Published in the Traverse City Record-Eagle August 19, 2015
By Doug Luciani
There’s a big difference between growing up and simply growing older. Growing up is considered a positive evolution, where one gains maturity, knowledge, character, patience and other desirable attributes as he or she ages. Growing older suggests a much more narrow progression. An entity is there, like it’s always been, but doesn’t change with the times or adapt to the conditions that surround it.
It’s a contrast worth emphasizing as the community debates a proposed 9-story mixed use development in downtown Traverse City near West Front and Pine streets along the banks of the Boardman River. Building height debates aren’t new for the city. They seem to bubble up with most any project that comes with more than a downstairs and an upstairs. But the development at hand seems to have brought the city to a pivotal crossroad – do we as a city want to grow up, or just grow older?
While there’s enough smoke and fog blowing around on this issue to obscure the view from a 9-story building, there are various guideposts to follow during the decision-making process. Several years ago the city conducted a very thorough and open debate about downtown building heights as its reworked its master plan and zoning ordinance. The consensus was clear: Building heights should be low near the waterfront; allowable building heights were gradually accelerated as properties move away from the bay, again to protect the bay views but provide for the type of development density that’s appropriate and economically feasible for downtown; and a very few sites were identified as appropriate for developments of up to 100 feet under specific circumstances.
Now some want to change those rules, but seem to have a hard time articulating why. Nebulous reasons like maintaining Traverse City’s “small town character” are offered, but that’s hard to digest when there’s already an equally tall building standing right next door. Other reasons, such as that this will “open the floodgates” to a never-ending stream of 9-story buildings, show a complete lack of understanding of the economics of development or the way the zoning ordinances are written.
Truth is, the “small town character” card has been tossed out time and again to block downtown progress, from the city’s two public parking decks to a host of other downtown developments. It’s become doublespeak for those want to lock Traverse City in a time capsule to keep it the way they like it. In essentially every instance, those who pressed the panic button have been proven wrong. Looking at photos of downtown just 50 years ago, I’m glad previous generations didn’t default to the same lock box, or we’d still have industry on the bay, piles of coal on the open space, and a coal-powered electric plant dominating the bayfront view.
As Traverse City continues to evolve as a desirable place to live – for young people, businesses, entrepreneurs, retirees and others – the question for our city leaders is will they channel that growth in a responsible manner consistent with community plans and ordinances with clear rules and guidelines? Or will they try and turn back the clock, inevitably pushing more development and sprawl outside the urban core?
It’s decision time. Is it time to grow up, or just grow older?