“For decades and decades the traditionally conservative community was resistant to shed its past,” says architect Michael Corby, FAIA, of his hometown, Grand Rapids, Mich. But all that changed in 1991, when a public–private partnership called the Grand Vision Committee (now the nonprofit Grand Action) began planning for a revitalized Grand Rapids.

The new development is “a result of the vision and investment of local families who have long-term commitments to the city,” Corby says. “They have the connections to the city’s past and can keep its essences alive while still introducing fresh, new layers that are allowing the city to evolve into a richer, more vibrant and diverse setting.”

Downtown’s Medical Mile got a boost in 1996 with the opening of Rafael Viñoly’s Van Andel Institute, a private organization for disease research and science education. And around it sprung a variety of medical centers and life-science startups—including most recently the 464,000-square-foot Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. Engineering News-Record named it Best of the Best in the healthcare category in 2011; its rooftop garden received an Honor Award from the Michigan Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects.

The Right Place, a regional economic-development organization, estimates that the local life-sciences sector is growing faster than the national average, with 27% employment growth over 10 years. That fuels the metro area’s population growth rate—which is putting a strain on housing inventory and affordability. Partnerships are addressing that need.

One example is 38 Commerce, designed by Corby’s firm, Integrated Architecture. The 87,000-square-foot, eight-story mixed-use project features five commmercial floors and seven floors of apartments and condos, plus additional retail on the ground floor. Brick and beams salvaged from the original building grace the commercial lobby and connect the new construction with its past. The LEED-NC project was funded by the sale of 20-year tax-exempt bonds and received an Honorable Mention in the 2011 AIA Grand Valley Chapter Design Awards.

Furniture City also invests in cultural and recreational facilities. It’s home to the first LEED Gold–certified museum in the nation, the Grand Rapids Art Museum, completed in 2007. The Salvation Army Ray & Joan Kroc Corps Community Center, designed by Isaac V. Norris & Associates, opened in 2010. This 106,560-square-foot, LEED Gold center—which includes fitness facilities, a performing arts and worship space, and an amphitheater—earned an AIA Grand Valley Chapter Design Awards Honor Award in 2011.

“There are many generous individuals, corporations and family donors that we can thank for helping Grand Rapids achieve its success,” says Brian Barkwell, AIA, another native son, and principal architect and owner of Via Design. “That means that things happen here.”