Grand Rapids Design Team encourages green infrastructure, proactive development

Photo courtesy Dan Taber

In the summer of 2010, City Commissioner James White proposed a concept that would soon become a common preliminary stage for construction projects in Grand Rapids. That concept—today known as Design Team—is now a fully-fledged procedure that influences many of the developments underway in the city. Design Team is an informal, optional first step in the up to 14-step process of implementing new city construction projects.

Through the Design Team process, developers, architects, and design professionals meet with representatives of various City departments—planning, water, environmental protection, engineering, etc.—to informally discuss projects. The meeting, while optional, is encouraged by the City, according to Betsy Hernandez, President of the NorthEast Citizen Action Neighborhood Association (NECAA) of Grand Rapids.

Design Team Process

The Design Team process includes inputs from a number of entities, including the LUDS (Land Use Development Services) process. (Photo courtesy Dan Taber)

“A developer, or an architect—whoever is part of a project design team—goes to the City to find out what they need to do to move ahead with the project,” she said. “From there, the City encourages those people to meet with the neighborhoods upfront, before any further time and money is spent on the plan. So [the process is] very, very proactive.”

Meetings are scheduled at the request of developers, and despite the informality of the gatherings, have influenced projects by turning up suggestions for their implementation. The multidisciplinary nature of Design Team makes for a collaborative setting.

This setting is the perfect stage to incorporate water quality features and green infrastructure. “WMEAC continues to ensure that the City is looking at low impact development (LID) or green infrastructure to help manage their stormwater runoff,” said Elaine Isely, WMEAC’s Director of Water and LID Programs. “And while the City is focusing on that, we’re trying to get them to have that included in the City’s Stormwater and Vital Streets Ordinances. The Design Team process doesn’t quite rise to that standard, but it is definitely a step in the right direction.”

Isely is the current Chair of the City’ Stormwater Oversight Commission (SOC). Along with the Vital Streets Oversight Commission, the SOC advocates for the incorporation of green infrastructure in city development projects.

“Part of the reason that we [the Stormwater and Vital Streets Oversight Commissions] are there is keep this green infrastructure front and foremost,” Isely said. “But the current City staff—the current elected regime—gets it and does it. So we’re mostly just trying to make it as formal as possible, so that when everybody retires, or they’re voted out of office, it continues to be the way the City does things.”

Suggestions coming out of the Design Team process—because it is so collaborative—are by no means all about Green Infrastructure, though it is a key element.

“Whether it’s a different style of planter, or something where you can get some additional green space on your site, or different ways to just be smart about how you design and implement things in a project—I’ve got some of that out of the Design Team process,” said Randal Meyering, Development Manager at CWD Real Estate Investment.  

“We think it’s pretty open and inviting,” Meyering said, “so people shouldn’t feel scared about bringing their project to the Design Team. And it’s not a real formal process where people might try to shy away from it.”

Design Team might point out aspects of a location that a developer hadn’t considered, and make suggestions to improve the project design before the permitting and construction phases. This makes the process smoother, according to Meyering.

“You don’t have [as many] roadblocks once you start getting into the permitting and building process,” he said. “It’s much better to know early so that you can make adjustments as needed.”

“Once you believe that the project can be built—it’s financially feasible, these kind of things—then you start the full planning approval process, which includes a public meeting and community interaction and feedback,” said Meyering.

To Hernandez, this is a substantial benefit of Design Team—that community members and neighborhoods “have an opportunity to hear about the project before anything is approved. If they like something, they can voice that. If they don’t like something, we can work on a solution. So it’s important for them to be involved—to show up.”

“The City of Grand Rapids is doing it right,” said Meyering. “They set it up where they’re inviting you in to talk about it, rather than holding it off to the last minute and trying to sneak something through. That’s not what anyone’s trying to do in the city—it’s just an open discussion and a ‘let’s plan together to make this a better city.’”

“I’m all about being proactive, and I think the process is great,” said Hernandez. “I have not found any disconnects.”

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