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Sunday, 13 September 2015 20:29

Neighbors concerned over GVSU’s plans for GR health campus

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GRAND RAPIDS — Nearly two years after Grand Valley State University purchased an 11-acre site in a residential neighborhood of Grand Rapids for an expanded health sciences campus, residents say the full scope of the project remains shrouded in mystery.

While the university announced it planned to demolish the 100 existing homes it purchased in October 2013 to make way for the large health campus that would be built over a period of several years, it has not detailed specifics about the facilities or how it will handle parking or traffic at the site.

Residents say they don’t know what to expect from the GVSU development, such as whether it will fit in with local zoning regulations and the master plan for the Belknap Lookout neighborhood, because the university has mostly kept its plans under wraps.

“Grand Valley kind of blindsided us,” said Steve Faas, chair of neighborhood association Neighbors of Belknap Lookout (NOBL), referring to the scope of the project. “That was disconcerting to the neighborhood.”

While many residents support GVSU’s plans for a large-scale campus because of the amount of investment it would bring to the area, they still take issue with the university’s tactics and lack of transparency, Faas said.

GVSU maintains that it’s acting in good faith with its neighbors, calling questions about its processes “a non-issue.”

“The university is working collaboratively with the city and the neighborhood on future plans that will work for all involved,” said Mary Eilleen Lyon, GVSU’s associate vice president for communications, in an email to MiBiz. “Grand Valley’s goal is always to be a good community member, and our track record shows we enrich communities in which we have campuses.”

GVSU remains mum on the details of its plans for the proposed health campus, although residents indicated that early site plans have been shared at community meetings. University officials told residents at an initial neighborhood meeting in May that a proposed building at the corner of Lafayette Avenue and Hastings Street would be ready for students by the 2018 school year, according to multiple sources who attended the session.

“I think you’re going to find there are mixed reactions, but I think the main one is resignation. It is not something we expected or wanted,” Faas said of the university’s plans for the Belknap neighborhood. “I think the overall feeling is resignation, that this is something we have to accept and work with (GVSU) to be good neighbors.”

The source of that resignation: The Belknap Area Specific Plan adopted in February 2010 calls for the neighborhood to remain predominately residential in nature, although it does include concepts for two mixed-use districts.

The neighborhood spent more than a year working with stakeholders and various consultants to finalize the ASP at a cost of approximately $90,000 that was paid for by neighborhood property owners, the city and a variety of foundations, according to sources familiar with the process.


But the local rules may not have any impact on GVSU’s plans.

Public Act 120 of 1960 created Grand Valley State College as a state-funded institution. As such, the Michigan Legislature granted the university certain powers, which includes the acquisition of property for expansion purposes.

According to a section of the Michigan Constitution, that means the university has the power to supersede the regulations of local entities, said Cynthia Ortega, a partner and chair of the real estate practice group in the Kalamazoo office of Miller, Johnson, Snell & Cummiskey PLC.

“The general rule is that local municipalities do not have authority to enact zoning ordinances or enforce them against state entities that own state property,” Ortega said.

With GVSU’s plans for the Belknap neighborhood, spokesperson Lyon stated the university was unaware both of neighbors’ concerns regarding the proposed campus and of questions over whether it had to adhere to local zoning.

In a June 1 letter obtained by MiBiz, representatives of NOBL asked Grand Rapids City Manager Greg Sundstrom, “Is a Grand Valley State University development project subject to neighborhood land use plans and City zoning ordinances?”

Sundstrom replied to NOBL on June 11 saying that the city did not share the university’s position that local zoning didn’t apply to the institution but declined to issue any written legal opinion, saying that doing so “could adversely impact the City’s ability to address neighborhood concerns.”

Deputy City Manager Eric DeLong issued a statement to MiBiz through a spokesperson, saying that the various parties are working together to come to a collective vision for the campus.

“The Belknap Neighborhood, GVSU and City are engaged in a very promising joint planning effort that the parties expect will produce a campus plan that will set the stage for moving forward together. Each partner is committed to developing a collaborative vision,” DeLong wrote.

The spokesperson did not respond to a follow-up request for further details.

Steve Faber, another neighborhood stakeholder and member of NOBL’s development committee, said GVSU has slowly but surely started to embrace collaboration in the development process for Belknap.

“I think we’re at a point where top leadership (from both the city and GVSU) is committed,” Faber said. “We have to keep trusting and moving forward — and we’ll get there. But it’s a lot of change for a little neighborhood.”


However, at least one city official believes GVSU should not have purchased the Belknap land in the first place.

“I support the Area Specific Plan for Belknap,” said Rosalynn Bliss, the mayor-elect of Grand Rapids and the current second ward city commissioner. “The Area Specific Plan specifically calls for the area that Grand Valley bought to be residential. It’s a residential neighborhood.”

Instead, Bliss said the university should have acquired land for its proposed campus along Michigan Street where most of the city’s health and life sciences buildings are clustered, or along the North Monroe corridor. Bliss pointed to the Michigan Street Corridor Plan, which calls for institutional development along the busier commercial corridors, rather than in an adjacent residential neighborhood.

“The Michigan Street Corridor Plan, during that entire planning process, people around that table consistently said institutional use should stay on Michigan Street and go up North Monroe,” Bliss said. “That’s where institutional use is most appropriate. Neighborhoods that are zoned residential neighborhoods — we need to honor that. … I don’t think (GVSU) should have bought that property.”

Matt McLogan, vice president for university relations at GVSU, told MiBiz in an email that the site’s proximity to the university’s existing health science building on Michigan Street and the affordability and availability of the properties all factored into the decision to acquire the Belknap property. McLogan declined to answer other specific questions about the project.

“It’s not appropriate to speculate about a campus master plan that does not yet exist,” McLogan wrote.


Since the university has purchased the property, it could use its status as a state-funded institution to do what it wants in the Belknap neighborhood, according to legal experts.

In fact, the question of whether a university such as GVSU has the legal authority to supersede local zoning authority is “a very old issue,” said Mark Wyckoff, a professor and the director of the planning and zoning center at Michigan State University.

Despite the opinions of Ortega and other attorneys MiBiz spoke with for this report, the statute is hardly a matter of black and white, Wyckoff said. For instance, a municipality such as Grand Rapids could force a university to comply with local zoning and it would be up to the institution to challenge it, potentially via the court system, he said.

“This is a great big, gray, cloudy area,” Wyckoff said.

Moreover, universities that claim they don’t have to comply with local zoning would be unwise to relent under a challenge from a municipality, Ortega said, noting that they risk setting a precedent for future developments.

Ortega told MiBiz that she first encountered the issue while representing Kalamazoo College in a concern over a stadium lighting ordinance.

While K College’s facility and Western Michigan University’s Waldo Stadium were in close proximity to each other, the WMU property did not have to adhere to the ordinance because it belonged to a public university. Because K College was a private institution, it had to comply with the local regulations.

“It’s really a PR issue,” Ortega said, referring to the current situation with GVSU and the residents of the Belknap neighborhood. “Grand Valley doesn’t have to comply, but it’s up to them whether they want to be a good neighbor.”


The issue of GVSU being a “good neighbor” came up in multiple interviews for this report.

Some residents said GVSU has the potential to create great developments in the mostly residential Belknap community, but they contend that any development should complement and enhance the neighborhood with new housing and transportation options, as well as other types of economic development.

GVSU’s proposed campus has already spurred new investment in the neighborhood. Orion Real Estate Solutions LLC, a subsidiary of Grand Rapids-based Orion Construction Inc., announced a new mixed-use development in the neighborhood last year. The Gateway at Belknap project consists of 75 market-rate apartments geared toward professionals working at the campus and will also include restaurant and retail space, as MiBiz previously reported.

Overall, NOBL’s Faber said approximately 150 apartment units are expected to come on the market in the Belknap neighborhood over the next year.

For Faas, it’s a notable comparison that the private developers in the neighborhood have to work closely with the city’s planning department and engage with the neighborhood to get support for their plans.

It’s that community involvement in the process that can make or break developments, but public entities don’t necessarily see it that way, MSU’s Wyckoff said.

“If this was a private development, the thing that may be different is developers approach the neighborhood before they have a design. That almost never results in conflict,” Wyckoff said. “Most universities don’t do that. One may expect that public entities would be held to a higher standard.”

Read 5710 times Last modified on Monday, 28 September 2015 10:50

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