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Feature Article - March 2018

From Industrial to Recreational

Ideas in Waterfront Restoration

By Dave Ramont


The Grand River is Michigan's longest river, stretching 260 miles. Its history includes being used as a sewer by 19th century loggers and 20th century manufacturers. And while agricultural runoff, urban stormwater and numerous dams still adversely affect the river, it has recovered considerably since the 1960s thanks to community leaders, environmental activists and government officials. The city of Grand Rapids has invested millions of dollars on sewer upgrades, reducing sewage overflows into the river by 99 percent, returning it to a world-class fishery.

And now Grand Rapids is looking to restore a 2.2-mile stretch of the Grand River through downtown. David Marquardt, director of parks and recreation for the city, said they want to restore their namesake rapids as a way to provide for a healthier environment and body of water for greater habitat and species variety, and also for the added recreational benefit.

"It seems many communities are positioning themselves for similar improvements for similar reasons." Marquardt points out that while there are numerous environmental benefits, the economic return on investment is also considerable.

Indeed, Grand Rapids Whitewater, one of the nonprofit organizations working with the city to plan the restoration project, commissioned a study by the Anderson Economic Group that estimated expanded recreational use of the river and riverfront could stimulate net new economic impact of $15.9 million to $19.1 million per year. Water activities that the estimate considered include kayaking, fishing, rafting, stand-up paddle boarding, wading and more. "The rapids project will certainly provide some fun in the water, but the parkland improvements up and down the river corridor will also provide new entertainment and recreation opportunities, all of which are planned to generate additional revenues," Marquardt said.

He added that the city is planning for recreational viewing areas, adventure playground spaces, tree-top board walks, and places to rent kayaks and stand-up paddle boards.

Extensive community engagement in the planning process has been encouraged in Grand Rapids, through meetings, stakeholder interviews, community forums and workshops. Not only does the river flow through the center of downtown, it's linked to a network of tributaries, carrying the benefits of the water system deep into neighborhoods on the city's east and west sides, including underserved areas. Guided by their master plan and other initiatives, the project is currently in the design and permitting stage. Construction is projected to begin in 2019, with the Grand River becoming a water-based trail network of parks, amenities and public gathering spaces.

There are those who feel that dams are dangerous and can contribute to flooding, and that removing them is better for a river's overall health. The Grand River plan includes the removal or lowering of dams, and Marquardt said that one 100-year-old dam will be replaced by an adjustable hydraulic barrier. "This new barrier will be used to control water levels, but also to control the upward migration of invasive fish species from Lake Michigan."

Linear corridors, along a creek, river or lakeshore, create benefit and value on many levels when man-aged properly, but especially in the realms of natural systems, green infrastructure, recreation and real estate property values.

There are many considerations for a community thinking about a waterfront restoration project. Every site has its own unique set of characteristics that must be taken into account. "The river's history, flow rates, flood rates, rock conditions and hydraulic models are considerable and complicated," according to Marquardt. He said Grand Rapids hired a landscape architecture and planning firm from Colorado to assist with river-edge park development and trail connectivity up and down the river corridor, while anticipating put-in and take-out points for river recreation. "The numbers of considerations are really extraordinary and require many talented hands."

With regard to planning and design, Duggan feels that current weather trends must be factored in. "As evidenced by recent history of tropical storm events in various coastal areas, as well as flooding, wild fires and other natural disasters, resiliency of our open spaces should be at the forefront of discussion. Such spaces must anticipate and accommodate these natural events and the potential for them to occur more frequently." He stressed that every aspect of a design should consider how it will react to various conditions and adapt with Mother Nature, rather than simply trying to bolster itself against her.

And, while it's important to consider public input through outreach meetings, Duggan said it's also important to consider "wildlife as stakeholder," especially as urban areas continue to expand. "Bringing natural systems 'to the table' and advocating a voice for them will ensure that a win-win solution can accommodate the needs of the public in a manner that enhances, rather than paves over, the natural environment's function and aesthetic."

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