Major Problems in the Michigan Street Corridor Plan

The Michigan Street Corridor plan was made public a few months ago. In general, it's full of excellent ideas. In fact, it overwhelmingly is full of great ideas. You can read the plan yourself at http://www.michiganstreetcorridor.us . I've also mirrored the plan as it existed when this article was written, you can read the (PDF) Michigan Street Corridor Plan from January here.

The Michigan Street area means a lot to me. I've spent 15 years of my life in the Midtown area. Midtown is the closest thing I have to a "home", and will forever be the place I am from.

A number of people are somewhat upset about the plan. And while they don't often articulate the problems very well, or sometimes say terrible, terrible things (see any Mlive article's comments ever), there are some significant problems with the plan, and they merit a fair discussion.

I don't want to only focus on the negative -- again, there are truly some awesome things inside the Corridor Plan. However, most people are already aware of the awesome things, and the major problems inside of this are being wholly overlooked by a lot of people. (Or being discussed in terrible terms that make no logical since).

I'd like to add a dose of calm and logic to the counter arguments, since I've experienced them first hand. Mainly, here are the two big problems with the Michigan Street Corridor Plan :

  1. Housing: The Plan will create new housing options, but only by also creating large financial barriers to that housing, and make it very difficult for middle-class citizens to live in the corridor.
  2. Transit: The Plan doesn't improve overall transit -- it helps only those few who live directly in the corridor, while ignoring the majority who commute there.

    (and since the corridor plan itself makes it harder commuters to live in the corridor, it actually worsens the traffic and commute problems it's attempting to solve)

Housing

The plan talks about housing improvements, saying things like "We need housing choices that appeal to different lifestyles, ages, and income levels, so that anyone can find housing within the Michigan Street corridor". This is a great goal to have. However, what the plan actually describes is the elimination of some housing choice -- and the addition of only ultra-wealthy apartments and condominimums. To see that, we need to understand how the City redefines some common words to have unusual meanings.

When most people hear the words "market rate", they usually mentally think "what something normally costs" or "the average cost in our area". However, when you hear anyone at the City Planning office or Mlive use that phrase, it really means "double what something normally costs", or "ultra wealthy only".

For example, a 2 bedroom apartment generally costs about $600-1,000 in Grand Rapids. That's what they usually cost on average, depending on type and location. This is the number most people would consider "market rate". However, the term "market rate" as used by the City of Grand Rapids (or MLive) puts a 2 bedroom apartment around $1500 - $1800 a month. This is what all new construction in Grand Rapids currently charges (including all current new construction, in the entire city).

For instance, 616 Lofts is generally only for ultra wealthy individuals, or students who are able to afford wealthy housing by splitting costs in roommate or coop situations. 616 Loft currently charges between $1500 - $1800/month for 2 bedroom apartments. The City of Grand Rapids considers this to be "market rate", even though some 65% of the households in Grand Rapids do not make enough income to afford that rent, based on US Census household income data and the standard 28% net pay housing cost guideline.

Similarly, when most people hear the words "affordable", they mentally think "something most people could afford", where most is some number greater than 60% of the population. Fast food, for instance, is "affordable", almost anyone in any class could afford to purchase some fast food at least once a month. However, when you hear the phrase "affordable" used by anyone at the City Planning office, or Mlive, it really means "Section 8 and/or Income Restricted only".

Does your household make more than $30k per year but less than $90k per year? Are you raising a family, or otherwise need more than 2 bedrooms? Did you need student loans to go to college? If any of those apply to you -- then you probably don't qualify for "affordable (income restricted)" housing, but you don't make enough money to afford "market rate" housing. You are now blocked from all of the new housing that the Michigan Street Corridor Plan proposes.

How many people fall into that range? According to the US Census from 2013, roughly 65% of households in Grand Rapids are automatically disqualified from living in the Michigan Street Corridor Plan based on income, size-of-household, or both.

a hypothetical mixed-use building on Michigan Street, full of apartments you'll never be allowed to rent.

You might think I'm being facetious. But the Plan appears to agree with this interpretation. It includes statements like, "There is a high concentration of affordable housing within the study area: close to 60 percent of rental properties are income-restricted." That's *technically* true (there really is a lot of income-restricted properties) but categorically false (most people struggle to live in the neighborhood, because they city will simeltaneously claim they are both "too poor" and "too rich" to live there).

To be clear, I'm not trying to remove income-restricted housing. This is a vital and important part of any neighborhood, and I'm glad programs exist for those who need this assistance. However, the city doesn't realize just how badly they're missing this center piece. They casually address it in the plan using the term "missing middle", as if most of the problem is already fixed. In truth, they are missing the vast majority of citizens, with only tiny slivers of poor and rich being served. And while they recognize some of what's missing, they don't appear to propose any meaningful fix for it. Essentially, the city is asking for the "missing middle", but zoning exclusively "luxury apartments" and "Section 8 / Income Restricted".

Now, there are some single family homes in the neighborhood. Some of these are sometimes available for purchase. However, they are in short supply and high demand already, and the Michigan Street Corridor improvements have not even begun yet. Additionally, many of these houses are 100+ years old, and most need multiple tens of thousands of dollars of improvements just to remain livable. (I say this from experience, after buying one myself). The few houses that don't require extensive repairs get bought instantly -- not in weeks or days, but literally hours after going live on Zillow.

By the time the Corridor Plan is complete, most of these houses will also be unaffordable to most middle class residents, in the same way that Heritage Hill homes already are. Property values in Midtown have already risen $20,000 over the last three years, and are on track to increase even faster in the future.

Other cities struggle with affordable housing too. It's not just Downtown Grand Rapids (and now, Michigan St, Grand Rapids) issue. However, Grand Rapids is unique in that our housing costs have skyrocketed astronomically, but our industry has not. For instance, the "market rate" of apartments in Grand Rapids is now roughly identical to the "market rate" of apartments in Seattle, even though wages in Seattle are $10k to $30k per year higher on average (at the time this article was written, 616 Lofts pricing for 2 bedroom apartments in Heritage Hill was identical to the average price of a 2 bedroom apartment in Queen Anne, Seattle.)

"whitemice" writes on his blog, "The study demonstrates a market demand for 5,870 housing units in the next five years - clearly someone finds the corridor a desirable place to live as well as to work.". Absolutely, this is very true. But then, he goes on to list all of the new housing developments. And every single one listed is completly out of reach of most Grand Rapids citizens. Morton House, 616, Arena Place, BOB Venue Tower, etc. Not a single one of the developments mentioned is real-world affordable.

To my knowledge, there are no plans anywhere in the entire corridor, for any middle-class housing, of any kind, to ever be built. Not a single one

But none of this is a problem, right? People who work don't have to live in the corridor. People with families don't have to live in the corridor. Those people can all just live in the suburbs and commute in to town...

Transit

The Michigan Street Corridor Plan hinges a lot of assumptions on the fact that people will live on Michigan Street. But as we've seen, the Plan itself prevents this from happening, as the majority of people who work on Michigan Street are blocked from living there.

This is why most people live in suburbs. Not only is it cheaper, but even if people wanted to, they essentially can't live in/near Downtown today, and they can't live in/near the corridor by the time the Corridor Plan is implemented. They're priced out of that market.

The Corriror plan wants to reduce automobile congestion through Michigan Street. This is great goal. However, the Corridor Plan wants to reduce automobile traffic, while replacing it with very few, mostly poor alternatives. This will actually cause more congestion, not relieve it.

The plan cites bicycles and lengthy walking as an alternative to cars. This idea is sounds nice, but is not realistic. Michigan is in a state of cold harsh winters for 5 months of the year, and hot 95%-humidity summers for another month. In the winter, Ice and snow build up to extremely unsafe levels. Wind chill gets so cold that the national weather service routinely posts 15 and 30 minute frostbite warnings.

It's not impossible to commute on bike -- I've seen some 'tough mudders' do it anyway; they strap on snow pants and fat tires, and plow through the dangerous weather on bicycle. I'm glad that works out for those people. And for folks who live nearby, walking/biking becomes somewhat viable options when it's less than 1 mile.

Only 2.5% of Michigan Street workers live in the Corridor. The vast majority commute, long distance. (pulled from the Corridor Plan)

But as we already discussed, few are allowed to live in or near the corridor -- there are very little housing options available for the vast majority of citizens. By the Corridor Plan's own data, only 2.5% of employees who work in the Corridor, live in the Corridor. Suggesting to commuters who are forced by these policies to live in Grandville, Jenison, Kentwood, Standale, Northview, etc that they "bike in" to work is completly unrealistic and often extremely dangerous.

That just leaves Bussing as the only remaining option. The Corridor Plan calls for a transit hub, better timing for busses between Central Station and the new Michigan St Hub, as well as a connection to the hypothetical streetcar project. These are all great ideas that will help improve transit on Michigan Street.

However, it ignores the real problem. Bus timing on Michigan Street isn't actually that bad right now. Because multiple different routes overlap Michigan Street already, it's relativity easy to catch a bus into or out of the corridor already, and buildings are already close together and semi-walkable. (The new hub should improve this, but it's not a particularly bad situation at the moment).

The rest of Rapid's network however, is in a terribly poor state. Since most of the citizens of West Michigan aren't allowed to live in or near the Cooridor, they must commute from far-flung suburbs. The Rapid network out there is nearly useless. Bus timing is poor -- currently 30 minutes or higher. And buildings out there will never be walkable.

Here's quick sample of "typical" commutes from suburbs in the Metro GR area. It's a good visual representation of the timing problem. [1] [2] [3] And this assumes your suburb even has transit, many suburbs don't have any transit at all. (Jenison, Hudsonville, Rockford, Cascade, etc). Of the ones that do, trips are typically 60 to 90 minutes, and involve long transfer wait times (in the same freezing cold or muggy humid weather). Not to mention walking from home to the bus stop (I've intentionally picked places already near bus stops to make these results as favourable to bussing as possible -- most people don't live near one, and have to walk to it, adding more time)

A typical average 25 minute car commute across Grand Rapids, becomes a 1hr 15minute bus commute. In general, whatever your driving time is, multiple it by 3x, and that's your bus commute time.

Essentially, the bus system in Grand Rapids is completly unready for most commuting needs. It costs slightly more than driving, and requires double to quadruple the commute time, all while exposing commuters to harsher weather. Bussing is not a rational choice for most people.

People complained about the Silver Line, in part, because it was an uneven trade. It took away 50% of the speed/capacity of car traffic, and replaced it with only 30% comparable bus service. (Moves more people, but *way* slower and slightly more expensively). The Michigan Street Corridor Plan makes the same mistake -- it removes commuter car options, and replaces it with almost nothing. It punishes citizens for having to commute to work, while simultaneously requiring them to live far away and forcing them to have that very commute.

Solution?

"So Matthew. You've just complained about these guys 1 million dollar plan for the last 10 minutes. Just what do you suggest they do instead?"

I am by no means an expert. I am not formally trained in urban planning. But it doesn't take an expert to worry about fire when you see clouds of smoke in the sky.

To be clear: I have a lot of respect for Grand Rapids. I believe everyone's hearts are in the right place -- everyone involved in this Plan appears to be trying to do what they think is best. It's unfortunate that we often imitate real, major cities, without understanding why things work for them. So when we copy those ideas, they often aren't very successful or useful.

This isn't a perfect list by any means. But here's some recommendations I'd start with, when improving the Michigan Street Corridor Plan :

  1. Don't eliminate any driving lanes on Michigan St. Keep Michigan St. as car friendly in capacity as it is today.
  2. Do still add protected biking / walking lanes. Do eliminate all on-street parking on Michigan St, on both sides of the street, through the entire corridor (to get the land needed for bike lanes / protected walkways).
  3. Don’t lax any parking requirements. Require more parking for mixed-use. (to make up for on-street parking we just eliminated)
  4. Require certain percentage of new housing units to be three and four bedroom housing and be available for purchase (not rentals)
  5. Require certain percentage of new housing to be real-world affordable (no income restrictions, priced between 70 - 160k each, for units with 1 to 4 bedrooms, in keeping with Grand Rapids current wage situation).
  6. Require all housing units to have at least one dedicated parking spot. All 3 and 4 bedrooms should have at least two dedicated parking spots.
  7. The Rapid should switch *all* bus lines network-wide from 30 minute intervals to 20 minute intervals during heavy commuting use, to help entice car commuters into public transit. (At least from 7:30-9:30am, 4-6pm, every weekday). Potentially do the similar 20m or less intervals during Butterworth shift change times.

This works two fold:

For citizens who truly can't use public transit, we should not reduce the quality of their driving experience in any way. Since we refuse to let people live in the Corridor, we should at least not punish them for living elsewhere. Effectively, their lives are unchanged by all of these improvements. Congestion is still high, but no worse than it is today.

For citizens who can use public transit (or, bless their hearts, winter bike commuters), we should improve their experience as much as possible, without reducing car options, so that as many people as possible voluntarily choose public transit alternatives over driving. Taking away on-street parking should give us all the land needed to add protected routes for this.

I truly believe most people will willingly switch to public transit commuting, if it wasn't such a drawback in comparison to driving. But right now, GR's public transit plans usually rely heavily on the city intentionally breaking car transit, so that public transit appears better only by comparison. (See the Silver Line). Instead, we should leave most car transit alone, and force ourselves to do the hard work necessary to improve public transit, so that it becomes a *more favorable* option to cars, rather than one "forced" onto people through poor planning.

This is obviously harder to do. But it's the right way to do it.

Housing requirements listed should make it possible for at least a few lucky regular folks to live in the Corridor. The parking requirements are high, but should help relieve congestion from the neighborhood streets ( There's a common fallacy that reducing parking will reduce cars or wasted space. This is a lie -- we aren't NYC. When you allow for reduced parking, you eliminate no cars at all -- you just shove them onto already overcrowded residential streets. We already see this every single day in Belknap Lookout and Heritage Hill, let's not repeat this same mistake again. The best way to become a non-car-dependent city, is to intelligently accomodate all vehicles now, while we build up our transit for that future non-car dependent time).

The requirement to allow some townhouses / condos to be owned should help improve the culture and community within the neighborhood, by allowing residents to stay over long periods of time without risk of being gentrified out of their own neighborhood by skyrocketing housing prices. It allows people on tight budgets to live there, such as retirees who may need to reverse-mortgage. It's also important for building wealth within the community -- most peoples only significant asset is their own home.

Unfortunately, a large number of people who want to live there, will still be unable to live in the corridor. And some people will never want to live there. We help with these situations by improving the bus transportation. Since the vast majority of all bus commutes require at least one transfer (due to the hub-and-spoke model of the Rapid), and a good number of them require two or more, switching from 30 minute to 20 minute bussing will probably pull most bus trip times down on average 20-30 minutes.

If an average 25min car commute is currently a 1hr 15min bus commute, switching busses to 20 minute schedules should drop that down to 45min bus commute. For Spectrum employees who park in external lots, the Spectrum-run shuttle from Butterworth to the parking lot probably adds 10 minutes to their 25min car commute already -- making a Rapid-bus-only commute now competitive with their existing car + shuttle commute.

This would also reduce the dependency on "park and ride" situations. I'm not advocating against these -- they're a good idea -- but fixing the bus system properly would greatly reduce the need for these, and subsequently lower the overall cost.

Closing

There's lot of great ideas in the Michigan Street Corridor Plan. I don't want to discourage the hard work everyone has put into this document.

However, there are some large, glaring issues still present with the Plan. As someone who cherishes Midtown Grand Rapids, I don't want to see these problems get ignored during one of the few chances we have to fix them.

I don't anticipate these problems will ever be worked on. I'm having a hard enough time just convincing anyone that housing is a problem at all. Grand Rapids, and the midwest in general, having tons of land around to waste, is anemic to improving housing at all. The commonly prefered fix is always to force people into further flung suburbs for maintainable housing. But I'll continue to talk about this problem where I can -- it's something I care about, and should be fixed to encourage healthy development of the city.