Grand Rapids residents in the coming years may see Innovation Central High School much the same way as it appeared when it was first built in 1911.
Aside from the innovative programs happening inside the Gothic building, there may be big changes coming to the school’s 11.2-acre campus because of its inclusion in a master plan for downtown Grand Rapids. The Grand Rapids Public Schools has approved a contract with Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. to provide planning services that will determine the campus’ fate.
Plans include demolishing the old City High/Middle School building and historic renovations of Central and the old Fountain Elementary School building housing the district’s Montessori program. Mark Miller, an architect with Nederveld, an architectural and planning firm, said hopes are to restore both buildings under rules set by the Heritage Hill Historic District.
“We have this thought that these buildings are going to be looking at education in a different way and we’re going to be doing it in a historic format which is both challenging and offers great opportunities,” Miller said. “The bones of these places are in pretty good shape and the spaces are fantastic.”
There’s a new way of thinking in town
School officials wouldn’t be considering such a move without unprecedented cooperation with Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. (DGRI) and a number of other city leaders. School board president Wendy Falb, also a member of the DGRI board, said it took the right people coming together to get such an ambitious plan moving.
“It just took the right people from the mayor to the school board to the downtown planners to get this going,” Falb said. “Downtown development should include K-12 education, but it’s rare.”
Kris Larson, president and CEO of DGRI, said it only makes sense that planning for education be a part of economic development. He expects the 5,000 or so residents currently living downtown to swell to between 10,000 and 12,000 in the next decade and those people will eventually be looking for schools for their kids.
“Historically there’s been a mentality about education and urban planning as distinctively separate things with their own boards and authority and sometimes the politics can be difficult to manage,” Larson said. “We have this great nexus with the Grand Rapids Public Schools and we better understand each other about the needs for educational opportunities downtown.”
DGRI has provided $20,000 – a small piece of its $6 million annual budget – for facilities planning to retrofit the old Grand Rapids Public Museum building at 54 Jefferson Ave. SE for the new Museum School slated to open next school year. Money for renovations at Central and Fountain could come from a bond issue Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal has said she plans to propose to the school board in November.
“We certainly recognize the importance of a vital school district to retain individuals in our community and we view education as a fundamental part of economic development,” Larson said. “That’s a tiny drop in the bucket compared to what an educational amenity like the Museum School can add to downtown Grand Rapids.”