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COOL CITIES: Getting to know Grand Rapids


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Such praise for an "outstate" city. I think she nails it when talking about why Grand Rapids is such an exciting place to be right now for urban development / reuse. -Joe

Magic happens in western Michigan

March 3, 2005

By Patricia Chargot

Governor Jennifer Granholm wants you to stay in Michigan when you grow up, which is why she started the Cool Cities program to keep young people living and working in our state. So far, the program has given grants to 19 small building projects in 15 cities, with more grants to come. The Yak is visiting these cities. Today we visit Grand Rapids.

Detroit has the Joe Louis fist sculpture.

Ann Arbor has Michigan Stadium.

Port Huron has the Blue Water Bridge.

What's Grand Rapids' icon? The Yak nominates the Van Andel Museum Center carousel, overlooking the silvery, gently rippling Grand River.

The antique carousel occupies its own little glass house, which juts out over the water like a scenic perch. Riding the pretty painted horses and other animals is pure magic, a dizzying blur of light, color and circus music.

The ride is a fitting symbol for the city's dizzying progress. There's a special energy in the air. You can almost imagine fairies hovering, touching empty buildings and other eyesores with their magic wands.

The state's second-largest city has been getting cooler and cooler for more than a decade, rebuilding its decayed downtown and even opening a historical museum -- the Van Andel -- a sports and concert arena and a botanical gardens and sculpture park.

Now, it seems ready to leap, like a salmon struggling up the river's Fish Ladder Sculpture. The most recent growth spurt is so varied and amazing it could be a board game: Grand Rapids Monopoly.

The board would boast several major new buildings, including a sleek, riverside convention center, a prestigious medical research institute and a soon-to-open Grand Rapids Art Museum.

Minor properties would include more than 1,800 condos, apartments and artists lofts, "and everything that goes up gets filled immediately," said Susan Shannon, the city's director of economic development. More than 1,000 more apartments and lofts are being planned.

Dizzy yet? Last year, the entire library system -- the main library and all six branches -- were completely refurbished and a new, seventh branch was built.

In January, the Michigan Land Use Institute, a research group, proclaimed Grand Rapids "Michigan's Comeback City."

"Few American cities have done as well recovering from urban decay and despair," said an article in Follow the Money, MLUI's on-line magazine.

Is the city perfect?

Hardly. All three of its downtown department stores closed long ago, and even city officials say it would take a real fairy godmother to attract a new one, let alone a downtown shopping mall.

"We still have enormous challenges and some of the same problems as Detroit and other northern urban centers," Mayor George Heartwell said.

Many neighborhoods and schools still need help. But Grand Rapids is one of the safest cities for its size, he said, adding: "And I do think there's a remarkable spirit here."

Need an escape? Beautiful Lake Michigan is only 40 minutes' drive away, with sand dunes and beaches for watching sunsets! Residents say they have the best of both worlds.

"I love the fact that Grand Rapids is sort of like a small town but with a big city type of feel," said Fouad Catrib, 28, who moved to Grand Rapids from Houghton, in the Upper Peninsula, six years ago.

"There are so many good people here it reminds me of the UP a bit. I think it's a really great place to live."

Fouad recently lured his mother, Marie, from Houghton to open a restaurant, which wasn't easy.

"She wanted to open the restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin, or Asheville, North Carolina," Fouad said one busy lunch hour from behind the counter of the new Marie Catrib's of Grand Rapids.

A display case groaned with a mouth-watering array of international salads and pastries.

What convinced them both to open the restaurant in uptown, the area east of downtown, was the city's Cool Cities catalyst project, he said. (A catalyst is something that speeds change.)

The handsome, Earth-friendly "green" building reclaimed a vacant corner that had been contaminated by a gas station. The project so rekindled hope in the neighborhood that residents insisted it be named the East Hills Center (of the Universe). Inside the long brick building are spaces for seven businesses, two of them filled by Marie Catrib's and a furniture and clothing store. Above is what makes it green: a roof garden of low-growing vegetation that releases oxygen, helping to cool the neighborhood by combating greenhouse gases.

"This was definitely a pull for my mother and me," said Fouad, who treasures the restaurant's Center of the Universe sign, a gift from the project's forward-thinking developer, Guy Bazzani.

A block away, Guy is renovating a dilapidated orphanage for offices and putting up 30 brand-new row houses.

"Everything will be green," Guy told the Yak.

It feels like spring

Uptown's three other business districts also are abloom with new bakeries, restaurants, antique stores and even a kids theater group. At the Wealthy Street Bakery, the Yak sampled a scone so yummy he picked the crumbs off his fur and ate them, too! The bakery and its neighbor, a trendy kitchen boutique, have become magnets for suburbanites, drawing them away from malls "to shop outside the box," said Barbara Kravitz, of the Grand Rapids/Kent County Convention and Business Bureau.

"There's so much going on as a result of the Cool Cities initiative," said Beth Grilley, the young owner of Global Infusions, an uptown fair trade store and coffee bar. (Fair trade folk art supports artisans in poor countries by paying them a fair price for their goods.)

Grand Rapids has long been known as a pretty conservative place (and the former home of Republican President Gerald Ford), with a mostly white population. But that image is changing as more young people and minorities move into the city, said Rachel Lee, 28, an Asian American college student and Cool Cities spokeswoman.

"This restaurant is a perfect example," she said over lunch at San Chez, a popular downtown tapas bistro. (Tapas are Spanish appetizers.)

The lively, high-ceilinged restaurant has been jammed since is opening 13 years ago, when the city's heart was just beginning to beat again. Now, the Arena Zone, as it's called, has so many cool clubs and restaurants that a wallet-size map has been printed locating them all for tourists.

Mezze Caf

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How is it that these well-meaning types always mess the sentiment up? GR has become the "BIG CITY WITH THE SMALL-TOWN PERSONALITY" (akin to Pittsburgh and Kansas City) not the other way around. ARRRRGH!!! :wacko:

EXCERPT FROM "Magic happens in western Michigan"

March 3, 2005

By Patricia Chargot

...."I love the fact that Grand Rapids is sort of like a small town but with a big city type of feel," said Fouad Catrib, 28, who moved to Grand Rapids from Houghton, in the Upper Peninsula, six years ago....


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