Young People, Welcome To TC

Jolly“Enjoy our hip film festival and cool restaurants. See Mario Batali eating a pastrami sammy! You’re never more than a block away from a coffee shop or brew pub. Also, we don’t have anywhere for you to live!”

In Traverse City there are competing forces at work, headed for a confrontation at the corner of West Front and Pine streets. That’s where developers want to build a pair of nine-story buildings in an L-shape fronting both streets. They’re motivated in part to provide badly needed affordable housing for low to moderate income workers. The building facing Pine Street would include 64 affordably priced* apartments, there would be another 72 market-priced apartments or condos in the West Front building, and another building at the rear of the property on the banks of the Boardman River that would include 40 luxury condos and a restaurant.

Young entrepreneurs have contributed to a transformation of Traverse City from a seasonal resort town dotted with t-shirt shops to a nearly year-round destination recognized on dozens of Top Ten lists for food, beer, wine, art and natural beauty. The Chamber of Commerce has led the way accommodating and attracting younger tech-savvy workers, and they’re not alone in welcoming a new vibrancy in Traverse City. However, there is also pressure to control growth in the city with zoning that restricts granny flats, multi-family homes and tall buildings.

Supporters of the Pine Street project say it will offer more living space at lower than market rates and, as a bonus, will be located downtown. Backers also say the project fits their idea of high density housing to prevent sprawl, contributes to a walkable community and helps employers by providing affordable housing for employees. Opponents don’t like A) the traffic implications of adding hundreds of homes at one little intersection, B) the size and scope of the project, C) the fact that developers are collecting tax breaks and grants, and D) possible negative environmental impacts to the adjacent Boardman River.

The Detroit Free Press ran a front page story on the development, framing it as a fight between younger workers who want more affordable housing downtown and older residents who don’t want the town’s character to change. Opponents have started a petition to put the question of nine-story buildings on the ballot. Meanwhile, the developers have delayed their application with the City hoping, perhaps, for a warmer reception with a newly-seated commission after the November election.

Developers say they’ve followed the City Master Plan and the Grand Vision, two lofty documents supposedly representing the desires of city residents. City zoning allows buildings up to six stories, but a special permit is needed to build higher. Rules do allow up to nine stories at that location if at least 25 percent of building space is residential. The Pine Street project would be 85 percent residential.

I don’t know if nine-story buildings will negatively change the feel of Traverse City any more than the Park Place Hotel did when it was built. The town did survive. I don’t know if Front and Pine Street can handle traffic from hundreds of new residents and added retail space, but any qualified traffic engineer should be able to figure that out.

I do know that you can’t have affordable housing without government (taxpayer) incentives. If you desire affordable housing in or near downtown Traverse City, there will have to be a government subsidy.

Housing supply in Traverse City is low. If it can’t be increased through a combination of allowing more granny flats, multiple-unit buildings and taller buildings, then young families and workers will continue to move further outside the city.

On the other hand, it’s not unusual for those beginning their careers to live outside the most expensive neighborhoods, and to have to rely on public transportation or longer commutes. You won’t find a lot of waitresses, office workers, and retail clerks living on Chicago’s Gold Coast. They’re all stuck in a traffic jam, or on the train. Why should Traverse City be any different?

Bottom line: If developers follow local zoning rules and planning guidelines created with input from residents, they should be allowed to move forward. And, if they take advantage of government subsidies that are offered based on the wishes of voters, who can blame them? If the City does not want subsidized housing or buildings taller than six stories downtown, it should be clearly reflected in their planning guidelines.

*According to the developers, the rent is based on 40 percent of Grand Traverse County’s median income, which is $69,200 per year. Forty percent equals $27,680. The developers have said at a Traverse City Commission meeting that they will make sure that no more than 30 percent of tenants income goes to rent and utilities, which comes out to a monthly rent/utility bill of $692. A person earning $27,680 per year is considered to fall between Low Income and Very Low Income, according to Michigan housing standards.