Park or Parking Lot: the Future of John Ball Park

In our growing city, greenspace is a premium. As infill and density increase, natural spaces that don’t require a car trip to the exurbs (or farther) are so valuable to the quality of life, physical and mental health of the residents. A place to have a picnic. A place to touch grass. A place to hear the birds chirp and the insects buzz. A place that one can walk to and enjoy an afternoon playing with friends and family. A place like that is something every resident of Grand Rapids deserves.

On January 25th, the Kent County Board of Commissioners voted to approve the John Ball Zoo’s 2023 Master Plan Amendment to pave 10+ acres of park greenspace for new parking spaces. Parking spaces which will not be enough in 10 years, according to Zoo CEO Peter D’Arienzo. With that vote, the Commissioners gave up any County oversight until the next Master Plan Amendment is submitted by the Zoo. 

In 2013, Kent County set up a public-private partnership with the newly formed John Ball Zoo Nonprofit Corporation. In that lease agreement the County retained ownership of the land while transferring the public zoo’s assets to the corporation. The property is split between the private area for the zoo and the public park–now just a “publicly accessible park.” 

The neighborhood around John Ball Park had a community advisory board that worked with the Zoo from 1987-2015. When the Zoo became a nonprofit, it decided it had the ability to advise itself and shut down this group. In that same year, the Kent County Board of Commissioners approved a wildly unpopular Master Plan that placed a massive parking lot smack in the middle of the park. The Zoo did not move forward with this plan presumably due to public outcry.

After 8 years, the Zoo decided in 2023 to create a new Master Plan that also destroys a huge part of the park.  The Zoo was able to leverage the previously approved Master Plan–a plan that they themselves said they didn’t want–to pressure the Commission to approve a plan to pave green space. As Commissioner Sparks put it, “Are we playing chicken? … Or is the Zoo willing to listen to the community?”

The County Commission decided they were playing chicken. Though it is not specified in the Lease, the majority of current Kent County Commissioners believe they cannot negotiate with the Zoo to achieve a better outcome for the public. Their role is a simple up-down vote with no room for negotiation or adjustment. Effectively, a rubber stamp committee. The Grand Rapids DSA condemns this abdication of responsibility by the County Commission and the Zoo’s disregard for the local community who use this park every day.

We admire the work of Save John Ball Park and the other community members who have fought to keep their park throughout this process. Without their pushback the expansion would have been much more destructive, and even now they’re working to keep the community in the conversation. They are in talks with the Zoo to establish a Community Benefits Agreement. Some items they are looking to get the Zoo to commit to are better communication regarding construction dates, special events, and other things that might impact the neighborhood residents and businesses.

Thank you to the Commissioners who voted against this expansion:

  • Diaz (District 20)
  • Sparks (District 12)
  • Hennessy (District 14)
  • LaGrand (District 16)
  • McCloud (District 13)
  • Antor (District 2)

Approve – Green
Against – Red
Abstain – Blue
No response – Grey