September 20, 2018

Unity Park

By Stephen Tuttle | July 28, 2018

We've known for a long time that Traverse City's downtown surface parking lots would serve a better purpose if they were developed. Our Downtown Development Authority (DDA) reminds us of this with some frequency. New tax revenues, additional downtown housing and commercial businesses, and a critical mass of residents and activity are the promises.

All of which is at least potentially true but seems to have been lost in the Great Building Height Debate, which continues unabated.  

Now the DDA has decided they'd like to buy one of those lots, for $1.5 million, and turn it into a “civic park.” 

That would seem to be a rather dramatic about-face in terms of priorities for that property. And it forces dozens of people now using the lot to find parking spots that do not currently exist. 

Fortunately, there is an alternative. It is an idea that has been suggested, and rejected, more than once before, but the time may have come to seriously consider it. Maybe. 

Close Cass Street north of Front to just beyond the bridge, and there's the best location for your park. There are some significant advantages.

To start, the land is already owned by the city so the DDA saves themselves a quick $1.5 million or more; it's not clear the parking lot in question is even available at that price. Unlike the parking lots, the Cass Street property can never be developed or taxed. It would eliminate only a handful of existing parking spots instead of the dozens eliminated in the parking lot plan. And parking in the big lot north of the river would still be available via the Parkway, Union and Park Streets. 

That block of Cass is also actually in the middle of downtown, as opposed to sort of, kind of in the middle of downtown. 

It could become the perfect gateway via the tunnel to Clinch Park, the marina, the Open Space and all things waterfront while inviting beach-goers to come into the business district. 

Extend it around the corner a bit, and the farmer's market could become part of the new, permanent civic park, and it could merge into the new and improved river boardwalk. Since there is an incline, there would be natural graduated seating looking north for any events.  In the winter it would make the perfect little sliding/sledding/coasting hill for small children. 

Add grass, some trees and other natural landscaping, and it would serve the additional function of significantly reducing run-off into the river and bay.

It also would provide some refuge for harried families and others needing a brief escape from the excesses and hubbub of downtown without having to wander a couple blocks elsewhere. 

Best of all, the surface parking lot would still be available for development. If we'd exercise some patience, an intrepid developer will eventually come along who has figured a way to make a profit on that land and the positive results promised by the DDA  might then come to fruition. 

And there is history. Decades ago that section of Cass was a civic park. 

There are, as you might have guessed, some glitches inherent in the Cass Street park idea. 

The alleys immediately south of the river would become dead ends. That would get a bit tricky with people cruising and looking for parking. It would likely complicate the lives of emergency vehicles that already find alleys inconvenient. Converting it into a park would require tearing up the street, and that might somehow impact some of the infrastructure beneath it. 

The new park would likely be a bit less grandiose, but that might be a good thing. 

And, yes, the elephant in the room is the closure of that block of Cass and the elimination of an entry/exit to and from downtown. But there are such entry/exit points just one block east and one block west, and both also have controlled intersections with traffic lights at the Parkway, unlike Cass. 

Reducing vehicle traffic downtown is another of those often discussed but rarely accomplished goals. Nibbling away at the issue one parking spot at a time, or even dozens at a time, isn't likely to work. Some big cities have had success limiting traffic by reducing vehicle access. Closing that block of Cass, in addition to being a fine place for the park, makes a bit bolder statement about intentions. 

Developing surface parking lots is the right idea and, given time, is likely to happen. A civic park is also a fine idea and would enhance the downtown experience. But we can't do both on the same parcel of land. 

The Cass Street alternative serves one purpose while saving the potential for the other. We'll call it Unity Park, and it will be swell. Unless, of course, it's impossible.

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