MILWAUKEE — As a wide variety of stakeholders push forward with revitalizing the Grand River corridor through downtown Grand Rapids, they have no shortage of other cities they can look to for best practices.
Denver, San Antonio and Chicago — and, more locally, Traverse City and Detroit — have all seen positive economic gains through investments in their waterfronts.
While the circumstances and certain attributes differ, Milwaukee, Wisc.’s emphasis on its namesake river over the last decade stands as one case study developers and planners might consider in developing a strategy for Grand Rapids.
By year’s end, Milwaukee — located about 100 miles west of Grand Rapids, and accessible directly via the Lake Express LLC ferry from Muskegon — expects to complete its RiverWalk system along the Milwaukee River, officials told MiBiz during a recent reporting trip.
Built incrementally over the last 20 years, the RiverWalk system traverses more than 20 blocks, passing through a variety of neighborhoods and serving in somes cases as the front or back door to breweries, restaurants and new residential buildings. The RiverWalk and the river serve as a source of recreation for residents, who can walk, boat or kayak between various riverfront destinations.
The riverfront has helped serve as a beacon and guide development to a concentrated area, resulting in dense commercial and residential neighborhoods that had previously sat largely vacant, commercial real estate sources said.
“For a downtown the size of Milwaukee, it was great to have the river as an organizing element and to say that everyone should be building along the river,” said Bob Monnat, partner and COO of Mandel Group Inc., a Milwaukee-based real estate development and property management firm.
Mandel Group operates numerous mixed-use apartment and commercial developments around Milwaukee, especially clustered along the river in the city’s Lower East Side neighborhood, where the company redeveloped a former tannery site.
“It tended to help concentrate development so that you didn’t have so much scattered development everywhere,” Monnat said of the river. “It concentrated everyone’s efforts to the extent that I think everyone benefited from the close proximity to one another.”
Development in Milwaukee shows little sign of slowing down, according to city officials, who estimate that there’s currently around 2,300 residential units at various stages of development.
Since construction began on the $52 million RiverWalk, the city has seen property values spike more than $1 billion, according to the Urban Land Institute (ULI), a trade association that awarded the city a Global Award for Excellence in 2017 for the project.
The overall investment included $36 million from the City of Milwaukee and $16 million from the private sector, according to reports.
Much of the development along the Milwaukee River in recent years was the result of the demolition of a freeway spur around the city’s downtown in the early 2000s, a project that eventually freed up about 600 acres for new development.
Urban advocates in Grand Rapids have called for a similar reimagining of the S-curve section of U.S.-131 through downtown, as MiBiz reported in 2013. However, those calls do not appear to have gained traction with the Michigan Department of Transportation.
While nearly all of Milwaukee’s riverfront development has been privately financed, the public and private sectors have come together to construct the RiverWalk, parts of which were built over the river while other sections are at the water’s edge level.
The city of Milwaukee established a variety of tax increment financing (TIF) districts that private property owners could tap into to construct the RiverWalk as property values grew.
“The only way this would have been successful is through a public-private partnership,” said Alyssa Remington, an economic development specialist with the city.
Monnat agreed, noting that as construction of the RiverWalk progressed, it largely became the expectation that private sector developers would contribute to the project. Development costs of the RiverWalk ranged from $1,000-$1,500 per linear foot for the sections on the river’s banks to around $3,000 per linear foot for the section in the Historic Third Ward neighborhood where the RiverWalk is built directly in the river, according to Monnat.
“It’s an expensive proposition,” Monnat said. “But it just gives you so many great opportunities for how you develop your business.”
Monnat noted that the overall system benefited because the city put few mandates on lighting fixtures or the materials that developers had to use in the construction of their RiverWalk sections. That allowed each developer to build the RiverWalk to its own design preferences.
To be sure, myriad differences exist between what Milwaukee has accomplished with its riverfront and what’s being proposed in Grand Rapids.
For starters, the City of Milwaukee has about 600,000 people, roughly three times the size of Grand Rapids’ population. As well, downtown Milwaukee and its surrounding neighborhoods have about 30,000 residents, Monnat said, which has led to demand for multiple grocery stores and other services and amenities.
For their part, some Grand Rapids officials applaud Milwaukee’s riverfront efforts and say it offers some good lessons from which to learn. For example, current designs for the restored Grand River aim to offer direct access, rather than elevated walkways.
“Our (plan) talks about reimagining the flood walls and creating situations where we’re getting people right down to the water’s edge and into the water,” said Andy Guy, chief outcomes officer for Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., a downtown planning organization working on public space design for key sites on the banks of the Grand River. “In five or 10 years when a lot this comes online, the way people are going to be able to interact with the water is going to be very different than a lot of places.”