City commission approves bike-sharing study, delays zoning vote

There was tension in the air at the Grand Rapids City Commission Meeting Tuesday evening at city hall.

Much of the public hearing focused on the topic of affordable housing in the city, but a bike-share program feasibility analysis was given the green light and the public also voiced support for the new Parks and Recreation department strategic master plan.

The City Commission meeting room was nearly full with concerned citizens in attendance.

Cameron Kritikos, a Calvin student and resident of the South Hills neighborhood, showed up to the meeting because the key issue, affordable housing, is pressing for his neighborhood. “I saw that [the meeting] was likely very relevant to my neighborhood, so I wanted to be there to learn what was going on in my city […] and to practice my citizenship muscle.”

In the earlier portion of the meeting, the bike-share feasibility analysis plan passed by a vote of 4-3, creating tension within the council.

The plan involves the city paying $100,000 to Sam Schwartz Engineering, a Chicago consultant, to conduct a study on the feasibility of a bike-sharing program in the city, with a focus on reducing the parking burden in the downtown area. Bike-sharing may be utilized as another form of transit to connect downtown employees with parking areas outside of the downtown area.

One resident spoke out against the plan as a waste of money, citing a bike-sharing program in Seattle, Washington that recently failed. Other residents were more supportive, citing hopes that the program might alleviate the parking shortage downtown.

The Parks and Recreation department master plan, which outlines improvements for the city’s parks, was not a contentious issue. Every resident who spoke on the issue was in favor of the master plan as it is being considered by the city.

The major issue addressed in the public hearing was affordable housing, a topic that had been brought to light by the rezoning plan the city is proposing to adopt for the west side of Grand Rapids.

The amendments to the current zoning ordinances for the city are focused on extending the downtown area west of the Grand River. This would allow large, 16-story buildings to be built in the working-class West Side neighborhood, which has mostly single-family homes.

These rezoning amendments are in line with the GR Forward plan that was adopted by the city in 2015, which is trying to prime Grand Rapids for future growth by strategizing future development.

Some West Side residents fear that future residential development will be aimed toward college students and young professionals, pricing out current residents who are renting by increasing property values in the neighborhood. At the meeting, neighborhood residentBarb Hickity explained how she can’t afford a burger at a new burger place where there used to be a porn store. Comments such as these expressed a larger anxiety over the future direction of Grand Rapids.

Around twenty people from the Grand Rapids Homes for All coalition, a grassroots organization focused on the idea affordable housing for all Grand Rapidians, were present in a show of support for affordable housing.

A nine-year old girl, Raya Lewis, stood up to tell the city commission about the poor housing conditions in the apartment she and her mother rent. She related how bedbugs, roaches, mice and spiders make it difficult for her to sleep in her own bedroom. Her story was representative of many of the residents’ testimonies, many of whom expressed to the commissioners that their needs are not being met by landlords, who they describe as eager to cash in on rising property values in the city.

The rezoning ordinances that generated so much community debate were expected to be voted on at Tuesday’s meeting, but were unexpectedly pushed to March 28.

Mayor Rosalynn Bliss noted that the timeline had been rushed for all parties involved, and after extensive conversation at the Committee of the Whole on Tuesday morning, the Committee agreed to table the vote until that later date. Most residents were surprised by this decision, but still spoke up in support of affordable housing in Grand Rapids.

Many Calvin students and alumni also showed up to view the meeting. Professor Joseph Kuilema’s social work class, Social Work Practice with Organizations and Communities, came to watch community organizing in action.

City Commissioner meetings take place two Tuesdays a month at 7 pm on the ninth floor of City Hall. The next meeting is on March 7.