The New York Times. July 11, 2007.
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — In the last decade or so, this city has been the beneficiary of investments in new academic campuses, a civic arena, a convention center, new parks, a transit center and more than 1,500 new units of downtown housing.
Even so, Grand Rapids has never experienced anything near the concentrated magnitude of the medical research, training and patient facility construction now occuring on Health Hill.
From the summit of the hill, on this city’s north end, and stretching roughly half a mile in both directions along Michigan Street, a stunning array of buildings is under construction, reflecting a commitment of nearly $1 billion by the area’s prominent families and medical institutions. There are a new medical school, a children’s hospital, a biomedical research center, a cancer treatment center, and two medical treatment and office buildings. Also under construction is a seven-level underground parking garage; it will hold 2,300 cars and cost $30 million.
All told, construction managers say, the buildings will cover 1.2 million square feet. By 2010, when construction is completed, those buildings, several designed by world-renowned architects, will provide enough space to treat thousands of people a day and employ 5,000 people, 2,500 more jobs than exist now on Health Hill.
The hill, also called Pill Hill here, earned its nicknames a few years ago when a medical research institute opened there.
Construction executives here and in other regions say that just a handful of similar medical development projects rival Health Hill in scope and cost. The University of Kentucky is building a $450 million hospital at its campus in Lexington, part of a $2.5 billion 20-year project to build what the university calls “the medical campus of the future.” Oregon Health and Sciences University just opened the 16-story $160 million Research Clinic Building, the first of three large buildings it is planning for the new South Waterfront district of Portland.
In Grand Rapids, health executives and city officials say, the focused investment involves one neighborhood and two disciplines: cancer research and patient care. This approach essentially forms the next big concept for sustaining the economy and culture of a rebounding city of more than 193,000 residents.
“We’ve been through all kinds of transition,” said Eric DeLong, the deputy manager of the 181-year-old city, Michigan’s second largest after Detroit. “We started here with lumbering and ran out of trees. We developed furniture and then manufacturing. With that came finance, real estate and banking.”
Indeed, during the 20th century, Grand Rapids fostered the development of enormous family fortunes: furniture manufacturing at Steelcase and Herman Miller; Amway home products; oil and gas development; insurance and banking; and Meijer Inc., a major grocer and general merchandise retailer.
Almost all of the venerable families chose to stay in this midsize cosmopolitan city less than a three-hour drive from Chicago and Detroit, and where the fishing in the Grand River and nearby Lake Michigan is excellent.
Led by Rich and Helen DeVos and Jay and Betty Van Andel, who founded Amway; Fred Meijer of Meijer Inc.; and Peter M. Wege, an heir to one of the families that started Steelcase, the city’s wealthy invested more than $1 billion since 1990 in various urban projects, including the $77 million Van Andel sports and entertainment arena in 1996, the $56.5 million downtown DeVos campus for Grand Valley State University in 2000, the $220 million DeVos convention center in 2003, and a $55 million art museum that opened this year.
Grand Rapids was one of just two major Michigan cities (Ann Arbor being the other) to gain population in the 1990s. In the last decade, its income tax revenues more than doubled, to $59 million annually.
“Now we’re claiming our place in the new economy with applied research, medical care, patient treatment,” Mr. DeLong said. “These are new, intellectually driven sectors. Health Hill is a concentration of intellectual capacity, and that is what we need in this era.”
On a recent July afternoon, Bill Rietscha, the vice president of facilities at Spectrum Health, a regional system of hospitals and clinics that specializes in cancer treatment and is involved in financing and building three of the five structures, pointed east and west along Michigan Street. “This,” he said, “is where we are creating the next 50 years of health care infrastructure for west Michigan.”
On the south side of Michigan Street, Spectrum Health is spending $250 million to build the 14-story, 440,000-square-foot Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, designed by Jonathan Bailey Associates, which is based in London. It is to be finished by December 2010.
A block away on Division Street, the Van Andel Institute, an increasingly prominent biomedical research organization, is adding a $178 million, 240,000-square-foot, five-level addition to the imposing $77 million 140,000-square-foot research building it opened in 2000, designed by Rafael Vinoly. The new wing is to open in December 2009.
On the north side of Michigan Street, the foundation of Michigan State University’s $70 million 125,000-square-foot medical school is taking shape, financed in part with gifts from Spectrum Health and the Van Andel Institute. It will open in August 2010.
Next door, Michigan Street Development — a collaboration between the DeVos family and Christman Construction — is building a $78 million 125,000-square-foot medical office building, hotel and research laboratory. It is to open in April 2008. An existing office building will be torn down next summer and replaced with a second 125,000-square-foot office tower.
And next to that, Michigan Street Development and Spectrum Health are building the Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion, a $100 million 284,000-square-foot patient treatment center that includes an unusual junglelike atrium. It is to open in June 2008.
Though the Health Hill construction program is immense, its major financiers and broad scope are familiar to residents. “We’re fortunate to have the kind of people who care about this stuff,” said Rick Chapla, vice president of the Right Place, a nonprofit economic development agency.
Even before the latest burst of construction, Health Hill had been the focus of investment by the city’s families.
Mr. DeVos and Peter Cook, another important financier, helped Grand Valley State University build a $57 million Center for Health Sciences on Michigan Street in 2003. Fred and Lena Meijer helped Spectrum Health build a $137 million nine-story cardiac care center that opened in November 2004. And Jay and Betty Van Andel built the medical research institute that bears their name.
On a recent tour of the laboratory, Arthur S. Alberts, a cell biologist and senior scientific investigator at the Van Andel Institute, said he had been reared and educated in San Diego and remembers when the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and the Burnham Institute for Medical Research there were not nearly as well regarded or as central to the city’s economy and reputation as they are today.
“You can feel that same potential here,” said Dr. Alberts, who oversees the Laboratory of Cell Structure and Signal Integration, one of the institute’s most productive teams. “This city is building world-class research programs and facilities. People come from 19 countries to work here. When I interviewed here in 1999, my familiarity with Grand Rapids was nonexistent. Today, people know. And when they come here, they feel like pioneers.”