Pop Goes the Traverse City Park
A proposal to create put a park in a long-vacant hole in Traverse City’s downtown gathers steam
By Ross Boissoneau | Sept. 28, 2019
Q:What is a pop-up park?
A: A temporary park, complete with many of the attributes one would normally expect: benches, greenery, a site for relaxation or recreation.
Q: Why do we need one?
A: It’s better than a hole in the ground.
So there you have it. A proposal for a pop-up park for the long-vacant and fenced-off plot of ground at 124 W. Front St., next to J&S Hamburg, is now getting off the ground. Once the home of Grand Traverse Auto, the site has been abandoned since 1996, when the Ford dealership (now Fox Motors) moved to its present location on US-31, south of town.
The idea came from Christine Keefe. The co-owner of 123 Speakeasy walks past the long fence every day and, with a background in this sort of redevelopment, initiated the proposal to transform what sits behind it.
“In New York City, a pop-up park is an activism tool. There are [vacant] lots slated for development but with no money yet. To keep them from becoming a parking lot, we’d activate the space [as a public park] temporarily,” she said.
Keefe worked on several such proposals in New York, including one on the Lower East Side waterfront. Pier 42, an underutilized former shipping pier, was converted to public parkland from 2013 to 2017. Every summer, the Paths to Pier 42 partners organized a series of temporary programs to give residents access to the pier, increase foot traffic along corridors between the waterfront and neighborhood, serve as recommendations for the full capital renovation plan, and address the vulnerability of the waterfront due to climate change and storm surges.
That site eventually became a permanent park, which is not the goal for the Front Street lot; property owner Louis Ferris plans to eventually construct condominiums on the site. In the meantime, however, he agreed with the proposal to move ahead with the plans for a park.
“We are so excited the owner has given us permission to use the property temporarily,” said Keefe.
Jean Derenzy, the CEO of the Downtown Development Authority, said such a project was not under consideration until Keefe came along. But there was always interest in working with the owner to do something with the site to make it more attractive.
“When [Keefe’s idea] came in, [a park] was not on our radar,” she said. “What was, was, ‘How do we work with the property owner? How do we … get the fence down, help with the sale?’”
The site is 1.25 acres, with 300 feet of waterfront along the Boardman River. Derenzy said determining exactly what the temporary park will offer is the next step, along with identifying people or organizations that would be interested in becoming partners in the project.
Keefe said such partners run the gamut, from landscape designers to those engaged in arts, marketing, recreation, government, as well as nearby businesses and residents.
“We want everybody,” she said, mentioning organizations such as Crosshatch Center for Art and Ecology, the Watershed Center, HearSay Storytelling, Arts for All, the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, and the Traverse City Downtown Development Authority, among others. She sees the project as benefiting the entire area, regardless of how long it actually serves as a park.
“The property owner is willing to work on the details and the paperwork for liability insurance,” said Derenzy. Identifying what the lot will actually become and determining the insurance needs are the next steps.
Both Derenzy and Keefe offered a number of potential uses at the site, including a performing space, a play space for kids, reading nooks, and simple green space. “Low impact, quiet enjoyment,” said Derenzy.
There is not yet a timeline for any work on the site, though Derenzy said she is hopeful some steps could be made yet this year, including doing something about the fence before winter. She said the handshake agreement with the property owner has assured them they can use the site for at least one summer. After that?
“When it’s time to leave, it’s time to leave,” said Derenzy.
That means time is short. “We want to have it up and running for summer ,” said Keefe — programming, temporary landscaping and the like. Anyone interested in the park proposal can contact Keefe at firstname.lastname@example.org