Erik Falconer: Building up, not out is right for Traverse City

Erik Falconer

Last week it was reported that national big-box retailer Costco is planning to construct a store in the Traverse City metro area. Conscientious companies like Costco do not make these decisions without intense research on growth and population trends. Not that we need it, but this news comes as further evidence that our beloved region continues to grow. So, how will our community manage this growth?

The obvious answer is that we follow the vision, guidelines and zoning that have resulted from intense and inclusive planning efforts and have been carefully crafted to preserve the qualities that make our area so attractive. These efforts go back over 20 years — from the Traverse City 20/20 initiative to the more recent Grand Vision process and updates to the City of Traverse City Master Plan. What has consistently emerged as a result of this planning is that an overwhelming majority of area citizens believe in creating population density in our urban cores while preserving open spaces and the natural beauty that offer an unmatched quality of life here in northwest Michigan. Which brings us to the issue of tall buildings in downtown Traverse City.

Predictions of the demise of Traverse City by tall buildings is contrary to almost everything modern planning tells us about the design of growing communities. Denial of a pending Special Land Use Permit (SLUP) that would allow River West, the proposed development at Pine and Front streets, to build up to 100 feet would be contrary to the vision — and zoning ordinances — so carefully crafted by local citizens and government planning bodies.

River West is unique in that it proposes economic diversity for the housing elements of the multi-use project. Of the 162 rental apartment units proposed, 64 will be affordable workforce housing serving workers earning between $8 and $17 per hour. The balance will be units at market rates offering options for mid-range and upper income earners. This diverse mix of people living and working in downtown Traverse City is key to our economic and social vitality. However, downtown property is expensive, and the only way to build a diverse and inclusive housing development that is economically feasible is to make maximum use of the real estate. That means building up to the 100 foot height allowed by the zoning ordinance. The extra stories of apartments at market rates are critical to enabling the provision of workforce affordable housing at less than market rates. The viability of River West hinges on this necessary formula for accommodating affordable workforce housing in the downtown area.

Tall buildings in the defined and very limited districts that are zoned for them, as is the case for River West, make logical sense not just from a managed growth standpoint but also from a sustainability standpoint. They concentrate infrastructure and services on one parcel and offer walkability and less dependence on automobiles. Imagine the length of water, sewer, electric and cable lines required to serve 162 homes in a linear versus a vertical configuration. Further, River West would be located about a block away from the BATA transit center, allowing residents access to transportation to destinations throughout the region.

So, if a proposed development meets the community’s planning vision is compliant with the zoning ordinance in the district in which it is proposed, and meets the conditions of the SLUP, why should it not be approved? Local citizens lent their time and ideas to the planning process that helped create the City Master Plan and zoning ordinances. What message would be sent to them about the value and validity of planning if a clearly qualified project is denied? And what would this signal for future investment in downtown Traverse City when it becomes known that we do not play by our own rules?

Population growth and development are going to happen in the Grand Traverse region. This is a circumstance many cities would love to have. The real question is, are we going to fulfill a longstanding plan the community has already articulated for that growth or are we going to push development out into our forests, farms and open spaces?

Will a new, nine-story building alter the downtown Traverse City skyline? Of course. But will it change it to the extent of ruining our town? No. Great towns and cities are not static — they constantly change. The character of our city is not just about its buildings. It is about its natural resources, open spaces, and most importantly, its people. And a diverse mix of people living and working in downtown Traverse City will continue to keep our city great.

About the author: Erik Falconer is the president of Falconer Group, an independent investment management firm, and is a co-property owner and project team member for River West. He was born and raised in Traverse City, attended Norris Elementary and graduated from Traverse City Senior High School in 1991. He lives in Traverse City with his wife and three teenage daughters.

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