Traverse City Record-Eagle

January 10, 2008

Holes in ground downtown cause concern

By Melissa Domsic

TRAVERSE CITY -- Ralph Soffredine is fed up with "bookend" holes in the ground at each end of Front Street downtown.

"It is embarrassing to see that," said Soffredine, a city commissioner. "How long do you wait before you say to someone ... 'don't just leave a hole there or a fence around there forever.'"

Soffredine's concerns echo those of many other residents and city officials and center on two properties where developers' promised projects haven't materialized.

City commissioners discussed a proposed demolition ordinance this week, but decided that staffers should research other ways to address unfinished construction projects.

Such an ordinance would require demolition permits and include restrictions, which could be retroactive, to insure lots are restored if nothing is built within a maximum 90 days of tear-down.

"It's not a demolition problem, it's a building problem," Commissioner Jody Bergman said. "The ordinance that was presented (Monday) is not going to solve the problem we have of a building being started to be constructed and not finished."

Bergman suggested means of recourse might be better placed in the land-use permit process.

"At least it started that dialogue," city Manager Richard Lewis said of the meeting. "They raised some very good questions ... more importantly, there was more clarity of the concerns that are out there."

Much of the clamor has focused on Federated Properties' empty lot at 124 W. Front St. and the unfinished Clovelly Broadcast Centre at 101 N. Park St.

Federated tore down the former Grand Traverse Auto dealership last summer but hasn't begun construction on a commercial building. Would-be tenants -- and city officials -- are unsure of Federated's plans.

And developer Roy Henderson's property a few blocks east at the corner of Front and Park streets has been empty for years.

Henderson put in a foundation for the Clovelly building, but hasn't done any construction since 2001, due to architecture and building height disputes, as well as the poor economy.

Comstock Construction Co., which holds the Clovelly building permit with Grand Traverse County, recently confirmed it has no plans for work at the site.

Bruce Remai, director of Grand Traverse County's construction codes, sent a letter this week to Henderson's attorneys stating it's his "understanding that this project has been abandoned and the permit has now become invalid."

He added that "the vacant lot must be left in an acceptable manner" and asked what the developer intends to do to meet that requirement.

"The building code, we can only take it so far," he said. "If they refuse to do it, then we turn it over to the legal counsel. But at this point I have no idea of what their intent is."

The Jan. 7 letter was copied to Henderson, who on Jan. 8 said he hadn't heard about it.

Remai said the letter was a checkup since he hadn't recently heard from the developer. The letter wasn't in response to the city's recent push for action, he said.

Filmmaker Michael Moore, whose film festival runs the newly revamped State Theatre down the block, isn't happy with the lot's appearance.

"It looks like (Vietnam)," he said. "I'm certain rodents are having conventions down there."

Moore wants the city to use eminent domain, condemn the property and create a park. He offered to organize volunteers to clean up the site.

City attorney Karrie Zeits said eminent domain is unlikely. Henderson, who unsuccessfully tried to sell the lot for years, said he'd like someone to buy and develop the land.

"The fact that there isn't a shiny, brand-spanking-new building there is regrettable, but certainly what is there now is not a hazard, nor is it in my view an eyesore," he said. "But I do agree that a building should be there, or some other improvement."

Henderson didn't have an asking price or recent appraisal, but said he pays about $75,000 a year in property taxes.