GRAND RAPIDS — As Grand Valley State University expands its presence in the Belknap Lookout neighborhood, it’s juggling myriad concerns that often come with large-scale development.
The 84,000-square-foot Raleigh J. Finkelstein Hall remains under construction at the corner of Lafayette Avenue and Hastings Street just north I-196 as part of GVSU’s expanded health-focused campus in Grand Rapids. Over the course of a decade or more in that area, the university anticipates building additional academic and administrative facilities, as well as several hundred parking spots to serve students and faculty. An added challenge: The campus is taking shape within a neighborhood of mostly single-family homes, including many rental properties.
Via a series of public meetings, GVSU is developing a 25-year master plan for the site and trying to address neighborhood concerns over increased traffic and the loss of affordable housing.
“It’s important we have these conversations (for GVSU) to share what they have in mind and what their constraints are,” Elianna Bootzin, executive director of Neighbors of Belknap Lookout (NOBL), told MiBiz prior to a March 13 public meeting. “It gives neighbors a chance to ask questions and maybe push back a little.”
And push back they did.
Throughout the meeting, Belknap Lookout neighbors relayed concerns about the parking, traffic and housing issues. They also accused the university of having a long-term plan already in place and not listening to residents’ concerns. One resident said GVSU officials have “lost credibility” based on their lack of follow-through on numerous promises.
However, executives at the university contend they’re acting in good faith and hope to be good neighbors in the Belknap Lookout area.
“I would say we are looking for a full consensus and … there’s a definite difference in the neighborhood,” said Pat Waring, community relations director at GVSU. “There’s a certain part of the neighborhood that wants it this way, and there’s certain part that wants it another way. I think one of the goals is to … look at the pluses and minuses of each of the plans. Maybe we can all agree that we can compromise, and I think that’s what we’re hoping we can get to.”
The board of NOBL wants to work at maintaining a congenial relationship with its new institutional neighbor, particularly given the agreements reached by the various stakeholders in February 2016.
“The Memoranda of Understanding currently in place between GVSU, NOBL, and the City of Grand Rapids speak to NOBL’s expectations for GVSU’s use of public feedback in the development of future plans,” a spokesperson for the neighborhood organization told MiBiz in an email.
SEEKING COMMON GROUND
GVSU’s expansion into the Belknap neighborhood dates back to early 2014, when the university announced its acquisition of roughly 11 acres stretching north of I-196 to Trowbridge Street and east from College Avenue to Clancy Avenue.
Despite the agreement reached by GVSU, the neighborhood and the city, many residents have long said they felt “blindsided” by the scope and scale of the university’s plans, as MiBiz reported in September 2015.
“It’s a couple of years that they’ve been talking about this, and having a campus in our neighborhood was not part of our original plan,” NOBL’s Bootzin said, referring specifically to the Belknap Area Specific Plan (ASP).
The city adopted the ASP in February 2010. It 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, which was funded by neighborhood property owners, the city and a variety of foundations, according to sources familiar with the matter.
GVSU and other stakeholders engaged in the campus planning process say that they’ve worked hard at being transparent and incorporating the neighborhood’s input.
“Since we started (public meetings) last summer, (the goal) has been for each party to mutually understand the goals and aspirations of each group and find some common ground,” Mary Jukuri, vice president of campus planning in the Ann Arbor office of SmithGroupJJR, said during the March meeting.
An international architecture, engineering and planning firm, SmithGroupJJR serves as a consultant to GVSU in developing the Belknap Lookout master plan.
“The first goal for Grand Valley is to fulfill its academic and research mission,” Jukuri said. “However, there’s a lot of commonality between GVSU goals, city goals and neighborhood goals.”
Those goals include investing in aesthetically pleasing developments, replacing many of the homes knocked down with new construction, building “affordable” housing and bringing amenities such as commercial space and greenspace to the neighborhood.
Rents for the desired housing and who would develop it remained unclear as of this report.
GVSU’s expansion into the Belknap Lookout neighborhood largely stems from current and projected growth of its health-focused programs. The university is at capacity at its existing Cook-DeVos facility on Michigan Street, around the corner from its planned campus. It projects an additional 600 to 1,100 students will enroll in its health curriculum.
With that projected growth in mind, the university continues to develop a comprehensive parking and transportation strategy, Waring said. While the university has successfully encouraged many students to use public transit and other transportation alternatives, it projects the need for several hundred parking spaces at its Belknap Lookout campus, according to officials.
Health students need increased access to cars, in part, because of their need to leave campus for internships, according to Waring. To that end, developing the Belknap Lookout master plan remains an ongoing process, with at least one more public meeting planned for the end of April.
Stakeholders say they continue to incorporate as much local feedback as possible into their long-term plans. However, university officials note their greatest challenge lies in anticipating the needs at the site decades into the future.
“This first step is probably the one that is the most difficult because you’re looking out 20 or 25 years,” Waring said. “It doesn’t seem possible, yet you know you want something that has a campus feel. And I think we’re trying really hard to be tuned into what the neighbors want.”