Just over 10 years ago Ray Minervini, who had moved north in 1989 after a successful construction career in the Detroit area, had a bright idea.
By 1998 he had decided to lend his building expertise to help a local group rescue the shuttered, crumbling state hospital complex, known as the Grand Traverse Commons, and he joined the board that oversaw the site.
After watching efforts to redevelop the massive complex fail one by one, Minervini stepped down from the board and in 2001 made a deal with the Commons for a year-long due diligence period; a year later he secured the site for a $1 million-plus commitment to put a new roof on Building 50 to prevent further deterioration.
His strategy was to take on redevelopment piece by piece rather than hoping to lure a single developer to transform the entire site, and he focused on a "pod" approach toward a phased, mixed-use redevelopment. "One bite at a time" became his strategy, and an oft-repeated mantra.
After the new roof helped stabilize Building 50, the popular restaurant Trattoria Stella opened in 2004 and Minervini began creating condominiums and apartments. Things have snowballed, and the Commons now boasts more than $60 million in development, including a winery, restaurant, coffee shop, numerous professional offices and a bakery among roughly 75 local businesses there. Building 50 itself is home to shops and an art gallery, with more to come.
The latest creation will be a 109-unit senior housing project by a group called Grand Traverse Senior Living, which received land use and other city permits this month.
Plans submitted to the city show a 113,847-square-foot project within the north wing of Building 50 and connected Cottage 19. The Minervini Group said Grand Traverse Senior Living would buy the raw space and develop the housing project.
Minervini said the mix of businesses and residents of different backgrounds, economic status and ages is "... what Traverse City is when you think about it," and he's right.
There's affordable housing to go with the senior housing project and high six-figure condos, there's an indoor farmer's market and upscale jewelry store and a host of professional offices. Having a Commons office address is about as cultured as it gets in Traverse City, and for good reason. The Commons is sophisticated and upscale and absolutely alive with what designers like to call "synergy."
Most amazing, perhaps, is that Minervini thinks the Commons is only half way to its final build-out, which he estimates will top $100 million, amazing for a city this size.
The senior housing project, which will be close to Munson Medical Center, is a good fit, Minervini said.
Drawings depict senior living with style. Plans include pub-type and "elegant" dining rooms, a TV room and computer and piano space. The 109 units will include a mix of studio and one- and two-bedroom units. Nearly 30 units would be for assisted living, with the remainder reserved for independent living. The project will include a courtyard area, gardens and an interior connection to shops in Building 50's Mercato.
It can be fairly said that the Commons is unique in northern Michigan and perhaps the state in the correct sense of the word — there is not another place like it, and even if a developer somewhere else can lure as eclectic a mix of uses as the Commons, no place is quite like the humongous Building 50 and the surrounding "cottages" that made up the old asylum. Its walls are two and three feet thick in places, the arched windows and soaring spires give it a Gothic appearance, and it is surrounded by parkland and lots of energetic people and businesses.
State officials have said the revival of Building 50 and surrounding cottages represents one of the most extensive historic restoration projects in the United States, particularly for the Kirkbride-style psychiatric hospitals built across the country in the 19th century.
The transformation from asylum to sophisticated haven has been as extraordinary as what is yet to come.