August 19, 2022

No Cars and No Kids

By Stephen Tuttle | June 25, 2022

Traverse City is looking to develop surface parking lots whenever practical or possible. There is no question those surface lots occupy incredibly valuable space that might be more productively used for other purposes. Such a purpose has been found, we’re told, on what is now Lot O on the southwest corner of State and Cass Streets. The proposal is for a four-story, mixed-use structure including “affordable” residential units.

They should be affordable because they won’t offer much in the way of amenities, starting with truly tiny studio apartments with no kitchens up to and including two-bedroom units. A “community” laundry and kitchen for residents will be part of the project.

The hope is that people who work downtown will be eligible for most of the units and plenty of taxpayer subsidies will be needed for both the builders and especially the renters. The two-bedroom units will be priced at $1,500/month, which might be reasonable for the never-never residential land downtown has become but isn’t for most of us. That’s why up to half the rent will be subsidized for lower income earners.

What there won’t be is parking. One city commissioner said the residents of the new building won’t need cars because they will be living very near where they work. We’ll assume the comment wasn’t intended to be as dismissive as it seemed. (It’s not clear geographical workplace location can be part of the qualifications to live in the building but maybe.)

This notion of residential buildings downtown without adequate parking for the residents assumes much that simply isn’t true about Traverse City. Unlike dense big cities, which have been that way for a very long time, we do not have bodegas, bakeries, butchers, fishmongers, and vegetable stands every couple of blocks. Nor is there a full-service grocer in downtown’s main stretch.

Aside from finding their daily necessities, these folks might want to enjoy some of what northern Michigan has to offer that isn’t within walking distance, and it’s a pretty long list, starting with the Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore, Leelanau County and Old Mission wineries, Mackinac Island, and so on.

The other missing element downtown with the no-cars-needed urbanism fad now afflicting our city commission will be children. Though some are forced to do so, the lack of a vehicle with the addition of children is extraordinarily challenging. There are practices and games and lessons and birthday parties and various appointments, and very few of those activities will be conveniently within walking distance or on a bus route.

Our city commissioners, who have bought into this notion of downtown residents without cars, should try a little experiment of their own. All the commissioners live within the city limits, and Traverse City is only 8.9 square miles. What if all were willing to give up their vehicles for just a week? Not just on ride-your-bike-to-work-day, but a full seven days of not using their vehicles at all—you know, as if they had none. Every appointment, errand, trip, and meeting should be done walking, riding a bike, or taking the bus. Everything. The experiment should be repeated in January because the commission, when blithely suggesting it’s no big deal for people to have no vehicle, seems to have little understanding of how that actually works. They should be willing to find out.

(And by the way, if they actually put a roundabout at the M-22/M-72 intersection, good luck to anyone on foot or a bicycle getting through it on their way to Tom’s for some groceries.)

A proposed development in the warehouse district, which could now be called the condo district, called for 80 residential units with parking for barely a quarter of that. It’s not clear where customers to the ground floor commercial entities will park or how long a walk anyone visiting a resident might have.

Not that far away is the Commongrounds cooperative development at Eighth Street and Boardman. Not only do they not have much parking—they have more spaces for bicycles than cars—they will also have a 150-seat performance venue. It seems unlikely everyone attending an event there will walk, bike, or take the bus. So they’ll park in the government center and on nearby residential streets.

For all of its various amenities, recreational opportunities, and cultural activities, Traverse City is not a big city and it’s unlikely to become one any time soon. Families aren’t coming here because they’re so fond of our population density and the vibrant urban lifestyle.

Expecting families living in multi-story, multi-family downtown residences to have no vehicle is a fantasy, a dream likely to be unrealized in rural northern Michigan. A downtown that excludes kids is more like a nightmare.


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