The elevated strip of U.S. 131 and its signature S-Curve could disappear from the downtown Grand Rapids map.
That’s the vision of a loose-knit coalition of local professionals, whose members believe the elevated highway stands in the way of future growth in the city’s urban core.
Supporters of removing the S-Curve — a group that includes urban planners, designers, construction executives and real estate professionals — say the roadway in its current form poses significant challenges to accessibility, safety and sustainability in the city.
They say removing several lanes of high-speed traffic frees more land for development, spreads out traffic and opens up more pedestrian-friendly areas, including on the city’s riverfront.
“It’s a hostile piece of infrastructure,” said Andy Guy, city of Grand Rapids parking commissioner and board president for Friends of Grand Rapids Parks. “It doesn’t make you feel safe. It’s doesn’t give you anything to look at. It doesn’t make you want to be there. It’s in our best interest to study all options.”
To be clear, Guy and other proponents for removing the elevated portion of U.S. 131 that cuts through the city are not suggesting any one particular design to replace it — at least not yet. Instead, the city and others want to see the Michigan Department of Transportation explore alternatives to the elevated highway in any future planning process. But they realize those alternatives may not materialize for a decade or more.
“We can rebuild what’s there, which is a massive elevated bunch of concrete, and on the other end of the spectrum, we could bury it, which is probably really expensive,” Guy said. “Somewhere in the middle of that — and what the (Grand Rapids) Master Plan calls for — is dropping it down to an at-grade-level boulevard.”
Think more along the lines of Lake Shore Drive in Chicago versus the hulking concrete mass that’s there today, sources said.
Importantly, Guy said that as MDOT later this year begins the long-term planning process for the U.S. 131 corridor, it’s important for Grand Rapids to know it doesn’t have just one option.
“Let’s fully explore all of those options, all their costs and all of their benefits,” Guy said. “I think it’s a bit of a leap to suggest that tearing down the highway and building it at-grade would be more expensive than it would be to maintain that thing for the next 40 years.”
But MDOT says not so fast: The tally to reconstruct the highway in 2000 was $145 million. It would cost a far greater amount to remove the S-Curve and take the highway down to grade, not to mention the department is already starved for cash.
“From our perspective, our current funding makes (it) virtually impossible,” said John Richard, spokesman for MDOT in Grand Rapids. “Unless the whole revenue system is changed, there isn’t enough money to do (that).”
Gov. Rick Snyder proposed raising the gas tax to generate $2 billion just to maintain the infrastructure the state already has, Richard said. That doesn’t include any new projects.
Given the dire situation of Michigan’s infrastructure funding, the grassroots effort in Grand Rapids is literally trying to get ahead of the curve.
Razing the elevated highway fits with city planning best practices cited by national urban planning and placemaking think tanks, including Projects for Public Spaces (PPS), The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) and others.
Nationally, elevated highways were removed in Boston, San Francisco and New York City, and even as nearby as Milwaukee, where McKinley Boulevard replaced the Park East Freeway in 2002. Currently, St. Louis is considering the removal of an elevated section of I-70 that cuts off its downtown district from the Mississippi River and the city’s iconic Gateway Arch.
Those national projects led some local advocates to consider ways to enhance Grand Rapids’ urban vitality.
Traditionally, Grand Rapids has not been “on the forefront of that kind of thinking — we sort of follow,” said Mark Miller, an architect with engineering and planning firm Nederveld Inc.
Ultimately, the goal is to incentivize multimodal transportation, rightsize urban streets and make the city fundamentally more accessible for citizens, according to the local advocates.
“There is all kinds of stuff going on nationally with cities that are removing or re-visioning their highways,” Miller said. “You think: We could do that here. If you read about what these other cities are doing, they’re grappling with the same issues. We have to make this effort less about the car and more about people.”
The challenges posed by the elevated highway also came up in public hearings for the Downtown Market project when people voiced concern about pedestrian accessibility from the city’s west side.
Removing U.S. 131 and the S-Curve also fits with the balanced transportation section of the Grand Rapids Master Plan, which prioritizes reducing automobile dependency, Guy said. The plan also encourages MDOT to determine the feasibility of bringing the highway down to grade from Ann Street to I-196 and turn it into an urban parkway.
That’s a policy many urbanists say would serve as a catalyst for urban redevelopment. Advocates estimate that removing the S-Curve and the elevated roadway could add roughly 2 million square feet of usable space to the city, depending on the scope of such removal plans, including a swath of highly sought-after downtown riverfront property. The removal project could free up land for redevelopment that has the potential to nearly double the size of the city’s central business district, according to some estimates.
“It makes total sense to me,” Mike VanGessel, chairman and CEO of Rockford Construction Co., said of removing the elevated highway at a recent panel discussion sponsored by The Salon Grand Rapids. The group hosts gatherings of local urbanists and city neighborhood proponents.
Since any future redevelopment of U.S. 131 is sure to impact Rockford’s west side “Gateway Project” and new headquarters, Van Gessel said he was all for coming up with a solution to bring the highway down to grade level and pledged to do what he could to “get rid of that stupid thing.”
“It’ll make my view a lot better,” he said. “131 is an eyesore when you get 20 feet above the skyline. It is really a problem, so we’ve got to get rid of it.”
But MDOT’s Richard said the department’s primary concern is not viewshed, but rather getting people, goods and services from their point of origin to their destinations as fast as possible. With all the barriers to the project, any future plans to redevelop the S-Curve are a long way down the pipeline, he added.
Nevertheless, this spring and summer, MDOT expects to kick off a long-term planning session on how to address future roadway activity along the corridor, he said.
Rather than maintaining the status quo of rebuilding U.S. 131 and the S-Curve in perpetuity, advocates including Guy say MDOT needs to look at this piece of infrastructure through an urban lens.
“Rethinking 131 provides a tremendous opportunity to draw new people, investment and energy into the central city,” Guy said. “We have the potential to reposition a remarkable amount of land for redevelopment that better supports vital urban neighborhoods and business districts. We could improve property values and tax revenues. We could further maximize the coming investment in the Grand River restoration and considerably improve the quality of life in the urban core.”
Despite all the challenges that lay in front of an ambitious highway removal project, Guy and other urbanites say they’re approaching the situation from a long-term perspective.
“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to strengthen the urbanity of Grand Rapids and, by extension, strengthen our competitive advantage in the global race for new residents and economic opportunity,” he said.