Which Way to Paradise: Traverse City grows up

Oct 6, 2015

Architect Mark Miller leads the Traverse City Planning Commission on a tour of West Front Street.
Credit Aaron Selbig

It wasn’t that long ago when downtown Traverse City rolled up the sidewalks once it got dark. But now the place is booming pretty much year-round.

All that growth has spurred a debate about over what the city should look like 10 or 20 years from now.

One area that city planners are focusing on is West Front Street, where a construction project this summer created new bike lanes and crosswalks – and lots of new signage meant to slow traffic down.



The city planning commission says the basic idea is to turn West Front Street into an extension of downtown. They use words like “streetscape,” “pedestrian experience” and “neighborhood branding.”

"If you're behind a tourist, be prepared to stop because they're in awe of what we have. And we don't want to lose that awe."

Donna Folgarelli owns Folgarelli’s, a wine shop and small grocery that’s been in business for 37 years. She remembers when downtown Traverse City was dominated by Milliken’s department store and not much else.

“My dad would close for a month because there would be no business; that would be January or February," says Folgarelli. "And now it’s come to that downtown. It’s become beautiful along with some very fine dining. And that transition in itself has turned the downtown area into a very luxurious spot.

Folgarelli is not completely sold on the new design of West Front Street. Some parking spaces were lost in front of her store. But she supports the city’s vision of developing the west end – as long as it’s well-planned.

“This is a beautiful city," she says. "I’ve loved it all my life and I think that everyone that comes here feels the same way. They know that growth is inevitable but controlled growth is something that makes it substantial.”

But what controlled growth looks like is up for debate - and Folgarelli is torn.

Donna Folgarelli is not pleased that a redesign of West Front Street took parking spaces away from her grocery store.
Credit Aaron Selbig

She has her own plans for a big expansion project. She wants to turn her small grocery into a five-story mixed-use building – with two residential floors and a rooftop dining area.

But as she looks to a prosperous future, she also has reservations. She doesn’t want Traverse City to lose what makes it special.

“We are nature," says Folgarelli. "You know, Traverse City is water. If you’re behind a tourist, be prepared to stop because they’re in awe of what we have. And we don’t want to lose that awe.”

Flocking to the city

The problem of how to manage growth in urban areas is relatively new Up North.

Keith Schneider lives in Benzie County, where he writes about urban development for the New York Times. He started a nonprofit in Traverse City years ago to address these issues.

Schneider says that during the 1990s, northwest lower Michigan grew by nearly 30 percent – making it the fastest-growing region in the Midwest.

“So the 1990s were this time of exceptional population growth here," says Schneider. "But since then, it’s tailed off.”

Census numbers show that since 2000, the only county still seeing that type of growth is Grand Traverse. Schneider says that 20 years ago, the growth trend was all about pushing out of the towns and suburbs and into rural areas.

Now that trend has reversed.

“Young people today are not doing that in Benzie County," says Schneider. "They’re going to Traverse City. They’re seeking a different kind of experience and Traverse City is benefiting enormously from all that energy. There are incredible amounts of what I think is promising, wonderful, urban mix of professions, business, food … .”

Schneider sees that all the talk in Traverse City these days is about density - like whether or not to build a nine-story building downtown.

“It’s puzzling to me that there is that much conversation about it because that’s the kind of growth that you want," he says.

A sign at Kids Creek Park asks for public input on West Front Street development.
Credit Aaron Selbig

A heated conversation about growth

But the conversation grew heated during public testimony over whether to allow a nine-story mixed-use development on the west end of downtown. After backlash from the public, the developers pulled their project off the table – at least temporarily.

Mike Jackson was one of those who testified against it. He says he’s afraid a trend of taller and taller buildings will cut Traverse City off from its view of Grand Traverse Bay.

“Once that horse is out of the barn, you’re going to start seeing buildings … escalate and that, to me, is a bad sign,” says Jackson.

Jackson has seen more change in Traverse City than most people. He first started coming here in the 1930s, when his family would visit an uncle who worked for Joe Maddy at Interlochen. When he retired in 2001, he and his wife moved here permanently.

“We liked the ambiance," he says. "We liked the way the city looked. We liked the way the city was growing. We liked the way the city was planning. We also have had the opportunity to live around the world. I’m not so sure some of the young people have. I don’t know if they’ve spent a lot of time in Chicago or New York … to like the high-rise type of community. If they do, perhaps they should go there.”

Not that Jackson is totally opposed to development. He says he’s okay with the row of condos being built near his home on Sixth Street. But like Donna Folgarelli, he just doesn’t want the city to lose its small town character.

“And I know ‘character’ is hard to describe and hard to define and I’m not sure I can," says Jackson. "But you’re going to lose some of that if you get a lot of high rises and you get a lot of people in one small area.”

Jackson believes the nine-story building could be back, depending on the outcome of this fall’s election.

For now, the Traverse City Planning Commission is looking for suggestions on what could be done along West Front Street. It even put out a large chalkboard sign at Kids Creek Park, asking the question, “How would you like to use this space?”