Traverse City’s Urban Design Lacks Both Vision and Common Sense
By Kathleen Stocking | Aug. 21, 2021
Traverse City’s planners are so focused on creating wealth and tax revenue with “high density” that they aren’t thinking about what will happen in the future.
In 2017, Joe Minicozzi, a proponent of New Urbanism, came to Traverse City and, in the Warehouse District’s Inside-Out gallery, I think, told people how his hometown of Rome, New York, had been killed by malls. (You can watch his talk on YouTube.) Traverse City was already built out to the limit, he said, and the only place to go was up. Greater density downtown, Minicozzi said, would save the city by creating more tax revenue and would make possible a “strong community” with “walkability.”
Never mind that Traverse City already had a strong community with walkability and didn’t need to be rescued. “People are just so nice,” I remember a reporter quoting one out-of-town visitor to the Traverse City Film Festival when it first opened in 2005. Visitors from Los Angeles and New York were amazed at the friendliness and helpfulness of the local citizens.
Joe Minicozzi’s ideas, already obsolete in 2017, are even more so now: Malls are dying all on their own because no one wants to go to them; people are working remotely from homes out in the country or from houseboats; everything and anything can be delivered, and Amazon is outcompeting the big box stores. Ironically, Minicozzi’s town was destroyed by malls, and Traverse City is being destroyed by Minicozzi’s ideas about fighting malls.
City planners, dazzled by nonsense and fast talk and seduced by dreams of lots of money, kissed the package. They started courting developers, giving tax breaks, providing variances to their own zoning codes, and putting builders and real estate agents on planning boards, everyone talking about walkability.
Those of us who live in Traverse City watched in dismay as the “strong community” of kids and families that used to visit Bardon’s Wonder Freeze at the corner of Garfield and Front shrank because the corner became a hot, treeless slab of concrete surrounded by windowless buildings. The Paddling for Pints on the river has meant more drunkenness and more crime. The river is now filthy and unattractive, its banks rife with dangerous and unsavory characters at night and sometimes even during the day. I live on the river, so I know. The gimmicky new Riverwalk, made of chemically treated wood that’s toxic to fish, is already covered in garbage. Everywhere you look, the city is not maintaining its manmade infrastructure and is destroying the natural infrastructure.
Traverse City is becoming uglier and more polluted by the day. There’s little parking, and what there is is expensive and inconvenient. Parking tickets, money that goes into the coffers of the Downtown Development Authority, are routine.
Traverse City is in a river delta, like New Orleans, with the high hill along South Airport as one edge and Grand Traverse Bay the other edge. The river, foolishly rerouted in the town’s early years, used to empty into the bay right about where the Open Space is. It still wants to do that and is eroding its banks in its attempts to get there. The city’s water table is high. New buildings, like the one going in on Front Street across from J & S Hamburg, are being built on a flood plain.
More buildings mean more hard surfaces, with more rain going into the river. The E. coli break-outs at the beaches have become routine. The river floods more. The riverbank behind the State Theatre, where there’s a sewage pipe, is in danger of collapse. If the bank gives way, sewage will go into the river and the bay.
The bad ideas are endless. The city plans to take out the trees and repurpose a park on the river at Union Street into a glass, steel, and concrete tourist attraction with a children’s museum. The parking lot where the farmers market is used to be a park and now, ominously, the city wants to move the farmers market to a small corner away from the expensive property on the bay, a place with no parking; it’s only a matter of time, one fears, before the farmers market parking lot, formerly a park, becomes another expensive high-rise.
The city’s machinations have become all fancy talk and sleight of hand, decisions never made public until after the fact. They make a big show of inviting public comment, hosting events at the Old Opera House, but not until after they’ve already decided what they wanted. We’ve learned to watch what they do; not what they say. A park at the town’s bayfront senior center, a part of our existing “strong community,” is reportedly being eyed for workforce housing. Not only do many seniors want to keep the park by the bay, they fear a trick because in the past when land has been taken for low-income housing, it has later been turned into expensive condominiums.
Cities are made up of citizens who create their city’s culture and choose representatives, and that was true for Traverse City until lately. Our city is now a city where at least some of those making decisions, like the Downtown Development Authority (DDA), are not elected officials. We’ve become less democratic. Almost no one turned out for the “public input” meetings hosted by the city and the DDA. The trust, the sense of community, is gone.