Commentary: Too Much “No” In Local Activists’ Voices, Actions

MLUI 2012 AnnualTraverse City is an activist town. Local debate is usually lively, often intense, and sometimes hard to predict. I know it can drive elected officials and developers crazy, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. People here care deeply about the future and how our region grows. It’s that spirit of passionate engagement that, ultimately, makes Traverse City such a special place.

The civic discourse was really jumping last month when city commissioners were reviewing the nine-story development proposed at Pine and Front streets. When I bumped into friends and neighbors, I found about half of them had a pre-disposition toward “no.” Some had concerns about building height, traffic, and an underlying apprehension about a big change downtown. I shared my thoughts about how density actually reduces traffic because rather than driving in from out of town, people can walk to shops, restaurants, and jobs, and how 60 units in town for lower-income workers is something we desperately need.

I listened to their concerns, they heard my thoughts, and I left the conversations grateful for the chance to have respectful one-on-one discussions on an important local issue.

What I didn’t expect was the opposition from some of my environmental activist friends. How was it, I wondered, that Sierra Club and other national environmental groups advance smart growth campaigns for urban growth because it reduces carbon emissions (New York City, for example, is America’s greenest city with about a third of the per capita greenhouse gas emissions as Houston and other sprawling cities), but when density projects are proposed here in Traverse City, we lack organized support from the environmental community?

The answer, unfortunately, is clear: it’s harder to advocate for something than it is to oppose something – and that’s a real problem.

Consider how this country still hasn’t come to grips with what to do about climate change. Environmental activists (and yes, I proudly consider myself one) have successfully blocked coal plants across the country including here in Michigan; we’ve slowed plans for major projects such as the Keystone XL pipeline; and we’ve made real progress toward shutting down the Line 5 pipeline in the Mackinac Straits – all of which lessen our dependence on fossil fuels.

But the environmental movement hasn’t built enough support to implement solutions. Whether it’s supporting the expansion of wind farms or advancing systemic solutions such as seriously expanding public transit and implementing a national carbon tax, these ideas simply haven’t taken hold, at least not yet.

It’s a tough road at the national level, of course, because powerful interests spend vast sums to block these solutions. But here in Traverse City, our biggest obstacle is simply ourselves – and building a consensus about what we want for this town.

Downtown development is more than an environmental issue here. It’s about our ability to compete in a fast-changing new economy. College graduates are choosing dynamic places where they can live downtown without a car, walk to work, and enjoy a thriving cultural scene and access to recreation.

This new paradigm is giving rise to a hopeful new group of young economic activists in Traverse City such as John Di Giacomo, a partner in the intellectual property law firm Revision Legal, and a member of the Traverse City Downtown Development Authority.

Di Giacomo, 34, describes a sense of urgency for Traverse City to provide housing that the younger workforce can afford. “For our firm and many other companies, it’s hard to attract talent when there’s no in-town housing,” Di Giacomo told me. “Recently, we couldn’t fill two open Traverse City positions for six months and ended up hiring them to work out of our office in Kalamazoo.”

There was time that Di Giacomo even considered moving out of Traverse City, but he and his wife recently bought a house in Slabtown, they are expecting their first baby, and they plan to stay for the long haul. Di Giacomo said he just “loves it here too much.”

It’s that kind of passion for the place that truly defines Traverse City. We may not be Portland, Boulder, or Austin, but we have the Great Lakes and a powerful ethic of community engagement that sets us apart and, I believe, can offer what many millennials are looking for.

I honor the spirited discourse in this community. I just hope we can shift that activist voice more toward “yes” and advance real solutions that are good for the environment and economy.

Hans Voss is the executive director of the Traverse City-based Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities (formerly the Michigan Land Use Institute), a membership-based nonprofit organization that advances programs on local food, clean energy, and smart growth.