Miracle on Traverse City's Front Street

Can we concede there was also a measure of luck, as in, our Rotary Club happens to have lucked into owning a very profitable oil well and has been generous with downtown.

Yes, we did have the good fortune of a major breakthrough when Rotary decided to buy the Park Place Hotel, renovate it and operate it at a loss. That was huge. And Vic and Amy Herman would have never considered the great risk of buying the empty Penny’s building if Rotary hadn’t done that. On the day the Hermans moved their bookstore, we closed off Front Street on a Sunday and over one hundred people volunteered to move the books. They each got a mug that said, “I helped move Horizon Books.”

But, yes, people say to me all the time, “Oh, Traverse City is lucky, things just drop into your lap.” Like the Film Festival. Like Hagerty Insurance. But would Michael Moore have considered the film festival in Traverse City if the State Theatre group hadn’t kept the building in a condition that allowed it to be saved? And if the Old Town Playhouse and Open Space didn’t exist as venues? He was drawn, as many others have been, by what was going on already. And there were many solid pieces here, ready to happen. So I think a plan is more important than luck.

So I’m thinking of a saying, “luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” What kind of preparation set the stage for things to take off about 2000?

Back in about 1996 we saw the need to really take retail to heart even more, and we went to another retreat. We blew up sections of downtown, maps covered in clear plastic, and we divided ourselves into groups to brainstorm what each part of downtown should look like. And when people reported out, everything just fit together. There really weren’t any issues. People wanted more density, connectivity and less surface parking lots. From that came the Tax Increment Financing that was adopted in 1997—it allows you to do infrastructure improvements when the tax base is created.

The first thing on the to-do list was getting rid of that awful appearance when you walked out of the Park Place and looked to Front Street. There was no connectivity: a single story building, a surface parking lot in disrepair, an abandoned gas station on the corner of Front Street. So we approached Ross Biederman with a plan where he would build a building to anchor the corner of Front and Park, and we could use the increased tax base from that building to borrow money for the parking deck. And so we now have Radio Center 1. And that was the beginning of getting rid of the surface parking lots.

So that’s the fundamental strategy here? Keep chipping away at the surface parking lots and replacing them with smart mixed-use development and parking decks?

Right.

What else do we see at Radio Center that expresses the vision?

We wanted retail on the ground floor, not office. Also, we had passed an ordinance that said you could not have dark windows on the ground floor. They had to be clear and inviting. So you see you have the EuroStop and Allure and Running Fit with those nice big windows.

And meanwhile River’s Edge was going up.

Yes, meanwhile, River’s Edge came along. That development was 1999 and was so important because it allowed us to turn away a proposal from a drug store chain for a one-story building and a surface lot. We are so fortunate that Tim Burden captured that vision. The density we have there now and the tax base is so much greater than what could have been achieved with a drug store.

It seems River’s Edge was truly the first development to really play out that full vision of mixed use, in terms of office, retail and living.

It showed people were willing to live downtown, and that has been a great thing. In the early days of the DDA, we were required to have a resident on the board, but it often remained vacant because so few people lived within the district. But recently we had as many as three residents on the board, and currently the chair is a resident. Now we have hundreds of residents in the DDA district, and they tend to be very active. I think I can name almost everybody living in Midtown development because they are so involved.

Speaking as an observer of downtown, it seems to me a big turning point came when Gene LaFave renovated the Milliken Building about 2000.

Yes. Gene deserves a great deal of credit for that. That was huge, a mix of offices, retail and apartments in the heart of downtown. One funny story there, he hired architect Bob Cornwell to pull off that 1960s facade and redo the building, and he did a beautiful job. And it turns out that Bob’s father, Gordon Cornwell, was the architect who put that facade on! Hilarious.

So with people moving back downtown, that shows there are some broader cultural trends working in Traverse City’s favor too.

Two really strong demographic trends. One: Millennials don’t want a car. They are drawn to Traverse because they see a compact city that has a walking, biking future. And the other is the lively retiree who wants to walk downtown, walk to see a movie, enjoy the river right in town. And we are a community of choice. Astronaut Jerry Linenger picked this spot from outer space. It’s an inspiring place that fits with the rise of the creative class. When you make a wonderful place where people want to live, the companies will follow. When we did our last retail market analysis, we saw growth in the younger sector, and our consultant, who is from Chicago, said, “This is the kind of demographic we see in Chicago.”

We’d have an entirely different story to tell if all the buildings were ugly or just plain drab. How did that piece of the miracle happen? How did we end up with not just more buildings, but really nice buildings that take the city forward?

Well, we do have ordinances that set certain standards, but even more important, because we are a community of choice, we have amazing architects who choose to live in this community, and our developers have turned to them. They are young. They get it. They understand what the community wants to be, and they want to preserve that. They live here and have to walk past these places and want to make them right. Even our parking decks look nice. People call the new Old Town deck that Ray Kendra designed “the sexy deck”—a handsome, LEED Certified parking deck with solar panels, how cool is that?

A final thought for visionaries in other towns?

I guess I’d say that if you have a plan, it’s just so much easier to make things happen. And I tell people, if you are looking for one easy answer, it’s probably a bad one.  

This article and additional photos are also featured in the 2013 April issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan's Magazine. Get your copy today!

Article Comments

  • Anonymous

    Just a note to congratulate Brian Crough on his strong leadership. He brought together a team of professionals to help build the TC that is so loved and envied by other communities. Brian’s passion for TC is shown in all his work. Kudos for a job well done.