Let’s Not Close Our Eyes to the Vision

Among the disappointing aspects of the poorly-framed “tall building” debate in Traverse City is that it seems to ignore a very strong message brought forth from one of the region’s great accomplishments – that being The Grand Vision. This amazing community-based land-use guide created just a few short years ago embraced the idea of growth occurring in developed areas, with increased density where infrastructure already exists in order to combat the scars and public costs associated with urban sprawl.

Unfortunately, some of the voices and organizations that worked so hard on this regional visioning effort have fallen silent – or worse yet are working against the ideas and solutions the community worked so hard to forge during The Grand Vision’s creation. It’s ironic that one of the very groups that initiated and led early on what became The Grand Vision is now among the parties associated with a lawsuit to halt its implementation, and is fighting to pass a referendum for what will effectively be a ban on any future high-density projects in our urban core.

Fortunately, not all have abandoned the ship, so to speak. I asked my friend Kim Pontius, Executive Vice President of the Traverse Area Association of REALTORS and a former spokesperson and team chair for The Grand Vision, to share this month’s column space to refresh our memories on some critical community consensus building that’s already taken place as this debate goes forward.

By Kim Pontius:

One of my very first community events when I arrived here eight years ago was a charrette at the Suttons Bay High School cafeteria for a new citizen-led planning effort called The Grand Vision. I didn’t know what a charrette was but the process was familiar: an exercise seeking solutions to problems that could arise from expanding growth pressures.Thousands of people throughout the region were just like me – taking part in Grand Vision charrettes which mean “a meeting in which all stakeholders in a project attempt to resolve conflicts and map solutions.” It reminded me of my early professional days working in manufacturing and the quality system program known as “root cause analysis” – when a team looks at a process and tries to determine the root cause of the problem. These practices can also be used to impact decision making in other sectors including the planning community. As our villages, towns and cities compete – and yes they do compete – for economic development opportunities, viability and sustainability, knowing how to focus on the root cause of a problem becomes increasingly important.

From that first village charrette, my involvement in The Grand Vision evolved into leading the citizen involvement it was built upon. The Grand Vision included a great deal of citizen input and an incredible amount of work on processing the findings that were designed to help local units of government, planning commissions, zoning authorities, professionals in connected networks, developers, investors, and the public at large better understand our growth challenges and offer some best practices for dealing with them.

Those practices were clear, and included more vertical development in our established communities to reduce the pressures of sprawling growth into our rural areas. And it bears repeating that those best practices were based on a large cross-section of our local population’s responses and some of its most-influential and active citizen and environmental groups.

Here’s the problem: We live in a multidimensional world but too often limit ourselves to linear thinking. Look at the development and expansion of our communities. There are many ways to look at solutions to accommodate the ever-expanding population of our planet. But sprawl – two-dimensional growth – challenges our ability to build and maintain viable infrastructure at a cost we can afford.

We need multidimensional thinking in at least four dimensions and, yes, that means going vertical. The more roadblocks and hurdles we create to stymie that third dimension – vertical growth where it is planned and zoned for – the more we will continue to push two-dimensional growth into the countryside creating more traffic, stretching out infrastructure and driving up public costs.

But the more important dimension is the fourth, and that is time. While we debate “how high should we go” we are ignoring time. At some point we’ll hit critical mass, and in fact in housing circles many would argue we’re already there. A reactive instead of a predictive approach to solving this problem is a surefire path to failure. New and more-diverse housing stock, particularly in the city, is years overdue.

As we face growing pains in our regional community I’m reminded of the button I received shortly after I moved to Traverse City in 2007. It stated very simply “Growth Happens – Let’s Decide How.” I thought it was very forward-thinking because it identified the root cause straight away. We worked hard on the challenge and came up with solutions – solutions from which we seem to be turning away. We knew growth was going to happen. We know it isn’t likely to stop unless we continually rebuff future development by making things so difficult that we lose out to communities that embrace change. Growth Happens – Let’s Remember Our Vision.

Doug Luciani is CEO of TraverseCONNECT, a regional economic development organization that includes the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce and Venture North Funding & Development. Contact him at doug@TraverseCONNECT.org.

Kim Pontius is Executive Vice President of the Traverse Area Association of Realtors. Contact him at kim@taar.com.