Building boom splits Traverse City

John Barnes
Special to The Detroit News

Traverse City — In this northwest Michigan city known for its natural beauty and distinct brand of cool, cultures are colliding as the city plots its future.

Tourists rhapsodize about Traverse City and its cherry crops, sophisticated restaurants, wineries, blue bays and perfect summer days.

But for locals, talk centers on parking shortages, housing, zoning and a building boom that some say is costing the city its small-town charm.

“They want to turn it into the Aspen of Michigan,” said John McCormick, a Detroit native who has lived up north for 35 years. “There’s an impression from some they want to get the old farts out.”

The festering issue is two proposed nine-story buildings to be built several blocks from the water. The project would have 162 housing units and about 20,000 square feet of retail space.

City commissioners approved the development Dec. 7, after protracted debates and legal wrangling. The project needed special approval because it’s taller than the city’s typical five-story building height limits.

Hardly tall by big city standards, the buildings will change the face of Traverse City, rivaling the 10-story landmark Park Place Hotel, the tallest building there. No date has been set for groundbreaking on the project.

“I’ve seen this town change from the idea of Traverse City as a destination from a small town. You find things you don’t find anywhere else like this,” said Ann Rogers, who with other Occupy protest members waved placards decrying climate change and the wealthiest 1 percent, and support of medical marijuana, on a recent Saturday.

City commissioners approved the proposed nine-story buildings Dec. 7, but no date has been set for groundbreaking on the project.

Called the River West project, it will be built at West Front and Pine streets, at a bend of the Boardman River near where the city developed from lumbering interests and tourism.

Property owners Erik Falconer and Joseph Sarafa proposed the development. Falconer was raised in Traverse City and is vice president of Traverse City Area Public Schools. Sarafa moved there in 2002. Falconer did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Laura Oblinger, executive director of the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce, said she remains “incredibly surprised” at “the intense opposition and the inability for reasonable and respectful diversification in thought” on the project.

“Demographics are being blamed because there is a very active group of younger professionals who are supporters,” she said. “It is also becoming framed as a bunch of rich versus not so rich … and it gets a little like a ‘not in my backyard’ type of thing.”

The median household income is $45,497, about average for the state. But 8 percent of Traverse City residents earn $200,000-plus a year, double the state percentage, according to the latest U.S. Census estimates.

Traverse City Mayor James Carruthers is among those who oppose the development.

“By far the majority of the people that I am in contact with, my supporters, my constituents, come to me and argue for the character of our downtown, and maintaining the character that so many of us have come to love about Traverse City,” the mayor said in an interview with Interlochen Public Radio shortly before the decision.

Just what — and who — defines that character is unclear.

Long gone are the days when migrant families gathered in fields or slept on cloth cots inside “picker shacks.” Wineries are edging out orchards.

The yet-to-be built units are priced from $400,000 to about $1 million. A separate three-story condo project along the Boardman River nearby will be priced similarly. At another river site, condos will go for $600,000 to $800,000.

The new project would include ground-floor retail and 162 living units. Lower floors will include 64 apartments that would qualify for low-income housing tax credits, with monthly rentals ranging from $557 to $784 aimed at workers earning between $10-$15 per hour.

A short walk from the project, entertainment and financial interests commingle. There is the restored State Theatre, independent bookstores, boutiques, Mackinac Brewing Co. and Cherry Republic.

This town leans strongly Democrat in its politics. In 2014, Grand Traverse County voted heavily for Republican Ruth Johnson as secretary of state, a bellwether for party preference. Traverse City was an exception; a little-known Democrat won by wide margins in all but one precinct.

It is also increasingly accessible. Cherry Capital Airport had nearly 400,000 passengers in 2014, an increase from 378,241 in 2013 and 362,059 in 2012.

Harold and Bethany Uhl made the region their home about three years ago to be closer to family. The lack of affordable housing in the city is a big problem, said Harold Uhl, a retired minister, as he and his wife debarked from a trip to Boston, their original home.

“The money people are going to be using the apartments downtown,” he said.

John Barnes is a freelance writer in west Michigan.