Our Fair City: How Will We Build It?

This month marks the launch of a new bi-monthly column about local architecture and design by Scott Lankford of Lankford Design Group in Traverse City.

I want to start a conversation about our City, our growth and responsibility to our memories and meaning. For me, our area and Traverse City in particular is a wonderful place to live and is brimming with opportunity for us, our families, our businesses and our charitable interests. Despite our history, I say we are still a “youthful” town in age and we have far yet to go in our growth potential. I also stipulate that we are growing and grow we must, for you are either growing or you are shrinking (dying). With growth is change. Nothing ever “stays the same.” Trees of our youth grow and die. So do family and friends. So do our favorite hangouts or beloved buildings.

Controversial to be sure, the waterfront changes did not start with last year’s new Clinch Park remodel. Our waterfront has been changing ever since the white man arrived. Certainly there were those who asked back then: Who would put a canning factory on this shore or cage an elk and call it a zoo? Changes irritate some people and excite others.

It seems that we know this, we understand this and yet we still try to “save” old stuff – places, events and people. We know these changes are occurring and we still fight on, trying to preserve and protect those memories – that meaning in our lives.

In our small region, in our small town, we see growth and change. We see buildings torn down and we see buildings arise. Legacy is an issue I want to proffer for your consideration. As a designer I see people; individuals or groups of people who make decisions in our area for good and, yes, for bad. Just because you build a building does not mean it is good nor does it automatically give you a pass. To the contrary, if you buy or own property in our town I challenge you to think about the responsibility you now hold.

Our buildings are not just for their owners. They are also for the people who live or work in them, near them, who drive or walk by them. Over time, something happens. They become iconic. They are markers, landmarks, touchstones for us and our children. For me, growing up in Chicago, it was the John Hancock tower, the Sears tower, the Standard Oil building, Marshall Fields, The Wrigley Building, the Field Museum, the Loop, the post office my Dad would drive under. I also loved the 7-11 and the drugstore my Mom would send me off to.

Back home here in Traverse City, we can suffer a bit from a “lack” mentality. We see buildings arise and we clap so hard to cheer on this building and how grateful we are that, “We are building in Traverse City and isn’t great?”, we fail to critically look at the edifice that is arising until it’s too late.

Speaking to stakeholders in a new building: You are now responsible to your legacy, your reputation, your children and your community. As Americans, we often take that idea of land acquisition as one of pride and singularity. Property rights, manifest destiny and boot strapping is a singular, “I did it myself” view point. But Traverse City is too small to criticize buildings right? I say Traverse City is too small to let our important lots, our key real estate go unchecked and then ruined by a terrible design and then a series of terrible decisions.

It seems to me that the smaller the building, the harder it is to screw it up. Or, more to the point, the larger the building, the probability that it will be an embarrassment increases with the square footage. Another factor: the closer said structure is to the downtown or center of influence, the more people care, whereas, the farther “out” said building is, the less people care. The smaller the population, the more that size matters whereas the larger the population, the more that design matters.

Remember the building that was caving in Bellstone Gallery (where Morsels now sits)? Remember that? Look at it. Remember what you felt when you first saw that? What a monstrosity? How violated you felt or how hoodwinked you felt? How does this happen? It is high time we require those who build to build in a better manner. More beautiful manner. More thoughtful.

Maybe more visible, and in my mind more hurtful, are the two buildings at two important gateways. The medical office building on the southwest corner of Front and Division has been completed for awhile now but still offends the eyes. The collection of materials and bad decisions is like a pile of Chex mix, all the ingredients are there but no elegance to be sure. Such a shame as it commands such an important corner in our burg.

The new TBA Credit Union headquarters just showed us how truly awful it will look. Who decided that a traditional 12/12 pitch roof should be tacked onto the east side like that? That soaring steel held some promise early on until we saw later that it is not a modern slab with window glass soaring but it’s just another of a collection of roof forms not talking to each other. And fieldstone now? Fieldstone? Really? Should we hold our breath for logs too?

Thankfully, we have more good than bad in our built environment. We have stakeholders who care and invest in good design and the team they assemble creates an amazing building, a beautiful building or I will even take a plain building done tastefully. It is not about every building being an art piece, but like art, our buildings have the opportunity to elevate us. Elevate our lives and our children’s lives. We can build legacies in so many ways and buildings are but one form of that type of investment.

I am grateful for all of those who dream, “see” the opportunity, do the research, make the decisions and build in our beautiful city. I honor their efforts. I can’t speak now to those who have already made poor choices. I speak to and challenge the ones to come. If you can, spend more – or if you can’t, then spend more wisely. More aspirational. It’s not just for you or your investors or your heirs. It’s for all of us. We are watching and we really do care.


Scott Lankford is founder of the Lankford Design Group in Traverse City, a full-service design practice offering high-end residential and commercial architectural interior design solutions.