Many large and midsize cities in the Great Lakes region are fighting an uphill battle when it comes to revitalizing the city center and preventing unfettered development in the surrounding suburbs. There is one place, however, where a progressive mayor has turned a once deserted downtown into a lively place, full of urban amenities and street life. At the same time, he’s teamed up with nearby villages and townships to slow down the widening circle of unplanned development around the city. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Gretchen Millich reports:
Many large and midsize cities in the Great Lakes region
are fighting an uphill battle when to comes to revitalizing the city
center and preventing unfettered development in the surrounding
suburbs. There is one place, however, where a progressive
mayor has turned a once deserted downtown into a lively place, full of urban amenities and street
life. At the same time, he’s teamed up with nearby villages and townships to slow down the
widening circle of unplanned development around the city. Gretchen Millich of the Great Lakes
Radio Consortium reports:
On the list of the most sprawling cities in the United
States, Grand Rapids, Michigan is right in the middle. Over the
last 10 years, the metropolitan area has seen a huge increase in
roads, subdivisions, shopping malls and industrial parks.
But Grand Rapids and neighboring villages and townships
started planning years ago to rescue the city from the problems
that accompany sprawl. And that planning is starting to pay off.
A key factor in Grand Rapids’ success has been the
mayor, John Logie. He’s retiring this year after 12 years in
office. Logie has lived in Grand Rapids for most of his life. He
recalls how the city looked when he returned after serving in the
“When I came back to Grand Rapids in the late 60’s, I could have taken my bowling ball in any
downtown street at 5:18 PM and hurled it down the sidewalk as hard as I could, secure in the
knowledge I’d never break an ankle, because nobody was there.”
Logie realized then that his beloved city would not survive unless something was done to revitalize
the downtown and encourage people to live there. In the 1970’s, he helped
write a state law that allowed local governments to set up historic districts. Grand Rapids now has
five historic neighborhoods, including Heritage Hill, where Logie lives in a
Queen Anne style home.
“And also I had read Jane Jacobs book years ago, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”
and she talks in there about the need to preserve what you’ve got. And
the need to find adaptive re-use when a buggy whip manufacturing company goes out of business
because the automobile has replaced the horse-drawn carriage. There’s a building there that needs
To that end, Logie helped write another state law setting up Renaissance zones in inner cities where
businesses and residents could get substantial tax breaks for re-using old
buildings. Grand Rapids now has seven Renaissance districts. The city also changed the zoning on
several old warehouses and industrial buildings to encourage what Logie
calls “layer cakes” – retails stores, restaurants, offices and apartments – all in the same building.
Some of the old furniture factories have been renovated, including the Burkey and Gay building –
built in the late 1800’s. Burkey and Gay went out of business in the 1950’s.
“It had been sitting cold iron for 50 years. And now it’s all back to life. Two-hundred sixty middle
of the road apartments, and some offices.
“We got tired of the quiet life and wanted a little diversity.”
Connie Thompson and her husband Jim used to live in a
new suburb north of Grand Rapids. About a year and a half
ago, they moved into an apartment in the Burkey Gay building.
“We like the downtown city feel, which is really fun. We can walk to a bakery, we can walk to
“Grand Rapids has almost got kind of a European feel to it. There’s a couple of little side walk
cafes – during the summer – it doesn’t work too well in the winter. But, yeah, we
like it. I think we’re more city people than the country people we tried to be for a while there.”
But it wasn’t enough just to work within the city limits. Grand Rapids Mayor John Logie knew he
had to work with planners in the surrounding suburbs to promote better land-use
policies. He convinced local officials in 47 different jurisdictions to set limits on how far their
communities would grow around Grand Rapids.
“We invited each of them to draw a line somewhere in the middle of their real estate. And you
decide where that line should go. And then we’ll create a formula together that you’re going to
encourage future growth inside that line and discourage it out until you get to a certain level of
density – at which point you can move the line.”
Logie says the growth boundaries have kept the population closer to the inner city, cutting down on
long commutes, pollution and preserving at least some of the farmland
around the metropolitan area.
As he prepares to step down as mayor at the end of the year, Logie says he’s proud of what he’s
accomplished. He says it’s not rocket science – just common sense about what
makes a city a good place to live.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Gretchen Millich.