HOLLAND — A May ballot initiative in which city voters will determine a potential land swap will make or break decades-long efforts to redevelop industrial waterfront property near downtown Holland.
At least 60 percent of voters will need to approve the ballot question in the May 2 special election to authorize the city of Holland to sell nearly 20 acres of property across two sites: 255 Kollen Park Drive and 64 Pine Ave., the site of the retired James DeYoung Power Plant.
The city kicked off a strategic effort called “Waterfront Holland” about five years ago to craft a redevelopment plan for city-owned property that houses the retired coal plant. The feedback and planning process revealed that the most feasible path forward to attract a developer was to strike a deal with industrial companies along the lakeshore to relocate and combine industry uses using a land swap.
Holland-based Geenen DeKock Properties Group LLC was the only company to submit a development proposal in the city’s nationwide request to develop its downtown waterfront property. A land swap of Verplank Dock Co.’s property at 233 W. Eighth St. and the power plant property is essential to GDK’s plans.
GDK wants to build a multi-building, mixed-use development on the current Verplank property and the adjacent city-owned land at 255 Kollen Park Drive.
“We don’t think developing the existing James DeYoung plant is economically feasible or desirable,” said GDK co-owner Doug DeKock. “The beauty of the land swap is it kind of consolidates and frees up the end of Eighth Street to make the connection to Kollen Park and the water. We have no interest in doing anything on the (power plant) site.”
Conceptual plans call for the construction of residential buildings, a hotel, restaurant, marina, ice cream shop, docking areas for the Holland Princess and Pearl Mist, and open green space that would include a kayak launch and a boardwalk plaza for boat watching. Renderings show 108 residential units across four buildings as well as a 50-room hotel, but it’s too early to estimate the final unit counts for either facility, DeKock said.
“The condensing of industrial uses is really important,” DeKock said. “If this doesn’t go through, we’ll stay the way we are for a considerable amount of time. I don’t see this opportunity presenting itself for a while if it doesn’t happen now.”
City leaders have been talking to Verplank Dock executives “on and off” about the dock location in Holland and the potential for higher uses of the property for at least the past 30 years, said Verplank CEO and Chairperson Ron Matthews.
“It’s been a long time coming and it seemed like it was always waiting for someone to push it over the end zone line. The city and GDK have finally come together,” Matthews said.
Verplank did not seek out the land swap, but the company is “certainly willing” to go through the process as long as it is cost-neutral and serves its customers, Matthews said.
“The movement will take some time, and there is some infrastructure that has to be changed around so the new property would be ready for us,” Matthews said.
The land swap and development would also make it possible for industrial companies along the lakeshore to use a new truck route that would avoid the middle of downtown, DeKock said. Large trucks would occasionally still need to drive through downtown, though it would be far less frequently than current traffic, he said.
Some residents have criticized GDK’s plan as “just for rich people,” and say it lacks enough public access, said Holland City Councilman Dave Hoekstra. However, many community members and city officials are also excited to see the downtown expanded to the waterfront, he added.
All of the Holland City Council members are on board with GDK’s development plans, but it would still go through the planning commission and further city council approval if residents approve the land swap in the May 2 election, said Holland Mayor Nathan Bocks.
“What we’re trying to get across is that GDK is dedicated to public access, and so is the planning commission and the city council,” Bocks said. “They still have to go through the full development process.”
As well, the May 2 vote does not specifically authorize GDK’s plans for the waterfront property — it only allows the city to sell its land, which is the next step in the development process, Bocks said.
While GDK’s current plans are merely conceptual, the company revised its proposal to include more public access by adding a kayak launch and more walkways by the water, Hoekstra said.
“This is still kind of a fluid concept,” Hoekstra said. “If we get the go-ahead and if it looks like we’ll go forward with it, the plans will be more detailed and revised with the planning commission.”
“I feel pretty confident looking at it that it will be a good balance of private development and public access,” Hoekstra added. “It looks to me like a win-win for everyone and accomplishes the connection from downtown to the waterfront.”
Providing public access “automatically” makes sense for the project, DeKock said.
“We want this to be an exciting place to be, and we want people to be able to mill around and be able to watch the boats go by and all of that,” DeKock said. “It’s always been our belief that something like this and bringing the waterfront to downtown is a really important step, particularly for the downtown community, as we just don’t have that connection to the water like other communities do — like Grand Haven and South Haven.”
Proponents also expect the waterfront proposal to spur surrounding developments in Holland. Bocks said city officials are starting to see “tire-kicker developers” looking at surrounding properties, but it is still early in the waterfront development process.
“Public access is a tricky thing, and how each community handles it is a little bit different,” said Matthews, of Verplank Dock. “If Holland passes this, they’re going to have to look at the whole package — the improved trucking routes and not only GDK’s specific plan, but how that impacts Kollen Park and everything around it. You’re going to have to buy into the whole concept and it’s going to be a city-wide traffic flow change and people flow change.”
Bocks and Hoekstra believe that most people support the waterfront plan, and some of the detractors might not understand it thoroughly.
“My sense is people will support it, we just have to do a good job in making sure the correct information is out there,” Hoekstra said. “If this doesn’t pass, we’re back to square one. We’re hoping that’s not the case. It’s been years of public engagement and discernment and a lot of professionals looking at this.”