Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. (DGRI) today released a draft "streetspace" design guide that will support efforts to build better and safer streets while also growing a Downtown that's more attractive, comfortable and inviting for people.

The guide, geared to inform public and private investment decisions, ultimately aims to support the development of high quality public spaces that help to accelerate Grand Rapids' emergence as a beautiful urban neighborhood and an increasingly desirable place to live, work, visit and recreate.

"Our streets and adjacent areas such as sidewalks, trees, plazas, etc - our streetspaces - collectively comprise the largest public space in our Downtown," said Mark Miller, DGRI Director of Planning and Design.

"When our streetspaces are designed poorly, our neighborhoods become boring, uninspiring, and unsafe for human beings. When designed to a high standard of quality, our streetspaces are interconnected, interesting, highly accessible, enduring and inviting. Put simply, great streetspaces are places people want to be, people want to linger, and that’s good for business and community building."

Click here for a diagram of the various "zones" that define and comprise a typical streetspace in Downtown Grand Rapids.

This section of Argyle Street in Chicago is a good example of a "shared street"
This section of Argyle Street in Chicago is a good example of a "shared street"

Prioritizing a Place for People

Downtown Grand Rapids leaders last adopted "streetscape" guidelines in 2006. Since then, local citizens and stakeholders have gained considerable knowledge about the complexity of building high quality urban places. As a result several community planning processes have called for new strategies and interventions to build safer, more walkable and welcoming neighborhoods, including Green Grand Rapids, Viva La Avenida Area Specific Plan, the citywide Vital Streets and Design guidelines, the River for All revitalization plan and GR Forward.

The draft 2019 Downtown Grand Rapids Streetspace Design Guidelines were developed through extensive outreach with citizens, public officials and private interests. The process was led in close coordination with a 100 percent local consultant team of professionals who work Downtown and walk, bike, drive and use transit daily.

The guidelines provide a framework to design Downtown streetspaces that:

  • Put people first by optimizing the public space for a human experience with good urban design, cultivating grand street trees and building for safety and accessibility.
  • Deliver inviting places that are visually interesting, prioritize equitable access and encourage people to linger.
  • Deliver enduring places built to last, serve multiple purposes and creatively maximize investment.

"Many cities, and specifically Downtowns, have "streetscape" guidelines, and some have building or architectural guidelines that address some of these concerns," Miller said.

"What separates the Downtown Grand Rapids Streetspace Guidelines is that they provide guidance for all of the various activity zones, elements and considerations that must work together to deliver high quality street spaces - all in one document and under a comprehensive philosophy. The goal is to think beyond where we plant the tree and what type of bench to buy - which is what traditional streetscape guidelines typically offer - and reframe the conversation about what's required to truly build successful urban places in our Downtown environment."

Larimer Square in Denver, CO offers a good example of how innovative lighting can enhance a streetspace
Larimer Square in Denver, CO offers a good example of how innovative lighting can enhance a streetspace

Modernizing & Clarifying Priorities

The guidelines are in fact guidelines - not mandatory requirements or laws the public and private sector must follow. As such, the recommendations encourage urban designers, architects, planners, engineers and developers to realize that they are essentially designing an “outdoor room” when they decide:

  • Where to place new buildings;
  • How their facades engage the sidewalk with entrances and windows;
  • Whether and where to plant trees;
  • The level of detail provided within the streetspace;
  • How wide to make their roadways and travel lanes;
  • Whether a right or left turn lane is needed; and
  • What kind of elements they place in the streetspace.

These and other similar types of considerations are essential to good decision-making that support the implementation of the community’s vision and plans for neighborhoods and business district.

“In the Downtown district, these guidelines really establish the baseline expectations for our Downtown streetspaces that further our community goals defined in GR Forward,” Miller said. “Our aim is to raise the bar for conversations about how to make lasting investments to improve our largest collection of public space.”

In practice, the guidelines will support the Downtown Development Authority, DGRI staff and citizen alliances and other decision makers as they develop, review and consider projects that impact the quality of the public realm.

The guidelines have already begun to influence key public and private Downtown improvement projects, such as the reconstruction of Sheldon Boulevard, the public piazza at Studio Park currently under construction and the coming reconstruction of Division Avenue South, which will expand the sidewalk space, add safer street crossings for people who walk and other features.

The DGRI Board of Advisors will review and consider the draft Downtown Grand Rapids Streetspace Design Guidelines at their February meeting.

The Downtown Grand Rapids Streetspace Guidelines