Downtown poised to fill holes in 2009: Exact completion dates? That’s another matter

TRAVERSE CITY – Are things still on track for a chain hotel in the Warehouse District? What about a couple of high-profile projects on Front Street? Here's a quick update on what you may and may not see in the downtown area over the next year.

"Walk to work" housing

A Front Street location originally eyed for a boutique hotel is now moving forward as "walk to work" housing.

Cherry Republic owner Bob Sutherland recently received a $25,000 loan from the Michigan Interfaith Trust Fund Housing Fund, which provides assistance for affordable housing and economic development, to start work on an apartment development at the site of the former Whiting Hotel. Sutherland will use the money to help pay for the first phase of architectural costs. Cornerstone Architects in Traverse City is doing the work.

The project will include 25 units, 650 square-feet each, and will be constructed using green-building practices and materials. Sutherland said the vision is for trendy living spaces at a reasonable rent that will attract young people.

"Our best and brightest are going to places like Austin, Texas and Portland, Oregon," said Sutherland. He hopes that providing a hip downtown living experience will help fight that trend.

Sutherland currently operates his Cherry Republic store on the first floor of the building and has an option agreement to purchase the entire building from owner Mike Anton. The second and third floors of the building have rooms that have been rented on a month-to-month basis since Goodwill terminated its lease last year.

Sutherland also plans to begin renovating the adjacent storefront currently occupied by What to Wear when it vacates in February. (Its new space is the former Gold & Silver Center just down the street.) It is the next step in his plan to "build out" the Cherry Republic store. The renovation will be complete by summer, he said.

Warehouse District hotel

What's up with the chain hotel? Plans for a Hyatt hotel on Garland Street are moving along, though perhaps more slowly than envisioned.

A springtime construction start is still the target for a four-story, 130-room hotel that will neighbor Right Brain Brewery, InsideOut Gallery and Cuppa Joe Warehouse Lounge among others in the off-the-beaten-path retail district. Wabash Traverse City Development, LLC, owned by Jim Courtney and Steve Price, is the project developer. The partners are based in Grand Rapids, and this is their first venture in Traverse City.

"Not a lot to tell you," said Courtney, when contacted by the TCBN for an update on the project. He said construction is still slated to begin after winter winds down "as far as we know."

Bill Krause, a real estate broker and consultant working on project negotiations with Hyatt Corporation, said negotiations were ongoing as of early November.

"Things are progressing, but not at the pace we'd like," said Krause, adding that the economic turmoil has affected the process. "We're still going through the numbers." He noted that when negotiations involve a national franchise, it's a hard, lengthy process.

Last month, the developers sought a variance from the city Zoning Board of Appeals for permission to construct two driveways but it was not approved, according to Traverse City Zoning Administrator Dave Weston. The city Planning Commission is looking at a possible text amendment to the zoning code this month that could grant permission.

The project includes demolition of six buildings on the nearly two-acre site. The hotel construction is phase one of the development. Phases two and three are proposed to include retail, condominiums and recreation facilities.

"The hole"

The prime piece of vacant real estate at the corner of Front and Park streets, affectionately (or perhaps not so) dubbed "the hole," is finally getting its makeover.

Developer Thom Darga purchased the land – and all that came with it, including foundations, permits and construction materials – for $2 million from previous owner Roy Henderson last summer. Since then, he's been working toward resuming construction of a mixed-use five-story building. The first signs of activity came last month when the fence around the property was painted black and a grand opening was held at the site late last month.

"The project is well underway," said Darga, owner of Suttons Bay-based Big Olives LLC, who's eyeing a December 2009 completion of the residential and commercial development at 101 N. Park Street.

Commercial space will occupy the first three floors for a total of nearly 40,000 square feet and 12 penthouses will fill the fourth and fifth floors. Local Realtor Lynne Moon, who is listing the property, had four reservations on the residences as of mid-November and commercial buyers committed to both the first and second floors.

The class-A commercial spaces will be owner-operated, Darga said, in response to a need for downtown space that is controlled by the individuals who own the businesses.

He said people want to contribute to the city's continued vibrancy and thriving nature, and investing in their own space and building equity is a key part of that.

Both residents and commercial owners will also own their parking spaces in the basement level.

The building will be LEED certified, the standard hallmark for green building. Comstock Construction is the general contractor with local contractors ABI Mechanical Windemuller Electric.

The "other hole"

At the other end of Front Street, the site of the former Grand Traverse Auto still sits empty and no activity is on the horizon. Federated Properties had planned a mixed-use building but then backed off the project.

According to local Realtor Mike Schmidt of Coldwell Banker, who is listing office space for lease at the site, nothing is in the works though he's encouraged by the fact that the overall market for office space appears to be improving. BN