned important, didn’t the city redevelop less-trafficked nearby streets, thus decreasing the relative risk to cyclists while minimizing the effect on drivers? The first time US-131 completely shuts down at the S-curve because of a major accident, I think we’ll see just how short-sighted it is to give the only realistic alternate route a “road diet.” But hey, bikes y’all.
  2. Roundabouts. I live downtown, just south of Wealthy Street. To get to my home from Division Avenue, you cross through two roundabouts. The first one, at Jefferson, consolidates two eastbound lanes into one, on the mistaken assumption that drivers on the inside lane intend to head north on Jefferson. Instead, the eighth-mile stretch between Division and Jefferson becomes a game of speed-up-and-cut-off between vehicles on the two eastbound lanes. Inasmuch as the traffic professionals profess that roundabouts make roads safer, the truth for this particular roundabout is that you see riskier driving from people who want to leapfrog slower-moving traffic in the outside lane. I’ve seen more near-collisions at the Wealthy/Jefferson roundabout than any other intersection in Grand Rapids, and last summer I personally forced one aggressive driver into the flower-covered “median” because I refused to let him cut me off. Just yesterday, in fact, I had to wave through a driver who stopped in the roundabout to yield because she didn’t realize that a traffic circle isn’t an intersection. On the bright side, though … the city’s adding even more roundabouts on our downtown thoroughfares, on the apparent theory that if you put in enough of them, drivers will eventually learn how to use them.
  3. The Silver Line. I’m happy to admit that over the years I’ve made heavy use of The Rapid. Personally, I like the local bus system — it’s clean and reasonably efficient and cost-effective on a per-rider level. That said, I am utterly perplexed as to the value proposition of the Silver Line. This “bus rapid transit” system starts in Wyoming, runs along Division Avenue toward downtown, then meanders to the Michigan Street medical mile. Proponents argue that it’ll cut bus commute times — you buy fares at the stop instead of on the bus, and the buses will have signal preference at traffic lights — and that’s cool. But there are two problems with this scenario: First, there’s no obvious benefit to overlapping the Silver Line with Route 1, at least south of Wealthy. Second, the real problem with the buses downtown is that The Rapid has doubled down on a hub-and-spoke model (instead of a grid system) so pretty much everything has to connect through Central Station. Yes, the Silver Line will make it faster for people who live along Division Avenue to get to Michigan Street. But it’d have been much less expensive to simply expand and reroute the DASH bus system downtown.  For that matter, you’d think The Rapid would first plug the holes in its current route map before moving to BRT (can you say, “why the hell isn’t there at least a connector shuttle along Wilson Avenue between Standale Meijer and the Grandville library, so Walker residents and GVSU students don’t have to spend two hours connecting through downtown just to go three miles to the south?”). I suspect a not-insubstantial part of the reason we have the Silver Line — despite having been defeated at the ballot box on its first go-around — is for regional or national cachet. It’s a “look at how sophisticated G.R. is — we’ve got a BRT system!” shtick for city leaders to crow about at national conferences.
  4. Parking as a Weapon.  Rates are going up. Spots are going away, being converted to bike racks that almost never get used. The city and the 61st District Court are doing a shakedown this summer; I recently was notified, for the first time ever, that I have a ticket from 2007 and the city wants its cash, but if I pay now and don’t contest the ticket the city/court will waive late fees. Convenient, that. Moral of the story: The city doesn’t want you to drive downtown. If you do drive downtown, be prepared to pay through the nose to fund the conversion of parking spaces into empty bike racks. [Side note: I’m not being sarcastic about empty bike racks. Bike racks are like bike helmets: A great idea in principle, but rarely used in practice. I frequent a coffee shop that has a generous bike rack just two storefronts down. Patrons elect, instead, to chain their bikes to the tree in front of the coffee shop. So the tree usually has at least one bike chained to it while the rack typically sits empty. Rinse and repeat across the city.]
  5. Hipster Developments. An interesting byproduct of living in the downtown area is a more intimate familiarity with local businesses. Two years ago, there was some minor scandal as local “anarchists” — presumably, bored teenagers with delusions of grandeur — damaged businesses along the Wealthy Street corridor and decried the gentrification of the inner city. To be sure, I appreciate the many different options at my disposal for locally roasted coffee, tasty microbrews, local-sourced vegan dining and such. It’s interesting, too, to see a giant veggie market sprout up amidst the warehouses and homeless shelters near the river. But you know what I don’t see? Supermarkets that don’t require bars on the windows. Even the downtown housing market is off-balance. Lots of buildings are getting rehabbed into varying kinds of residential properties. Some subsidized, others at market. The theme is “early 20s creative professional with a bankroll” mixed with “people with Section 8 benefits.” Allegedly this blend will create a harmonious, diverse community — a veritable United Colors of Benetton. Yet for all the development that’s already taken place, and for all the time I spend downtown, I see no evidence of this hoped-for explosion of multi-culti happiness outside of the places (like Rosa Parks Circle or The BOB) you’d expect to see it. Whether I sit in the window seat at a coffee shop along West Fulton or the front table at the cigar lounge in the Heartside neighborhood or take a walk along Wealthy Street, I see typical urbanism: Pockets of gentrification amidst a sea of neighborhoods that white people avoid after sundown. I also see lots of homeless people and increasingly aggressive panhandlers, with no apparent intervention by city officials to address this very real barrier to inner-city revitalization.
  6. Bridge Shutdowns. Although I live on the southern periphery of downtown, I grew up on the Upper West Side. I frequently return there for shopping, family visits and related errands. Such a journey requires crossing the Grand River. The local crossings are, from south to north: Wilson Avenue (Grandville), Wealthy Street, Fulton Street, Pearl Street, Bridge Street, Sixth Street, Leonard Street, Ann Street and North Park Street. To get to the Upper West Side from the central city, Ann and North Park won’t work; they take you too far northeast. Wilson is the long-way-around; you’d have to take Market Avenue to Indian Mound Drive and go roughly six miles SW to get to the bridge. Realistically, Wealthy/Fulton/Pearl are the best bets, with Bridge/Sixth/Leonard workable but taking you a few miles north. Imagine my dismay, then, when every couple of months we have unexpected, unannounced and un-signed shut-downs of the Wealthy/Fulton/Pearl bridges because of … wait for it … bike rides and marathons. And, of course, downtown is rerouted for the events, too, so good luck making it to Bridge or Leonard without swinging way east to thwart the hordes. Look, I’m as much a fan of bike rides, marathons and whatnot as the next fellow — but the city shouldn’t cut off access to the West Side from downtown without leaving some reasonably accessible means of crossing the river. At the least, every bridge crossing that’s shut down should be accompanied by a sign announcing the first open bridge to the north and to the south, so drivers don’t have to snake through closed streets, gaggles of spectator and other distractions just to make it to the other side of town. And some advance warning would be nice.
  7. Development Meetings. Should anyone have concerns about the city’s new direction, feel free to attend meetings. The last meeting notice I saw was for 2 p.m. on a Thursday. Which means that people who work the day shift, or people with school-aged children, are effectively excluded from participation. You know who’s not excluded by this schedule? Hipsters and community organizers. The mind boggles.

So. Seven gripes. My chief take-away is that after years of fairly conservative leadership under Mayor John Logie and former city manager Kurt Kimball, Grand Rapids is changing. Drip by drip, increasingly progressive policies, subsumed under the New Urbanism and transit-oriented development banners in spirit if not in name, begin to take hold under the leadership of Mayor George Heartwell and city manager Greg Sundstrom. We see drivers getting the shaft with increasing frequency. We see more emphasis on mass-transit infrastructure and alternative energy. We see a relaxation of marijuana laws and a surge in gentrification. We see a county land bank deciding who wins and who loses.

More than anything, we see the real-world effects of municipal leaders using Richard Thaler’s nudge theory to quietly narrow the scope of options available to ordinary people, to encourage an “approved” choice. Bit by bit, project by project, we’re being nudged into living less like Grand Rapidians and more like Portlanders.

But here’s the kicker: Grand Rapids isn’t Portland or Boston or Ann Arbor or any other city on the map. It’s Grand Rapids. It’s a great town, filled with great people. We have our own culture and traditions. What a shame that instead of embracing our history and our culture, we’re left with leaders who’d prefer to transform us to something that we’re not, to slowly penalize free-market choice and automobile traffic while promoting the latest community-development fads.

The real problem with New Urbanist thinking is that by trying to nudge the market through regulatory and infrastructure tweaks, we’re left with a generic cosmopolitanism that might be attractive in the abstract but proves utterly unworkable in the real world. Just look at the current Heartside neighborhood: Yea verily, we’ve rehabbed many buildings and added a mix of commercial properties and loft-style housing. We don’t have reputable supermarkets, though, which is a huge problem. And who wants to walk in Heartside when every 10 feet, you’re accosted by a panhandler? I’m down there often enough to see what life’s like on those streets. It’s not the great deal it’s cracked up to be, propaganda from the DDA notwithstanding. They can build a New Urbanist utopia, but I’m skeptical a critical mass will embrace it strongly enough to make it sustainable over the long haul. Hell, just look what M6 did to Kentwood and Wyoming: Their southern tiers decamped to Gaines Township and Caledonia, leaving economic devastation and cultural impoverishment between 36th and 52nd streets. As soon as The Next Hip Thing arrives, the young creatives so desperately courted for downtown living will flee, and the cycle of urban decay will begin anew.

The cultural norms that made Grand Rapids great are being sidelined in service to a faux-cosmopolitan ideology prevalent among our current batch of technocrats at City Hall. What a shame. I’d go for a drive to clear my thoughts, but who knows if I’ll find an open bridge — assuming I make it through the roundabouts.

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