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Exit Interview: Schulz reflects on leading city planning in Grand Rapids

BY Monday, July 08, 2019 12:00am

After two decades with the city of Grand Rapids, most recently as managing director of design, development and community engagement, Suzanne Schulz plans to leave the public sector for an urban planning practice leader position at Grand Rapids-based Progressive AE Inc. Schulz will work her last day at the city on Sept. 6.  In her current role, Schulz is in a powerful position to oversee development projects throughout the city, especially after a period of strong growth in the years after the Great Recession. Schulz spoke with MiBiz about how changes in land development practices have affected the city, and what she is most looking forward to in the private sector.

Why is now the right time to move on from your position at the city?


This is really the perfect time because I will have 20 years of service in at the end of August. When I look at the arc of my career at the city, it started with the master plan, and it has served us really, really well. We have implemented so much of what’s in that plan, and then some with what’s in other plans. We’ve made a dramatic shift in how we do land use regulation, building design, street design, really changing an entire paradigm in how you do urban design in a built-out community. When I think about what I want to do for the next 20 years of work, it seems like the right time to make that break, and I’ve come full circle where we’re now about to do a new master plan. 

How has the approach to land development evolved?

We’ve dramatically changed from where we were. Twenty years ago, we had a master plan and a zoning ordinance that reflected Urban Renewal-era thinking — large parking lots, buildings at the back of lots, very auto-oriented design and low-density development. Since that time, we’ve shifted in everything related to the built environment, finding ways to encourage density, building height, full utilization of lots, reduce parking and trying to respond to mobility demands from the community by creating complete streets and green infrastructure. It’s everything from what the vision for the community is to the policies and ordinances that we have in place.

What has been the result of those changes?

Anyone can look around our city and see the results of what that has been, with lots of new jobs being created, new residents moving in, parks that are vibrant, an exciting downtown and lots of ideas and aspirations that the community wants to continue to push forward. That’s not just recognized within our own community or our own region, but across the state of Michigan and across the country, the city is viewed as being a leader in transforming a Rust Belt mid-sized city into a gold-standard example of how you gain new investment within a community.

What has the city’s Development Center accomplished in the time you’ve led it?

What’s pretty amazing is our building fund is in good condition, more than 90 percent of all of our construction approvals are handled administratively and of the 6,000 housing units that have been built in the last six years, more than two-thirds of them have been approved administratively. We’ve also transformed how we do street design and how we build the buildings.
The growth and change that’s happened in the city has been remarkable, and it’s something I’m really proud of. It’s not just the buildings, it’s what’s behind all of that.

It’s the extent of planning that has occurred during the past two decades, everything from the master plan to the neighborhood pattern workbook, which led us to understand how to write the zoning ordinance, to Green Grand Rapids and the Michigan Street Corridor Plan. South Division has been our latest plan, and that’s coming to the city commission in August. That has been focused around equitable economic development and has really been something that’s been a passion of mine. Then we’ve also had special topics over the years, like affordable housing, marijuana and initiatives that have helped the city become financially stronger. 

What major issues will the next person in your role need to address?

One is change in existing neighborhoods as we talk about how to accommodate more growth in the city. The vibrancy of the city only increases when you have more people, and how do you do that in a way that recognizes the history and the context of the neighborhood we have, but also allows for growth and change? There will be some tension around that, and lots of conversations around equity and who benefits, and how do we make sure that we’re building ownership in all segments of our community both in homeownership and business ownership, particularly for persons of color that have been traditionally marginalized in those areas. 

I think in a tangential way mobility — everything from e-scooters to autonomous vehicles and what that means for our streets and how we move around — will be something emerging in the next decade or two. 

Finally, climate change and how do we make a more resilient community. We’re a river city, and how do we face higher precipitation, how do we manage that water? The city has made some amazing strides in green infrastructure. We are going to have to be more aware of that in the buildings that we build and the environments that we create. 

Is there a role for the city in attracting talent via land development?

For talent attraction, the key is creating these exciting environments that are dense and walkable that can spur neighborhood activity. When you look at the creative class and attracting that next workforce and where they’re headed, it’s exactly the kind of environment they’re interested in. I think we’ve been pretty successful and can continue to do work in that regard.

What are you looking forward to working on in the private sector?

The ability to work with a diverse range of people from different regions in Michigan and potentially across the country. I’ve made a lot of friendships and great working relationships with other consultants over the years in work that we’ve done in Grand Rapids, and the opportunity to be able to partner with them and work with them on other projects in other places I find to be exciting. I’m also excited to be able to take all of the things we’ve learned in Grand Rapids and be able to share them with other cities and communities. We often hear of people trying to figure out what the magic is in Grand Rapids. 

Any parting words of wisdom? 

What I’ve been grateful for is how smart our community is, and how the citizens of Grand Rapids have been so gracious in being committed to planning in this city and the implementation of those plans. It’s a heavy lift. It’s not the city doing that work (alone). It’s nonprofits and community leaders in other sectors to make those plans come to reality. Some of that magic is the magic of collaboration in Grand Rapids, which is unique. It’s not just the role I’ve played, but it’s the effort of so many people to become involved in planning and build ownership in the implementation of what those ideas are. 

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