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Sunday, 15 September 2013 22:00

History revisited? Competition to showcase new visions for former Grand Rapids Public Museum site

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Many of the entries to the 54 Jeff competition show renderings that vastly re-imagine the physical structure of the former Grand Rapids Public Library. Entries ranged from an indoor adventure sports center with climbing walls to a bicycle-friendly pub to something as simple as an indoor/outdoor urban park. Many of the entries to the 54 Jeff competition show renderings that vastly re-imagine the physical structure of the former Grand Rapids Public Library. Entries ranged from an indoor adventure sports center with climbing walls to a bicycle-friendly pub to something as simple as an indoor/outdoor urban park. COURTESY IMAGE

Many longtime Grand Rapidians have fond memories of the currently vacant former Grand Rapids Public Museum site on Jefferson Street, but now one local group is asking the community to envision a new future for the space.

A volunteer-based arts group that holds shows in vacant buildings around Grand Rapids, Site:Lab created 54 Jeff as the group’s first competition, said co-founders Tom Clinton and Paul Amenta.

The project, which opens to the public on Sept. 18, is showcasing at least 33 conceptual renderings that aim to transform the museum into a new, unique public space with a permanent use — rather than remain mostly closed.

From an indoor adventure sports center with climbing walls to a bicycle-friendly pub to something as simple as an indoor/outdoor urban park, the entries in the 54 Jeff competition range from the absurd to perfectly practical proposals for the future use of the facility.

Site:Lab is offering a $10,000 prize for the first place entry, $5,000 for second place and $2,000 for third place, as well as a $1,000 scholarship for each of the top two student entries.

The submissions will be judged by four well-known names in the architecture and design industry: Reed Kroloff, director of Cranbrook Academy of Art; Eva Franch Gilabert, executive director and chief curator of Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York City; installation and sculpture artist Alois Kronschlaeger; and Stephen Zacks, an architecture and urbanism reporter.

Amenta said the project was inspired in part by Site:Lab’s use of the facility during last year’s ArtPrize competition.

“A lot of people familiar with the building were asking what it was going to be used for next,” he said.

In addition to those inquiries, Amenta said the idea also grew out of a collaborative design class he co-taught at Kendall College of Art and Design. For one class project, students had to come up with a compelling reuse of the space. One class submission referenced New York City’s Highline project, which took a stretch of elevated rail and turned it into the second most visited green space in the nation behind Central Park, and the idea for 54 Jeff started to snowball from there, he said.

The building is currently owned by the city with the Public Museum serving as the steward of the property. Aside from Site:Lab’s use of the space as an ArtPrize venue, much of the building sits vacant for most of the year, with the exception of storing some of the museum’s collections. Before the economic recession in 2008, Amenta said there were some early stage plans to redevelop the space, but all those proposals eventually fell through due to financing issues.

Any developer would face a substantial cost to bring the property up to code for a new permanent use, Amenta said, noting the building would likely need all new electrical and HVAC systems and a complete renovation of the bathrooms. Since the property is connected to the Kent County Records building, it should not be under any threat of demolition, at least for now, he said.

Each year Site:Lab requests to use the space, and each year it has to fill out new paperwork for temporary use permits, but Amenta said the city and the museum have been very open and receptive to his organization’s requests. The group’s track record of attracting activity and interest to some of Grand Rapids’ other more visible downtown properties also helps, he said.

Previously, Site:Lab hosted artists in both the former Junior Achievement building at the southeast corner of Fulton Street and Division Avenue in downtown Grand Rapids as well as in the historic Harris Building, also on Division. Both properties are currently in some stage of permanent redevelopment.

While it’s not Site:Lab’s goal to encourage the redevelopment of the the event spaces it uses, Amenta said seeing those sites be redeveloped has been a happy accident over the past few years.

“It’s not necessarily our life mission to save the buildings we use,” Amenta said. “Our goal is to create awareness, and if someone with money or a developer comes along and the building gets redeveloped, that’s great. But it’s sort of an accidental model in that way. We go where the opportunities are, and here was an opportunity to bring interest to the property.”

For some people, it’s hard for them to think about the museum as anything else, said Clinton, who also serves as Site:Lab’s exhibition coordinator.

“Sometimes people need help seeing a vision and we think that this (competition) can transport that notion,” Clinton said. “When you can’t see beyond what is already there, to have a professional and even an amateur come up with the types of projects we’ve received, it can compel others to use their own imagination.”

However, the visioning process wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for the willingness of the city and museum officials to allow creative groups like Site:Lab to access to the space, Amenta said. More than that, the space itself, with its nostalgic qualities and placement within the community, plays a key role in drawing the attention of outsiders, he said.

“This wouldn’t have happened on a vacant parking lot,” he said. “People don’t understand how rare the ability to do this, in this space, is. It’s almost like a piece of sacred ground that we get to play with.”

That playfulness aside, the Site:Lab crew is sensitive to the local history the museum represents, while acknowledging the site is unlikely to serve as a permanent exhibition space as it once did, Amenta said.

Aside from the 54 Jeff proposals, the Grand Rapids Public Museum is also exploring a potential permanent use for the facility, said Kate Moore, the organization’s communications director. GRPM along with Grand Rapids Public Schools and Kendall College are in the first phase of developing curriculum for a K-12 school that focuses on human-centered design, she said.

“(The museum) could be the place (the school) ends up,” Moore said. “This is one viable option for the property, but we aren’t to the point where we know what infrastructure we’ll need.”

In the planning for the new school, the partners plan a trial run of sorts involving a week-long immersion program with a 5th grade class from GRPS to be held at the museum’s current Pearl Street location, Moore said. With the 54 Jeff competition, the project coordinators are getting a free look at the potential the old public museum could offer, she added.

“Working with Site:Lab, you never quite know what the impact will be,” she said. “It’s been a positive experience from our end.”

Read 3935 times Last modified on Sunday, 15 September 2013 22:46

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