GRAND RAPIDS — The old adage that development follows transit has proven slow to materialize along the Silver Line bus rapid transit (BRT) route through southern Kent County.
The Rapid’s enhanced bus line launched roughly four years ago with covered stations, dedicated lanes and traffic signal priority along Division Avenue between Gaines Township and downtown Grand Rapids. Yet in that time, examples of ancillary development associated with the route remain nonexistent.
Speaking earlier this month at the Mobility Solution Summit, Mobile GR Director Josh Naramore pointed to cities like Cleveland that have similar BRT lines but instead have experienced billions of dollars in redevelopment as a result of those transit investments.
“In Grand Rapids and West Michigan, that’s something we really haven’t defined well for ourselves and there aren’t a lot of great examples of (transit oriented development),” said Naramore, whose department manages the city’s parking and other transportation initiatives.
Since the launch of the approximately $40 million Silver Line, only a handful of fast food restaurants and other small businesses have opened along the Division Avenue corridor between Wealthy Street and 28th Street.
Transit, planning and development sources differ in their explanations for the lack of activity, citing a combination of stakeholders working in silos, general market forces and the corridor simply being less than ready for dense development.
To Nick Monoyios, a planner with the Interurban Transit Partnership, colloquially known as The Rapid, the issue largely boils down to local stakeholders continuing to operate on their own and only now beginning to think about development of the region with a sense of intentionality.
“We’ve heard the stories nationwide that these enhanced modes attract that level of development,” said Monoyios, who’s also a Mobile GR commissioner and board chair of Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., the nonprofit group that administers the city’s Downtown Development Authority.
“Hindsight being 20/20, it’s the realization that there’s a significant amount of intentionality that has to go into this level of redevelopment,” Monoyios said. “It doesn’t just naturally happen. It’s not just pixie dust where you build this enhanced mode and (development) just naturally occurs.”
Monoyios also noted that while development has been slow to occur, Silver Line ridership has been on the rise.
For the 2017 fiscal year, the Silver Line’s ridership increased 5.5 percent over the previous year. The route accounts for 10.7 percent of the transit agency’s overall ridership, according to data from The Rapid.
City officials in Grand Rapids have begun taking steps to try to spur further development in the areas along South Division Avenue.
In April, the City Commission approved a new Corridor Improvement Authority for the areas around South Division Avenue, Burton and Hall Streets and Grandville Avenue. Later this month, the city plans to undertake a new 12- to 18-month study of the South Division corridor, which will include community engagement and identifying possible key development sites, said Suzanne Schulz, managing director of design and development for the city of Grand Rapids.
Schulz believes the slow growth in development along the Silver Line route is actually a blessing in disguise because current policy priorities around development without displacement, affordable housing and community equity weren’t being discussed at the time it launched.
“I think in this case, we’re fortunate we didn’t do a plan five or 10 years ago for this corridor,” Schulz said. “It wouldn’t have been the same plan we’re going to do today. The conversation about gentrification, equity and trying to make sure that the people that are there today see the benefits of investment and growth was not something that was a focus of the commission or leadership. It wasn’t done with such sincerity as it was today. I think that opens up a whole new opportunity for how we do development in this city.”
While acknowledging that widespread community engagement must precede large-scale development, The Rapid’s Monoyios has a different assessment of the planning process with the Silver Line.
“We knew over 10 years ago that we’d be building this enhanced mode on South Division,” Monoyios said. “That it’s happening now is great for the community, that we’re being very intentional (with) careful footsteps moving forward. It could have been done (earlier). We could have had that intentionality in the past.”
Monoyios also noted that as The Rapid prepares to begin construction on its second BRT route — the long-planned Laker Line that will connect downtown Grand Rapids with Grand Valley State University’s Allendale campus — the organization has worked to be more intentional about engaging neighbors around development that could come with the transit route.
GETTING IN LINE
While ridership on the Silver Line might be on the rise, data from the U.S. Census Bureau show that only 5.7 percent of workers in the 49507 area code — which comprises much of the South Division corridor through Grand Rapids — use public transportation for commuting.
Moreover, the area around the Silver Line’s route features an older housing stock, or what developers refer to as “naturally-occurring” affordable housing.
Transit planners acknowledge the economic challenges of development in areas like the South Division corridor.
“The fact that the traditional approach of development considers profitability, risk tolerance and wherever banks allow you to develop, historically (that) never favored South Division,” Monoyios said.
Max Benedict, a principal with Grand Rapidsbased apartment development firm Third Coast Development LLC, said in many ways, the cards are stacked against the South Division corridor receiving any major attention from developers, at least for the foreseeable future.
Benedict told MiBiz the corridor currently lacks demand for market-rate housing. Building more affordable housing backed by federal tax credits also would be difficult in the area given that the existing older housing stock generally falls below current market rates.
Still, as development continues to play out around the rest of Grand Rapids, it’s likely only a matter of time until the South Division area sees more activity, he said.
“There’s other areas closer to the (downtown) core that will probably develop quicker,” Benedict said. “It has its place in line for when it will be developed as the city grows.”