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Grand Valley looks to make Grand Rapids a college town

Apr 21, 2023

April 21, 2023 08:01 AM GRAND RAPIDS — Grand Valley State University officials hope to match major public and private sector developments in Grand Rapids with multiple large-scale campus projects aimed at bringing thousands more students downtown. GVSU's Robert C. Pew campus signifies an anchor tenant in Grand Rapids' downtown core. As such, it plays an instrumental role in the city's growth and overall activity, local officials say. Related As major projects advance around it, namely a 12,000-capacity amphitheater on the east side of the Grand River, university officials have downtown growth plans of their own. That includes doubling the number of student housing units downtown in the coming years, developing a $140 million tech hub at an existing facility, and converting a parking lot to green space to generate more public interaction. Grand Valley officials aim to increase the number of students enrolled in classes downtown from about 5,700 in 2021 to 8,100 by 2025. These targets are part of GVSU's 2022 master plan update, which the school's board of trustees approved in late February. The plan lays out a long-term vision for upgrades and anticipated capital projects at GVSU's main campus in Allendale, the Pew campus downtown and its health care campus along the Medical Mile on the north side of downtown on Michigan Street. Investments at the Pew campus, which hosts nearly one-third of GVSU's enrollment, would complement broader economic development goals in the city of Grand Rapids. Credit: Kate Carlson/Crain’s Grand Rapids Business Grand Valley State University officials want to increase the number of students enrolled in classes in downtown Grand Rapids from about 5,700 in 2021 to 8,100 by 2025. "Any time you can bring young adults and college students to the downtown core, it will create an increase in vibrancy," said Tim Mroz, senior vice president of community development at economic development organization The Right Place Inc. "They're going to visit restaurants, nightclubs and coffee shops downtown. It's exactly what you want." The 45-acre Pew campus located on the west side of the Grand River has a mostly insular design. Mroz said consultants working on GVSU's master plan engaged with The Right Place to focus on how the university could increase engagement with downtown neighborhoods and the business community. "I don't think the downtown community really sees the various GVSU campuses and buildings, especially their cafeterias and eateries, as public places that anybody can go to," Mroz said. "If GVSU can open that up and say, 'Come and play on my front lawn,' that will go miles for the university even in terms of potential future students and folks growing up on the west side being able to engage with GVSU." According to the master plan update, "For Pew to grow into a viable, exciting campus attracting new student and partnership growth, it needs an infusion of density across students, faculty, staff, visitors." The master plan recognizes how Grand Valley can evolve and "enhance our longstanding role as a catalyst to the vibrancy of downtown Grand Rapids by creating an environment that welcomes even more students to live and learn there," Karen Ingle, GVSU associate vice president for facilities planning, said in an emailed statement. "Just as these students would benefit from the energy of the urban campus experience, so too would Grand Rapids benefit from the energy of an influx of more Lakers and their eagerness to be part of the downtown community," Ingle said. Downtown growth Grand Valley launched its downtown Pew campus — named after the late Steelcase Inc. CEO Robert Pew who helped establish GVSU in the early 1960s — in 1986 with the groundbreaking of the L.V. Eberhard Center and Meijer Public Broadcast Center buildings. The downtown campus expanded in the following decades to include a total of 13 buildings, including Winter and Secchia residence halls, surface parking lots and a parking structure. A noteworthy addition to the campus occurred 10 years ago with the opening of the L. William Seidman Center building, which houses GVSU's business school. GVSU's fall 2022 enrollment of 21,648 was down 3.4 percent, or about 700 students, compared to fall 2021, but the size of the university's freshman class has ticked up slightly over the past few years, according to enrollment reports. While on the decline, GVSU's enrollment has fared better than its peers. That includes Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, which had an enrollment decline of roughly 1,500 students, from 18,191 in spring 2021 to 16,643 in spring 2022. Grand Valley's downtown campus currently has the capacity to house about 400 students in its two residence halls. The master plan proposes doubling the amount of student housing in phases, across two newly constructed buildings on the Pew campus. Some 5,754 students took classes downtown in fall 2021, which university officials plan to increase to about 8,100 with projects in the master plan. About 2,100 students, or 10 percent of GVSU's total, enrolled at the health care campus along the Medical Mile, while the remaining 60 percent of students attend class at GVSU's Allendale campus. Credit: Grand Valley State University A rendering of Grand Valley State University's $140 million Blue Dot Lab, a technology hub planned at its downtown Grand Rapids campus. Master plan projects Pew campus-specific projects in the latest master plan include transforming the Eberhard Center into a tech hub, constructing a new student center, adding 400 beds of student housing, replacing the Mount Vernon parking lot with active green space, and adding parking structures after existing surface lots are converted over time into new buildings or green space. The new student center and dining building would be four or five stories tall near U.S.-131, Fulton Street and the riverwalk. The renovated Eberhard Center included in the master plan would house Blue Dot Lab as well as a school of computing. Blue Dot would be an interdisciplinary tech center that is meant to be used by students and people from the community. GVSU's plan to create a digital learning and tech center downtown was included just more than a year ago in The Right Place's list of 12 projects that could be transformational for Grand Rapids. The roughly 175,000-square-foot Blue Dot Lab adaptive reuse project would cost about $140 million to transform the Eberhard Center over three years, according to GVSU's most recent capital outlay plan. University officials are requesting $35 million in state funding support for the project. The "Pew Green" open green space included in the master plan would be located at the site of the existing Mount Vernon parking lot. There would be opportunities to host events and live performances on Pew Green, but it would also connect various adjacent campus buildings to the riverwalk and Laker Line bus stop, according to the plan. Local officials say GVSU's ongoing downtown investments have the potential to rebrand Grand Rapids as a college town. "Grand Rapids in general has quite a few universities here, but it's never really been viewed as a college town," Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. President and CEO Tim Kelly said. "Finding ways to underline the university culture here is a benefit for everyone and I think Grand Valley is really taking the lead on that." The master plan update also aligns with many goals that the city and Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. have for the area, including adding housing density downtown, job creation opportunities and adding recreational amenities to open spaces, Kelly said. "They do occupy a lot of land, and to the extent that can be opened up and coordinated with the rest of downtown is only a good thing both for downtown and GVSU," Kelly said. "I think they've always known the opportunities that exist for their land here, but to see some thoughts and plans on what it could be is encouraging to see." ByKate Carlson, Crain's Grand Rapids Business

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