Bird-level businesses share their views from the top

For bohemians and business people alike, downtown is the downbeat of Traverse City. The beat plays well into the wee hours of the morning on weekends and within each patron's footstep throughout the workday. For this reason, a lot of people think it's a pretty groovy place to live and work.

The BN journeyed through a labyrinth of hallways and stairways to find the lesser-seen businesses and funky downtown apartments, hidden high up above our heads. The eyes on the second and third had plenty of stories to share.

"I've had people look up when clients have legs in the air or some other Pilates position that probably looks pretty strange from the sidewalk," said Jennifer Cutler-Pampu, owner of Pure Pilates, located above The Omelette Shoppe on Cass. "I don't have an advertisement in the window, just on my door on the street level."

One of the funniest things she's seen from her window? "I saw a man pull out his grill and a bunch of food, and start grilling on the sidewalk during the Cherry Festival. He was throwing lighter fluid on it and the flames were about four feet high. He was right under a tree and it almost set the tree on fire! Within 10 minutes the fire department came and wrote him a ticket. They left, and he continued to cook up the rest of the food. Once he was done grilling, he changed into a dress shirt, a woman joined him and they proceeded to have their dinner on the sidewalk. My clients and I got a good laugh," she said.

Kristen Jongen, founder of Soul Soup on Union Street, wholesales her artwork to galleries around the world and mostly depends on trips to trade shows to drum up business.

She has her own choice "birds-eye" moments. "(Watching) Michael Moore having a very involved lunch at The Dish…and two male lovers having a spat. They were throwing cell phones, and stomping around…Lots of altercations with the parking police."

Located on the second floor of the Masonic Building, she takes the good with the bad.

"I love being downtown. It's fun. The rent is affordable. It is accessible for our shipments and clients. I've been here almost four years. I love the sunlight…I hate the parking situation," she said.

A point echoed by more than one bird-level tenant.

"I least like the week of Cherry Festival. Losing our parking spots, people blocking our entrance/exit, trash on the streets, etc.," said Gary Long, president of Impact Sourcing at 120 East Front St., a product design and development firm specializing in high end outdoor, marine and military gear. "But, the location cannot be beat…view of the bay and people watching."

"I don't think people often notice our space here on the 3rd floor," added Matt Phend, manager of Impact Sourcing. "Then again, we are not a retail space – we're an administrative office."

So, how do these second, third – even fourth – level businesses thrive and survive while out of plain sight?

"We have a sign at the back alley entrance that reads: The Fourth Estate 'Fashion, Film, Ochlocracy.' It has a tendency to make people think we're some mad scientists working some mystical sorcery – which was unintentional. However, the lack of walk-ins allows us to focus on the work we do," said Tim Hall, of Fourth Estate, a 2,000 square-foot creative apartment/studio located directly above Plamondon Shoes. "People that know us know what we do and how to contact us."

Kyle Harris, tattoo artist at Collective Ink, uses the same approach for his second-floor business nestled in the back of the Front Street Commons (Arcade) Building.

"It's kind of word of mouth."

With minimal advertising, Collective Ink stays consistent with plenty of out-of-town calls and repeat clientele. "We're picky about advertising…the art does the advertising. That's really how it works," he said.

And most people still aren't aware what exactly the Whiting Hotel is or offers.

"People are generally oblivious to the hotel and number of apartments here. We have a door entrance that most people walk past," said Nick Anton, manager of the Whiting, located on Front above Cherry Republic, What to Wear and Cherry Republic Wine Shop. "We do have a new web site,, advertising in publications around town and a new sign/awning."

Anton said the Whiting has had a rough image for a long time. However, the image is changing rapidly for the better.

"We have cleaned up the complex and clientele here. I hope the community has seen and felt the positive changes. I am proud of what 'The New Whiting' offers," said Anton about the 55-room, fully furnished and remodeled historic hotel/apartment building complete with local artwork lining the hallways.

The zoning in the district allows 60-foot buildings, or about four stories by right, and up to 100 feet tall with a special land use permit.

Should the city move the zoning height up, bring it down, or keep it the same?

"I had heard the maximum was four stories. It makes sense to me to keep it this way. If the city started allowing taller buildings, it would take away from the 'small town' feel," said Matt Phend.

"A four-story building wouldn't bother me in the least, especially if it included apartments and kept business centered downtown rather than sprawled all over the great North's farmland and forests!" said Emily Betz Tyra, associate editor of Traverse, Northern Michigan's Magazine, located above Talbot's.

"I just got back from Paris, so it's hard for me to imagine anything beautiful beyond six stories," said Victoria Sutherland, publisher of ForeWord Magazine and Spirituality & Health Magazine, located above Kilwin's Chocolates. "Everywhere you look there, the Parisians have done the impossible – keep a large city the crown jewel of the world. They had a plan, stuck to it and are rewarded now with international visitors in droves."

"If we want to keep Traverse City and the environment gorgeous, we have to consider what generations from now will consider interesting: the bay, the historic architecture, the cleanliness and environmentally-conscious population who live and work here year round."

Have a grand vision of moving your yoga studio or music shop downtown? There's plenty of unoccupied office space throughout the second and third stories. Above House of Doggs on Union Street, for example, is 1,464 square feet of that unused space.

"Since the Bank of Northern Michigan has relocated to its new building, this prime, super-cool space has gone virtually unnoticed and is available," said Mark Dancer, owner of the lease.

In the future, perhaps more office space will be zoned residential to promote green living and urban renewal.

"I love being in the heart of things downtown. I like that I can run quick errands to the post office or buy a birthday present for a friend after work or run over to my exercise class and it's all within walking distance," said Betz Tyra.

"Parades, Fireworks, Friday Night Live, Blue Angels," adds Anton. "I love it here!" BN