A Commitment to Exploration and Design Excellence 

This fall, Progressive AE inaugurated an internal design competition challenging its staff to use their creativity and expertise to develop solutions to a speculative project—in this case, the creation of a mixed-use housing development anticipating the needs of Grand Rapids, the dynamic and growing city where many Progressive AE staff live and work. 

An extension of the firm’s mission to “drive performance through design”, the competition asked teams made up of architects, landscape architects, and urban planners to bring together their experience of the city with analysis and research to develop forward-looking design solutions that challenge the norm. 

The month-long competition provided limited constraints, focusing on the diverse range of ideas that came from interdisciplinary teams engaged in curious and playful investigative thinking. Collaboration and mentorship were a critical part of working together during the discovery of solutions. Conceptual designs were then developed together to embrace the constraints of creating purpose-driven projects and places appropriate to the city. 

The results of the competition demonstrate Progressive AE’s commitment to placemaking and the urban environment. The projects illustrated below are a combination of specific design proposals for an important Grand Rapids site as well as a varied collection of ideas to positively impact the place we live and the ways in which we build. 

Designing the Future of Housing in Grand Rapids

As the City of Grand Rapids continues to grow, housing supply has become a limiting factor for creating safe, sustainable, and active communities. Recent testimony by the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce to the Michigan State Legislature called for 23,000 units to be added in Kent County by 2025 to meet population demands. The way these needs are met will have large and lasting impacts on our city and its built environment. 

The Fall 2021 Design Competition imagines the development of a former industrial site north of downtown along the Grand River. Each team analyzed the site and its context, including a vacant but historically significant municipal water building, and proposed a solution for multi-family housing that addressed existing market and social needs. The site was unique in that it presented two important frontages — one toward a public riverfront and one toward the street.  Designers were required toprioritize and create value for both. 

Teams were also asked to develop specific sustainable strategies to create a net zero site through passive and active means. Concepts considered solar strategies, energy generation, material use, and embodied energy to create a case for how design decisions reduce environmental impact.  

The competition culminated in a presentation to a jury comprised of design and market leadership from Progressive AE alongside external developers familiar with the city and site. 

Concept 1


Chad Gould & Nolan Miller

This proposal seeks to re-establish a gateway to the city and create a destination for neighbors and visitors to the North Quarter of Grand Rapids. The existing water building will be preserved and converted into a hotel and restaurant. A lively streetscape is created by five and six story mixed-use buildings with ground floor commercial space and upper floor market rate and affordable apartments. Luxury units are built along the river situated atop a large surface parking lot, capped with a spacious park. The sustainability of the project is inspired by its connection to the river. Landscaped retention pools filter stormwater in a park-like setting, interwoven with pedestrian paths that introduce an accessible connection to the river unlike anything present in the city today.

Lastly, the project proposes the competition site be expanded to the east to allow for a significant new parking structure lined with new mixed-use buildings as a catalyst for future development in the district. This parking structure along with building rooftops offer sites for significant on-site power generation through new photovoltaic solar arrays.

(The planning strategies of this project were recognized by the jury as the winning solution for the site and will be developed further.) 


RIVER NORTH: Create. Recreate. Dwell 

Jamie Benvenuto & Derek Molenaar 

Designed for living, the River North project brings together work, art, health, and play and embraces the existing urban fabric with its combination of industry, art and recreation.  

The project is organized around a neighborhood courtyard sheltered by buildings on all sides that pulls the river front trail into the site. The residential development also reaches towards the water with a boat house that serves as both a community resource and an exercise and fitness amenity for residents.   

The project is a hub for art anchored by a gallery for indoor exhibits in the historic city water building. Adjacent spaces offer opportunities for small restaurants and retail and outdoors, a solar canopy creates shelter for events and demonstrates the project’s commitment to sustainability. The River North development is a new and holistic place for living that welcomes the city and its surrounding communities.

(The architectural design of this project was recognized by the jury to inform the future development of the project.)  


COMPLETE COMMUNITY: A Network of Resources for Urban Environments 

Joy Sportel, Ryan Johnson, Erick Leininger & Mausharie Valentine 

Sustainability is often focused too narrowly on a project’s site impact, systems, and infrastructure with not enough emphasis on what is needed to develop the innate holistic nature of a community. The Complete Community project proposes a network of resources and amenities amidst engaging urban environments to make a greater impact on the quality-of-life of residents in the project and the broader community ecosystem of which it is a part.  

Using a multi-disciplinary approach, the team conducted a thorough site assessment that led to scale-appropriate implementations, connecting the community to its riverfront. This multi-story development includes activated first floor retail and residence-supported services with the upper floors dedicated to multi-generational living spaces. Interstitial spaces between buildings inspire their forms, providing dynamic shapes made more varied by light and shadow.  

By creating a Complete Community, residents are empowered to actualize their best potential within their home environment. 


KILN / LINK: Creating a Radically Equitable Project 

Mark Cahill, Andrew Dancer & John Rizor 

Historically, the Grand River was extensively mined for limestone, with processing kilns littering its banks. This project borrows the forms of the bygone kilns, positioning a variety of building types across an interconnected park linking the river to adjacent streets and the larger urban context. 

Both the site and housing program are radically equitable in their design. The project reimagines traditionally held notions of private, semi-private and public space. All units qualify as affordable and have equal access to all site amenities and public park. Dwelling units are positioned away from common amenities, and no one unit has described or implied ownership over any part of the development outside of their apartment. The project effectively gives the entire footprint of the site back to the community of Grand Rapids.

The project also proposes a Community Benefit Agreement governing the financing, design, construction and operation of the project that makes specific commitments to equity to ensure the ideals of equity will be met.


LIVE | WORK | PLAY: A Shared-use Development for Grand Rapids 

Ned Baxter & Jacob Brookhouse 

Traditional mixed-use development brings multiple uses together but keeps them physically separate, placing residences above ground floor commercial uses.  Though ground floor tenants are often not even identified during design, their presence is often what makes the development attractive to an urban audience. Additional constraints like the rising costs of land acquisition and construction and the impacts of the global pandemic have forced a reconsideration of how projects are structured, designed, and built.  

A new type of mixed-use development is one where uses aren’t only mixed— they are shared.  The goal is to limit the size of spaces that are infrequently occupied, for example an apartment during the day or an office at night, to focus on interior space and a shared urban landscape that can be used throughout the day. This project creates flexible spaces that serve as meeting areas for office tenants, provide seating for cafes and restaurants, and act as residential common areas. A shared-use development creates vibrant, innovative environments that attract people to our city while helping to address the challenges of building today. 


NEW PORCH: Offering Immersive and Equitable Access to the River 

Stephanie Balke, Robert Ferguson & Denny Gappens 

This project creates a welcoming and immersive site that serves the neighborhood while enabling seamless, equitable access to the riverfront. It does this by designating ground and second floor space for public gathering and use, building universally accessible paths to the water and throughout the site, and providing large flexible green spaces to support community gathering, ceremony, and celebration.

The project is inspired by the site’s historical occupation by First Nations people and proposes to honor their traditions and expertise through a sustainable approach to landscape and through providing appropriate spaces for community celebrations. A feature of the housing includes multi-story gardens that build community among residents while also assisting in the passive heating and cooling of the project. 

This development demonstrates the potential for just, equitable housing designed, constructed, and operated in an exemplary way. It will do this through passive and active energy strategies, taking advantage of mass timber and low embodied energy building materials, and providing the highest standards of interior comfort and human-centered design. 


ONEcycle: Equitable Access to Housing, Job Skills, and the Riverfront 

Pedro Neira, Tanner Glackin & Anna Anklin 

ONEcycle is a mixed-use project of transitional, affordable, and market rate residences that focuses on providing equitable access to housing, job skills, and the riverfront.  

Grand Rapids has a short growing season, making it more difficult to have locally sourced produce year-round. With interior hydroponic growing areas, ONEcycle provides a large variety of food to the community throughout the year. Its agricultural programs provide upward mobility for residents by employing tenants in a proposed growing center and market. Apartment terrace gardens allow each resident to grow their own food while also providing shade and privacy to the units. 

The project re-purposes the existing historic water building as a furniture making facility to reference the history of furniture making in the area. The facility teaches vocational skills and the furniture made by residents can be displayed and sold in the pop-up market on site.  

Which concept is your favorite? We’d love to hear in the comments below!