Parking: Planners, developers walk fine (white) line of growth vs. traffic

TRAVERSE CITY – When it comes to improving downtown parking, City Planner Russ Soyring has big ideas: Eliminate unnecessary driveways. Evaluate options for angle parking on the street. Better utilize the already existing lots and develop attractive signs to route traffic to them.

"If there's a perception that parking is too limited or inconvenient, many businesses will not consider downtown as a place to invest," he said. "Too much parking, conversely, would be costly and give the appearance downtown is dead."

And finding the right balance of parking is a major concern, especially for downtown's largest employer, Hagerty Insurance Agency, located in Old Town.

"These (Old Town) businesses need our assistance," remarked City Commissioner Scott Hardy. "There are a lot of cities looking to attract companies like Hagerty. We need to be pretty clear pretty quick about what our role with business (will be) in Traverse City. And we've got to be consistent."

On May 7, City Commissioners unanimously voted to enter into discussions with Old Town property owners for a public parking deck-a project conceptualized in late 2005 and early 2006 during a series of City Commission meetings.

Later in the month, the Commission approved to amend zoning ordinances in the Old Town and West Front districts to allow for public parking areas.

The Old Town plan, reintroduced April 30 by Traverse Bay Economic Development Corporation Senior Vice President Tino Breithaupt, calls for a $9.5 million, three-level deck to be built on an existing surface lot behind Maxbauer's. It would offer 473 parking spaces and as many as 12 residential condos, alleviating the current parking drought in the area bordered by Eighth, Union, Lake and Cass streets.

The proposal's progress was halted in the wake of last summer's defeated bond proposal for a West Front Street deck, but Old Town business owners say the time is right to renew discussions.

Attorney Dan Dingeman, speaking on behalf of Hagerty Insurance Agency, indicated the situation is particularly dire for his client. Hagerty brings approximately 350 employees into the Old Town area each day, many of whom struggle to find parking in the company's small handful of surface lots. Its employee base-with an estimated payroll of $16.9 million-is projected to grow by 210 staff members in the next five years.

According to Dingeman, Hagerty needs room to expand-no small order when "there are building projects that can't go up until we get secured parking." He estimates the deck's construction would take 1.5 years to complete, adding urgency to a timeline still facing months-if not years-of planning and approval processes.

During the April 30 meeting, City commissioners expressed concern at the possibility of Hagerty relocating.

"If I were (a business owner) and it wasn't economically feasible to expand in an area, I'd go and expand where it was economically feasible," said City Commissioner Matt Schmidt.

"Without Munson and Hagerty, this city would see residents leaving (in droves) because the tax rate would be exorbitant," added Commissioner Hardy. "We need to consider, 'what do Hagerty employees invest in this city?' Look at their impact. Without them, I suspect we'd see a dilution of the businesses that surround that area."

Commissioner Ralph Soffredine agreed: "We'd be foolish not to move (forward with a deck). We can't afford to lose any more jobs."

West Front parking

The Old Town deck proposal is, of course, not the only one on the block. Jerry Snowden of Snowden Companies is currently developing a multi-million dollar mixed-use project for 305 West Front St.

Citing a City analysis estimating at least 550 parking spaces are needed on the west end of town, Snowden recently concluded that the only way to ensure his development will have adequate parking once complete is to build a deck himself. How such a structure would be financed and who would have ownership of it, however, wasn't nearly as straightforward.

"Back in December, I offered the City an opportunity to purchase property to build their own deck on," said Snowden. "I also recently offered to build a deck myself-providing roughly 266 parking spaces-at an estimated cost of $5.2 million. Both options are before the City Commission, and we're still in the process of discussing what the next step will be."

Regardless of which direction the proposal takes, Snowden stressed the importance of City involvement in solving the downtown parking shortage.

"Public parking is necessary for a downtown to grow and thrive," he said. "I believe the City owes it to the residents of TC to provide parking as an essential service."

Federated Properties developer Mike Uzelac, who has his own deck proposal in the works for West Front, is intimately familiar with the tenuity of the process, having seen last year's bond proposal for a separate Front Street parking structure overwhelmingly vetoed by the public.

The new development, planned for 145 W. Front, would feature both commercial and residential units, along with 216 public parking spaces. Uzelac emphasized that the new project is entirely unrelated to the previous failed proposal.

"The biggest problem (we've run into) is that those opposed to our development continue to make it sound like it's the same proposal that was defeated last August. It's not."

A number of important changes have been made, he said. Federated is now responsible for financing the project rather than the City, it's a lease rather than a bond proposal, and development won't use local tax dollars but will "generate almost $17 million by 2027 (the year the TIF plans end)."

A recent executive order from Gov. Jennifer Granholm freezing state grant funds-including those helping to pay for demolition and cleanup costs on West Front-put a second Federated project at 124 Front St. on temporary hiatus. Uzelac indicated that plans are now moving forward again, however, with Federated submitting a demolition permit application for the project on May 14.

This second development, at the site of the old Grand Traverse Auto building, will be home to an expanded J&S Hamburg, Zaccaro's Market, and a new wine bar, Assaggio, among others.

The big picture

Russ Soyring thinks parking is just one small piece of a much bigger developmental picture.

"We need to continue to discuss the environmental and fiscal benefits of a higher density downtown," he said. "Public parking decks assist in building higher density, which is needed if we're going to move toward public transit and walking as the preferred means of travel. Low density development is anti-transit and makes walking impractical."

Soyring believes the City's emphasis should be on finding ways to improve the downtown experience, not focusing solely on creating parking. "Some of the best towns in America have limited parking. You don't mind parking and walking a few blocks when you're there, because once you're out of your car, there's so much to see and do. Building a great community should be our first priority."

Not everyone wants to see Traverse City move toward a high-density downtown, however. Local resident Jim Carruthers, who sits on the Parks and Recreation Commission, warned Commissioners at the April 30 meeting that "there are people who don't want to see growth and development in downtown" and that "there could be a fight" if proposals like the Old Town deck go forward.

Mark Twain, president of the Old Town Neighborhood Association, argued for compromise.

"The issue isn't being opposed or not opposed to a deck; it's balancing the needs of parking with (potentially increased) traffic and deciding how we will blend commercial and residential uses."

Commissioners and developers agree that being sensitive to public concerns is critical as talks move forward. The "how" of the process, they say, is just as important as the "when."

"I don't think residents have a problem with public parking," Snowden said. "I think they have a problem with the process of how public parking comes about-how and where and at what cost and under whose ownership these decks are developed. The issue isn't parking itself; the issue is everything else that surrounds it." BN