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Density at what cost? Zoning proposals spark tensions between Grand Rapids policymakers, neighborhoods

GRAND RAPIDS — Proposals to upzone several Grand Rapids neighborhoods in an attempt to address housing issues have exposed deep divisions among local stakeholders. 

Some advocates envision them as a reboot of the 1960s-era “urban renewal” initiative that bulldozed much of the city’s downtown. However, a cadre of developers and policymakers view the proposals as a progressive approach to adding more and denser housing as a means of achieving community goals. 

Multiple neighborhood groups noted they were in favor of denser affordable housing options, but feel their voices are being left out of what’s traditionally been a public process. 

“We understand that’s maybe a pain sometimes, but we think it’s an important part of the process and that projects wind up being a lot stronger and better when you do involve the neighbors,” said Matt Feyen, a local landlord and treasurer of the Eastown Community Association, who spoke during a Jan. 25 planning commission meeting that was archived online.

Despite considerable opposition by the neighborhood groups, the city Planning Commission unanimously approved the changes to the zoning code in late January. They likely will head to the City Commission for consideration sometime in March.

The proposals could significantly change city zoning by allowing for more “by right” developments, or projects that don’t require a Special Land Use permit and can be approved administratively without the need for a public process, provided they meet certain requirements.

Specifically, the Planning Commission approved four recommendations from Mayor Rosalynn Bliss’ Housing Advisory committee, a group largely consisting of individuals from for-profit and nonprofit development companies, the banking sector and a variety of housing advocacy organizations. 

The four recommendations included:

  • Incentives for small-scale development, such as duplexes and row houses, which would require reducing the minimum width for a dwelling unit from 18 feet to 14 feet, as well as implementing other changes to allow two-family residential units to be built by right in lower density areas
  • A density bonus for projects that utilize Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC), which the current zoning does not allow
  • Allowing Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) by right, permitting any homeowner to construct living spaces above garages, in basements or in a separate facility on the property
  • Greater allowance of non-condo attached single-family dwelling units

Neighborhood advocates contend much of the proposal makes sense but they take issue with the inclusion of “by right” language. 

“It’s not that we’re hugely opposed to ADUs, or two, three or four-family (residences), but we strongly object to some of the by-right nature of the changes, which would strip neighborhood input from the process,” Feyen said.

While some officials on the Planning Commission and the City Commission contend that the changes make the development process easier and therefore less costly, others wonder at what cost to the neighborhoods that convenience will come.

“I get what they’re trying to do, but don’t get the way they’re trying to do it,” said Lynn Rabaut, a former Grand Rapids City Commissioner and current member of the Board of Zoning Appeals. “Lots of cities are increasing their housing stock and it’s not bringing down prices. If they’re increasing stock just to bring affordability, it’s not going to work.” 

Many stakeholders have voiced a specific concern over the proposal passed by the Planning Commission that allows administrative approval for multi-unit developments in residential neighborhoods when the projects fall within 500 feet of a commercial business district or a Traditional Business Area (TBA) zone. When the proposal was introduced, it initially included a 100-foot boundary. 

It’s unclear if the City Commission will uphold that distance when it’s expected to take up the issue next month. 

Moreover, many residents and neighborhood associations feel that policymakers lack data and  assurances that the zoning changes — if enacted — would result in more affordable housing.

“I think the request for data is a good one and the community’s request for data is something that should be looked at and hopefully the City Commission will consider,” said Suzanne Schulz, planning director for the city of Grand Rapids. 


Sources contacted for this report differed in their assessment of the extent to which the approval process would change if the city passed the zoning ordinances. Some said they believed the proposed system would maintain checks and balances on development, but Schulz contends the new zoning proposals don’t leave much room for community input. 

“It’s giving property owners their property rights,” she said. 

Nonetheless, developers say it’s in their best interests to engage neighborhoods and seek their input on projects, rather than push to get deals done behind closed doors. 

“Nobody is trying to do anything bad here — I don’t believe that at all,” said John Wheeler, president of Orion Real Estate Solutions LLC, the real estate development arm of Grand Rapids-based Orion Construction Co. Inc

“I think they’re trying to loosen it up a bit and bend some of the old policies to allow opportunity for some new development,” he said. “They should reward the good development and keep the bad development out.”

For example, the Grand Rapids Planning Commission in 2014 unanimously rejected a proposal by SpartanNash Co. to build a gas station kitty corner from its Family Fare grocery store at the corner of East Fulton Street and Carlton Avenue. 

Shortly after the Planning Commission denied the gas station plans because of strong neighborhood opposition, Wheeler’s firm began engaging neighbors around a development proposal that ultimately resulted in 47 housing units and ground-floor commercial space at the site, now called Fulton Square. 

To Don Lee, executive director of the Eastown Neighborhood Association, the situation proved the need for robust community engagement and neighborhood participation in the development process, and explains why many stakeholders are concerned about attempts to take away their ability to comment.

“What started as … a gas station convenience store at the corner of Carlton and Fulton turned into a sort of desirable neighborhood development,” Lee said of Orion’s Fulton Square mixed-use development. “There’s three small businesses in there and they achieved neighborhood buy-in. It wasn’t as though it was a matter of NIMBYism or reactionary pushback from the neighborhood. (The neighborhood) just wanted some input as to what was going on in their community. And we ended up with a much better product out of it.” 


Growing cities of all sizes across the country often struggle with concerned reactions to zoning changes. A 2017 report by global consulting firm McKinsey & Co. touched on the topic of public input in the development processes that’s at issue in the Grand Rapids proposals.

“While the intent to give the community a voice is noble, the result is often that very little housing gets built,” according to the report. “Cities need to take an inclusive approach to providing housing for people of all incomes, ages, and demographic groups. People who come to a city to work need to be able to find an affordable place to live there. But the voices of existing homeowners who want to preserve the status quo often drown out those of newcomers, young adults, low-income service workers, and renters who need more housing.”

Community advocates contacted for this report noted the fine line between the need for more housing and the desire to preserve neighborhood characteristics. 

Lee at the Eastown Community Association contends that community land trusts –– nonprofit community associations aimed at ensuring long-term affordability –– provide a better route to equitable housing than continuing to embrace what he describes as supply-side, “trickle-down” housing policies. 

“I think we’re handing developers this big gift under the guise of affordability and at the end of the day, it doesn’t address affordability,” he said.