The American Planning Association Michigan Chapter will honor the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority (DDA) with the 2013 Planning Excellence Award for the organization’s work to develop the Arena South Visioning Plan. The Award, which recognizes exceptional public outreach and engagement to plan for growth and improve a community’s quality of life, will be presented in October at the Michigan Association of Planning’s annual conference.

“This award is a tribute to our highly creative and capable staff and consultant team and the hundreds of citizens that participated to make the Arena South planning process a success,” said DDA Board Chair Brian Harris. “We are deeply honored by this recognition.”

The Arena South Visioning process was organized to guide the future disposition of four strategically banked DDA development sites south of Van Andel Arena. The so-called Arena District and immediately adjacent Heartside neighborhood is experiencing tremendous revitalization. But as redevelopment interest and investment intensifies, the problem was the lack of community-driven vision and plan of action for how best to develop the publicly-owned property at the heart of the district.

Recipients of the Planning Excellence Award for Public Outreach are judged on the originality of community engagement ideas, effectiveness of problem-solving, and strength of public participation. The Arena South visioning process deployed a thorough and innovative community engagement strategy to establish a widely supported vision for the future of the DDA-owned property.

In addition to “traditional” engagement activities such as forming a community-based steering committee and meeting with key stakeholders, the process included:

  • “Walk and Talk” events designed so community members purposefully experienced the area as pedestrians and more fully explored recommendations to promote walkability and connectivity.
  • “Building Block” events intentionally designed to involve kids and families by using Legos to develop various development scenarios
  • “Brew and Do” event that convened the community in a nontraditional location – a local public house – to review and discuss preliminary conceptual redevelopment ideas.
  • A logo design competition to involve art students and give the study a community-defined identity.
  • A focused ideation session with The Salon Urbanist Meetup, a group that meets regularly to discuss city building challenges and opportunities.
  • A panel discussion sponsored by Rapid Growth Media.
  • Community engagement through Facebook and other social media sites.

“We have an increasingly diverse and intergenerational community of people taking an active interest in downtown’s redevelopment, growth, and future,” said DDA Executive Director Kristopher Larson. “That means it is more important than ever that we constantly strive for and leverage new ways to reach and engage all citizens in our city building conversation.”

The information gathered during the engagement process was used to define the community’s strategic priorities for the redevelopment sites. The final Arena South Visioning Plan, received and accepted by the DDA Board in April 2013, clearly defines the placemaking, land use, architectural, and urban design criteria the DDA will use to evaluate development proposals and ultimately dispose of its land assets.

Indeed, the community-driven plan already is producing measurable results. The DDA Board recently approved a one-year option agreement with Arena Place Development, LLC for the sale of Parking Area One, a DDA-owned surface parking lot located immediately southwest of Van Andel Arena. The developer proposes to construct a multi-story building with 76 market-rate apartments, 40,000 square feet of commercial office space, 10,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space, and underground parking.

The Arena South Visioning Plan was a key tool that not only informed the DDA’s decision making process about the project but also helped the developer align the project with the community’s vision, which helped stimulate significant public support and enthusiasm for the estimated $30 million project.

The consulting team that led the Arena South Visioning Plan process included Cornerstone Architects, Viridis Design Group, and Williams and Works. Williams and Works managed the public engagement dimension of the planning process. DDA representatives and the consultant team will accept the Planning Excellence Award on October 2, 2013 in Kalamazoo, MI.

For more information about the Arena South plan visit:

For more information about the Michigan Association of Planning visit: