Michigan Musings

Earlier this month I visited family and friends in Michigan. In between these visits I snapped a few pictures of familiar and unfamiliar spaces.

Grand Rapids

I grew up in Michigan and most of my family lives in the Western portion of the state around Grand Rapids. Over the last ten years, the city has hosted ArtPrize – a downtown contest for visual and performing arts where citizens vote on their favorites. On our visit to the Children’s Museum we passed by the 2nd place entry from 2009.

“Imagine That!” by Tracy Van Duinen

I love the way this bright, mosaic mural livens up the street. It feels like a natural extension of the Children’s Museum. It is a wonderful example of the lasting effects public art has on civic pride. 

Monument Park sits at the heart of downtown Grand Rapids, yet, it seemed like a forgotten slice of public space. Until this trip I had never had a reason to explore this triangular plaza which hosts an impressive Civil War monument and fountain. It appeared that the city had invested into the area recently – yet there were still very few people in the space on a pleasant Sunday afternoon.

While there are some pleasant storefronts along the park, the other two sides face two of the busiest surface roads crossing through downtown. The buildings facing across the street from the park are also not doing it many favors. The State of Michigan office building in particular offers an uninspired frontage to this little urban oasis. 

Growing up in Grand Rapids in the 1990’s I remember visiting downtown and seeing a little pedestrian mall. For nearly two decades Monroe Mall was closed to vehicular traffic. Grand Rapids was one of many US cities that converted portions of downtown streets to pedestrian malls in the 1970’s following the lead of Kalamazoo. Yet Grand Rapids’ experiment did not lead to the downtown rejuvenation envisioned by its creators, and in 1997 the street was opened to cars again.

Today the street offers ample sidewalk space, a respectable tree canopy, and plenty of benches. While the curbside parking was full, the space felt underutilized. I admired the subtle mid-block crossing marked by a change in the pattern of bricks laid in the street. The street allows a single lane of traffic and provides curbside parking. 

Lowell, Michigan is just a few miles outside of Grand Rapids. Its main street feels similar to small cities throughout the state. A handful of historic buildings comprise the core of the city. The place feels charming yet grounded in its agricultural heritage. 

Struggling retail format

Throughout Grand Rapids, I witnessed several examples of suburban strip retail centers with empty storefronts. Some of this vacancy can be explained by the growth of online shopping and ageing commercial buildings. I suspect some of this vacancy should also be attributed to shifting consumer lifestyles.

For decades, the only housing built in the metro area was located on the suburban fringe. As Grand Rapids has created more attractive options for living and working in an urban setting, some people are choosing these locations for their home or work (or both). I imagine the effects of this return to the city are a factor in the declining demand for retail space in these strip malls.

This is not to say that all suburban retail appears to be struggling. Some retailers are saying “damn the torpedoes” and building new shops. For instance, one department store is adding 90,000 square feet of new space to the Woodland Mall. 

Ann Arbor

On our last day in Michigan, we spent some quality time in Ann Arbor. It happened to be a “Football Saturday” which is a big deal in the city where the Michigan Wolverines play. It also meant that the city’s wonderful Farmer’s Market was open. This permanent structure hosts events throughout the year. While it is smaller than the market we patronize in Ithaca – its Saturday market offers exclusively food vendors (craft vendors sell goods on Sundays). It was refreshing to see this market still attracting a strong crowd even after Labor Day.

Ann Arbor seems to have taken several steps to become more bike friendly in the years since we lived there. Downtown bike corrals have proliferated and seem to be well utilized. I was surprised to see a bike taxi complete with a trailer. I only caught a fleeting glimpse of this unique human powered vehicle which appears to have the capacity to carry between four and six passengers. 

In addition, the city appears to have expanded the allowance of outdoor seating for restaurants. I enjoyed the clever design Ashley’s used to squeeze a few extra seats onto its narrow State Street sidewalk. 

While the Nickles Arcade may not compete with Asheville’s Grove Arcade in terms of opulence, it exceeds it as a piece of living urban fabric. It was encouraging to see shops in the Nickles Arcade were largely occupied and filled with customers during our visit. The natural light and narrow storefronts make the Nickles Arcade a delightful place to visit.