PLAINFIELD TWP. — A broad vision to redesign the concrete jungle that is Plainfield Avenue north of Grand Rapids is meeting resistance as local planning officials debate the individual zoning changes that would make the vision a reality.
The Plainfield Township Board formally adopted the Reimagine Plainfield Corridor Plan on May 24. Planning commissioners have since discussed the plan’s recommended zoning changes during work sessions. Officials hope to formally adopt the zoning changes in October after additional public hearings.
In general, the proposed changes would allow for more mixed-use developments along the corridor, permitting developers to construct residential units on top of ground-floor commercial uses in many areas.
Allowing more mixed uses is among efforts to counteract the outdated, parking lot-heavy, pass-through nature of the corridor. Other proposals would require more transparent windows along the corridor and parking lots behind buildings.
During a July 13 work session, township planning commissioners raised concerns about the effects that changing the zoning code to allow more mixed uses would have on existing property owners, particularly when and how they would have to conform to the new rules.
“If you could take a blank sheet of paper and envision what you want to see there, great. But some of what I see in this is we’re strapping the current property owners with a broad brush stroke,” Planning Commissioner Cathy Bottema said during the July 13 meeting.
Suzanne Schulz, Progressive AE Inc.’s urban planning practice leader who is consulting on the long-term corridor plan, said existing uses that wouldn’t conform to the proposed zoning change could continue operating. However, some future expansions would have to conform with the potential zoning changes, she said.
Davide Uccello, the owner of Flo’s Pizzeria on Plainfield Avenue who served on the township’s Reimagine Advisory Committee, told MiBiz that city officials will need to balance their planning goals with the interests of property owners.
“Through this process we’ve essentially changed the ability for some of these landowners to do what they were able to do when they bought the building,” Uccello said. “It was very hard for me to balance reimagining the corridor but at the same time not stripping these landowners’ rights away from them. On one side you have to protect them, but on the other side — in order to make the reimagine plan really happen — you really do need change.”
Meanwhile, the township has a moratorium on single-story developments in place until Oct. 31 to halt new projects before the zoning changes are codified. Officials expect to continue discussing the details of the zoning changes over the coming months.
However, officials have also reported that two developers are seeking to propose mixed-use projects that would conform to the long-term corridor plan.
“There is a demand for this,” Plainfield Township Planner Peter Elam told commissioners last week.
The Plainfield Avenue corridor north of I-96 has remained largely unchanged over the past 30 years with big box stores and broad swaths of parking lots despite the changing needs of the community. The lack of green space and residential uses was also a driving force behind the long-term reimagining plan.
“I grew up in Plainfield Township, so I’ve really seen the stagnant growth along the corridor, which has really been due to the decline of retail,” Uccello said. “What this plan does is change the whole aspect of what we look like to more of a residential corridor with pockets of retail, a more village-type atmosphere.”
Plainfield Township Superintendent Cameron Van Wyngarden said the former North Kent Mall closing and the vacant Witmark building property have each been major hurdles for the corridor.
Township attorneys are engaged in demolition proceedings with the Witmark building owner, New York City-based Regency Equities Corp. Van Wyngarden said the township could potentially demolish the building if the owner doesn’t agree to do so in a certain timeframe, though a timeline for action remains unclear based on court proceedings and pandemic-related construction delays.
The Witmark building — a former showroom at 4189 Jupiter Ave. NE that has sat vacant for more than two decades — provides “lots of opportunities” for redevelopment that align with the Reimagine Plainfield Corridor Plan, Van Wyngarden said, including repurposing it as green space or mixed uses.
Meanwhile, Schulz said the COVID-19 pandemic has likely exacerbated the decline of retail stores that has characterized the corridor.
“The (North Kent) mall closed 20 years ago, and there has been retail languishing on the corridor. (COVID-19) highlighted existing trends,” she said. “For places like Plainfield Township, people now want to stay closer to home. As they do, they want some downtown amenities like what they could find around downtown Grand Rapids.”
The corridor reimagining process started in June 2019 when the Plainfield Township Board established the Plainfield Corridor Redevelopment Advisory Committee. The committee met several times, conducted community surveys and retained Schulz’s services to create the visioning document that was adopted in May.
Along with some rezoning to make mixed-uses possible on the corridor, the plan also focuses on walkability, slowing traffic, adding landscape buffers and increasing green space. Plainfield Township will have to work with the Michigan Department of Transportation and the Kent County Road Commission on some of the corridor’s proposed traffic changes. But the next steps are codifying zoning recommendations, Schulz said.
“A big part of our strategy is trying to clear the pathway for developers to do the heavy lifting,” Van “The developers will make the investments should the plan work as intended, the developer will profit off of it, as well as the community.””
Schulz added: “Once the zoning ordinance is adopted I think then we’ll really see a lot of positive energy happening around the corridor.”