July 31, 2021

Meaningful Public Dialogue Missing

Guest Opinion
By Fred Anderson | June 26, 2021

I continue to be concerned by the lack of meaningful dialogue with the public by several appointed Traverse City senior staff members and those involved in the planning and development process before major projects are approved. Recently, there has been a fast-paced effort to convert several publicly owned surface parking lots to more high-rise buildings under the guise of workforce housing. It looks as if these discussions occurred without any time or effort being spent to discuss these changes with the public. I find this troubling from several perspectives.

Parking in downtown Traverse City is indeed an issue. But before public properties are sold off, serious-minded discussion about the long-term goal should be undertaken with those who call Traverse City home. There are a lot of folks who feel another parking ramp is needed in the downtown. There are many others who feel it is not needed. And I suspect that there are many like me, who feel they need more information before they can reach a decision.

Any such dialogue with the public should not be what appears to be the usual method of operation, where meetings with developers have already occurred and there is a plan essentially already developed. This discussion should be a two talk with the public without a plan already developed where cursory public input is sought at the last minute. In these overdue discussions, a lot more listening should be the method of operation.

Systematically selling off public parking lots to increase the pressure to build a ramp on already constrained downtown parking is not the open and transparent way to handle this important issue. Two-way discussion led by the City Hall crowd should occur before the parking lots are eliminated. Involving the public before the decision has essentially been made would make the public feel they have been sought out and their views taken into consideration.

It is likely that most workforce housing that is created by this hasty action will end up adding to the stock of Airbnb short-term rentals in the downtown area of the most popular city in Michigan. Once those who occupy these units recognize how much they can make by using their units for short-term rentals, the damage will have been done. I doubt the city is going to hire housing police to knock on doors at night, so there will be no realistic way to prevent the units from becoming short-term rentals.

While that is good news for the shareholders of multibillion-dollar Airbnb, I am not sure that is the best use of former surface parking lots in Traverse City. These new short-term rentals will also have an unfair advantage in competing with local hotels and motels who employ many in the area. And while the hotels and motels pay assessments for tourism development, these newly created short-term rentals will not do so.

Additionally, the elimination of surface parking will make it more difficult for those who live here, or those who visit, to shop downtown. From my prior volunteer work, I know that complaints from tourists about parking are already significant. In addition, some who live here already resist going downtown to shop because of the parking problems.

The City Hall crowd also owes the public an open dialogue about how infrastructure needs will be met with the increased pressure the rapid approval of all these high rises they favor is creating. Our streets are crumbling and look more like something from a third world nation. There have been several recent incidents of sewer and storm drain overflows. It would seem that before rushing into building more high rises, you would want to have in place a plan on infrastructure improvements. And that blueprint should be much more than the naïve, previously approved change to exclude certain developments from providing onsite parking. That idea helps developers increase the profit on projects but does nothing to help with the real infrastructure problems and the need for more affordable housing in the area.

Fred Anderson retired from a long career in legislative, political, regulatory and community affairs in Lansing and Washington, D.C. Now a homeowner in Traverse City, he is concerned about balancing the pressure for growth with protecting the unique nature of what makes Traverse City so special.

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