Let’s Create A Standing Ovation For Division Street


I love standing ovations.

Nothing beats the energy of a crowd spontaneously drawn to their feet, when there’s a palpable sense they want to do more to show appreciation than just stand and clap, but there is nothing more to do, so they just keep on standing and clapping.

That’s how it was this past October when Ray Minervini received the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Milliken Distinguished Leadership Award at our Harvest@theCommons event. People exploded to their feet in applause because they understood Ray has done something miraculous in championing the rebirth of a decaying state mental hospital into what it is today: the Grand Traverse Commons, one of the most vibrant and distinctive centers of community anywhere in Michigan and one of the greatest historic renovation projects in the country.

“We wanted the Commons to be like the great cities of Europe – Paris and Rome – that were built before the automobile,” he said. “We put people first, and like in Europe, we do what we can to accommodate cars, but not at the detriment to the character of the place.”

Few would argue with the results of Ray’s emphasis on open spaces and walkability but, ironically, the traffic on nearby Division Street poses one of the most significant challenges to the Commons’ future. He says prospective tenants often walk away from investing until Division is fixed.

“Twelve years ago we asked for improvements on Division to make it more walkable and safer for drivers,” Ray said. “Nothing has changed.”

Well, the time to “fix” Division has arrived. Late last year, the state Legislature directed $500,000 toward a planning process to redesign Division between Fourteenth Street and Grandview Parkway. Because it’s a state road, the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) will manage the project. MDOT has retained a consultant and formed a local advisory committee. The plan is to present to the public preliminary design proposals in April 2015, and then choose a preferred design in June.

Ray Minervini isn’t alone in his frustration over Division, and the stakes are high to get this planning process right. Try walking across Division from Central Neighborhood. It’s completely unsafe if you’re not at a light; even at the lights you wouldn’t want your kids crossing alone. You wouldn’t even think of cycling on the road. And for drivers, it’s dangerous to make a left-hand turn anywhere on to Division.

While there is near consensus about the problem, the solutions are all over the map. A couple of years ago, a proposal for roundabouts made quite a splash. Some prefer a boulevard approach with medians, slower speeds, a pedestrian overpass, or establishing a road diet that would reduce the number of lanes – similarto the redesigned Eighth Street. One idea that has gained some traction is mid-block pedestrian crosswalks.

The stakes are high and it is encouraging to see that MDOT’s process is designed to weigh all those ideas. It emphasizes collaboration and a design that “fits its physical setting and preserves scenic, aesthetic, historic and environmental resources.” A few years ago, MDOT adopted a “Complete Streets” policy that prioritizes public input and road design that serves all users – a big shift forward from the way things used to be.

Transportation advocates challenge the notion that traffic will increase in the future and want stronger emphasis on walking and biking to take cars off the roads, park-and-ride lots to promote carpooling for commuters and improved public transit. Reducing traffic is not far-fetched because over the last 10 years the traffic on Division between Fourteenth and Front streets has actually declined by 12.5 percent.

Yet skepticism runs high in this town. Some veterans of past transportation debates just flat out don’t believe MDOT will respond to community desires – that it just can’t be done. Ray Minervini, the man who saved the Commons, is not one of them. “Absolutely, we can do it!” he says.

I’m with Ray. If MDOT facilitates an open process and the community comes together around a vision for making Division a beautiful, functional street, let’s seize the opportunity and make Traverse City the model for what “complete streets” can be. The Commons are a shining example of what it means to turn vision into reality. Yes, there will be challenges ahead, but the table is set to design a new Division Street that reflects the character of this proud town, one the whole community celebrates – like a standing ovation.

Hans Voss is the executive director of the Michigan Land Use Institute, a nonprofit organization working to protect the environment, strengthen the economy, and build community. MLUI is committed to supporting the Division Street planning process; go to www.mlui.org/division for updates and a link to submit your ideas to MDOT.