April 7, 2020

Tall Talk

By Stephen Tuttle | Nov. 4, 2017

The endless argument over tall buildings in downtown Traverse City, now in court and likely to never go away, has percolated to the surface of public debate. Again.

The arguments remain essentially the same.

The more-height advocates tell us density is the key to a vibrant downtown, and we must build up, not out. They point out that downtown accounts for 60 percent of the city's tax revenues, and development there means more revenues, better services, and infrastructure maintenance. They believe downtown verticality means more housing opportunities, especially affordable housing. The ground floors of these developments will include more restaurants, offices, and shops creating more jobs. It will help deter sprawl and create a critical mass of people downtown, further stimulating the economy. And they believe people living downtown won't need to use their cars much.

They also sometime mention something they call workforce housing, but it's a mythological term. There is no way to guarantee that even a single new downtown affordable housing unit will ever be occupied by someone working downtown.

The anti-height advocates have fewer but more basic arguments.

Nine or ten story buildings, they say, jammed up against the sidewalk in accordance with local zoning laws, will forever change the character of downtown Traverse City, creating big city-like brick and steel canyons. They wonder about the impact of such development on the city's aging infrastructure. They believe big residential buildings downtown will create more traffic, not less. 

We already have some concerns about infrastructure. With $66 million worth of development slated for the warehouse district, including 200 residential units, the city is examining its main sewer line servicing the west side of town. If it's determined that the 80-year-old line cannot, or even might not, handle additional capacity, a multi-million-dollar fix will be required. 

More people living downtown should add a vibrancy that does not now exist, but there's not much evidence residents of a nine-story building are more vibrant than those in a six-story building; there would just be a few more of them.


Any of these downtown structures, regardless of height, will be part of a tax increment financing (TIF) district. That means a baseline property tax will be established as the amount the city general fund will receive. Any taxes above that baseline will be “captured” by the Downtown Development Authority (DDA). It will be used for projects in that TIF district. The city, county, and Northwestern Michigan College, recipients of other property taxes, will only receive their share of the baseline amount for as long as the TIF agreement is in place. 

(TCAPS is not included in the arrangement, and no revenues intended for its use are captured by the DDA.) 

The DDA has used captured TIF revenues for worthwhile projects downtown. But the rest of the city, the county, and NMC receive only collateral benefit from those projects of the what's-good-for-downtown-is-good-for-everybody sort. We'll never know if our emphasis on downtown and TIF districts has detracted from projects elsewhere.

There isn't a thing they can do downtown to prevent what's being called sprawl. Plenty of people are here, or came here, for a rural lifestyle. They prefer a village to a city. They want a place with a little room. They'll gladly exchange that for a commute to work and are unmoved by new urbanism. Nothing will change that.

We know where the voters of Traverse City are on this issue, having clearly said by ballot that they want buildings in TC limited to 60 feet unless they get a chance to vote on those buildings. A majority of the city commission disagrees.

Since this is a debate over 30 or 40 feet of building height — you can go up to 60 feet downtown by right and without apparent hassle — those advocating greater height should fill in some blanks for us. 

How much more tax revenue does a 90-foot building generate than a 60-foot building? How many more residences would that include? How many could be considered affordable? The value to the developer is obvious, but the value to the rest of us less so.

Pro-height advocates, defending pro-height city commissioners, tell us real leaders must sometimes rise above the will of the people in order to do what's right. We did, after all, elect them to make decisions, and they know more than we do. If it's true we don't sufficiently understand the nuances of the issue, then somebody didn't do a very good job explaining it. If we don't have all the facts, then somebody should have shared them with us.

We're talking about three stories of building height. Traverse City will not die because downtown is a little shorter than some would like. And it's a puzzling issue on which to ignore the will of the voters. 




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