May 29, 2020

Half Right

By Stephen Tuttle | May 23, 2020

Traverse City's City Commission and Downtown Development Authority (DDA) recently floated two ideas, and they're batting .500. 
The suggestion to close two blocks of Front Street to vehicle traffic is a good one. If the long-term objective is to keep vehicles out of downtown Traverse City, a legitimate objective, this would be an excellent time to test the idea. Especially since closing those two blocks of Front Street to vehicle traffic is absolutely the only way to keep traffic off those two blocks of Front Street.
There will be logistical and parking issues, not to mention some grumbling and confusion, but everyone will adapt.
This strategy has been used frequently and successfully elsewhere. Boston, New York, Montreal, San Francisco, Seattle, Ann Arbor, and other cities have converted downtown streets to pedestrian-only plazas. Paris chose a different path — actually narrowing streets flowing into their central city to discourage motorists. Seattle is now considering converting another 20 miles of streets to pedestrian and bicycle-only paths.
To be sure, all of those locations have significant advantages. They're large urban areas with robust regional transportation systems, so their residents have ample mass transit options. Our Bay Area Transportation Authority (BATA) does a good job but lacks both the funding and ridership to expand much. The rural nature of our area means we simply don't have the critical mass of potential riders to justify a significant regional system. Nor do we have enough people willing to abandon their vehicles for the day.
Still, closing Front Street from Park to Union — just two blocks — is appealing. It puts the ridiculous summer traffic congestion elsewhere and replaces it with pedestrian congestion, a much better opportunity for downtown businesses. With some additional benches or other public seating, it should keep people downtown longer.
If it becomes permanent, which seems at least possible, the city should also consider closing Cass north of Front as part of the pedestrian-only zone. It would result in a large, car-free area feeding directly to and from the farmers market, as well as the underpass to Clinch Park, the marina, the Open Space, and all things waterfront. Good place for a civic park, too. 
However, among the other ideas being batted around by the City Commission is one that involves another stab at what they keep calling “workforce housing.” It's a cute name without much real meaning, and one of their ideas to facilitate this dream sounded more than a little bit off-kilter.
The suggestion was to give away city-owned surface parking property to developers in exchange for the creation of workforce housing. They say it's for the “missing middle,” residents who work in town, have a steady income but can't afford to live downtown. Which would be just about everybody. So when they talk about workforce housing, they actually mean below-market-rate housing. 
There are some issues here.
The property being discussed isn't part of some private land trust. It's public property used and wholly funded by city taxpayers and those who park in those lots. It's not at all clear that it can be given away to private developers who will then require additional taxpayer money — brownfield funds, tax increment financing (TIF), and payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT) all involve spending taxpayer dollars or diverting them — to build whatever they will build, and likely taxpayer subsidies for the renters, too.   
So the plan is to give our land to private developers so we can then help pay for them to build something and make a profit so we can also pay people to live there.  
Then there's the issue of who's going to occupy these buildings. 
The folks talking about this like to use the phrase workforce housing because they hope, and would like us to believe, people working downtown will get these below-market-rate apartments. There just isn't any way to assure that will happen.
The city cannot require such properties only rent or lease to someone working downtown because it runs afoul of all manner of fair-housing rules. If they are technically low-income units, there are other — financial, not geographic — requirements that come into play. Maybe people who work downtown will qualify, but maybe every unit will end up being occupied by someone who doesn't. 
Closing part of Front Street is a good idea both short and long term. This is the perfect time for a test run.
So-called affordable housing or workforce housing downtown should be called what it actually would be; heavily subsidized housing involving taxpayer money at every step of the process. Affordable housing efforts should look outside of downtown. And while we're looking elsewhere, maybe we should change focus to find some solutions for why so many downtown employees with steady incomes are paid so poorly that they need below-market-rate housing. 


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