Are tall buildings antithetical to downtown Traverse City’s charm and character? Or are they crucial to addressing regional growth and maintaining an economically viable city center?

Supporters of both sides are preparing to square off as Traverse City attorney Grant Parsons leads a referendum petition effort that would ban buildings over 60 feet tall in Traverse City. The petition – launched in response to a proposed nine-story development on the corner of Pine and Front streets – would also require a minimum 25-foot setback for developments on the Boardman River. The existing setback requirement is 10 feet, with developers permitted to build up to 100 feet on certain parcels with a special land use permit (SLUP).

“If you turn (Traverse City) into Anywhere Big Building, America, then what do we have to offer?” says Parsons of the petition drive. “Density is what kills the brand. I think there’s a huge taxpayer revolt coming against projects like this, which are siphoning public money away from the general good of the town for these huge buildings.”

Whether zoning ordinances can be changed by a referendum petition is a murky legal issue in Michigan. Kurt Schindler, a senior educator on land use for Michigan State University Extension, says the issue would likely require close review. “Some determination will need to be made as to if city charter can trump the Michigan Zoning Enabling Act’s required process for zoning amendment adoption,” Schindler says. “I suspect the issue has been litigated in the past.”

City Attorney Lauren Trible-Laucht says she can’t address the validity of a referendum until she reviews the specific proposed language. Parsons plans to submit petition language for review within 30 days; he will then begin collecting the 513 signatures needed to put the issue to a vote.

Several planning, business and development leaders expressed concern about the referendum Tuesday. “My fear is it will make building anything new downtown economically not feasible…and we’ll start to see people leaving,” says TraverseCONNECT CEO Doug Luciani. “I think this is a line in the sand that says we’re either willing to grow our downtown as a true center of commerce, or we’re willing to concede that to a more sprawled version of development out in the townships.”

Hans Voss, executive director of the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities (formerly the Michigan Land Use Institute), says there “seems to be a consensus around the need and urgency for affordable housing, but somehow there’s a disconnect with proposals that bring what people are asking for.” Noting that there are only a few blocks downtown that allow 100-foot buildings, Voss says “it’s frustrating when building heights come into direct conflict with the need for housing choices for working people,” He adds: “Downtown shouldn’t only be for those wealthy enough to afford it.”

Doug Mansfield, land use consultant for the Pine Street development and other downtown projects, says a ban on tall buildings would “make it virtually impossible to see anything with a general market rate again.”

“Due to the increased demand on the limited amount of land in the core of the city…it’s strictly going to be for the haves, and the have-nots will be pushed even further away than they are now,” Mansfield says. He also notes city assessors have leveraged taxes against developers based on the “highest and best use” of properties – meaning the land value has been based on the assumption developments could go up to 100 feet. “You’ve been taxing me on that ability…and now you’re going to take that away?” Mansfield says.

Grand Traverse County Deputy Director of Planning and Development Jean Derenzy says the referendum would impact not only Pine Street but other projects in the works, including a mixed-use building proposed for State Street as part of a $50 million Park Place and Governmental Center redevelopment. Affordable housing would also become “difficult, if not impossible to make work downtown with those types of building restrictions,” Derenzy says. Citing the “very public, open process” that went into creating the city’s master plan, Derenzy says that “zoning by referendum isn’t how the process is supposed to work.”

Parsons counters that he and other supporters of height restrictions are working to protect the character and “culture of downtown.” He believes the group has “a good chance” of passing a referendum, citing growing environmental, density and public funding concerns related to large-scale developments. If the petition fails, “it’s a clear message to all of us that we’re living in a different town than we thought,” Parsons says.

Credits: Beth Milligan, TCBN