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Opponents Urge Defeated Trustees To Table Immense Project

Experts say 'town center' developments work with less commercial development

September 4, 2004 | By Jim Dulzo
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Middleton Hills, Inc.

Middleton Hills, eight miles north of Madison, Wis., will eventually have 434 bungalow, craftsman, and prairie-style homes in a variety of sizes, and 100,000 square feet of commercial space, just one-eighth of what the new village in Acme has proposed.

ACME — Early last month residents in this rural northern Michigan community, deeply concerned about a proposal to turn farm fields and orchards into an immense retail and housing development, voted overwhelmingly in the primary election to replace the entire township board with new leaders devoted to conserving their rural quality of life.

But because the general election does not occur until November, the five incumbent trustees who support the project are still in office. They are preparing to decide on Tuesday whether to approve the controversial development – one of the largest ever proposed for Michigan’s northern lower peninsula -- that was the central issue in their dramatic defeat.

Concerned Citizens of Acme Township, the citizens group that has led the campaign to block the development, argued that the results of the election on August 3 can only be interpreted as a resounding rejection of the incumbent board’s position. The group’s leaders also assert that township trustees should not act on the proposal until they have received the results of important studies about the consequences of the development in Acme Township.

“We asked them not to pass this thing based on the information the developers have not provided,” said Denny Rohn, president of Concerned Citizens of Acme Township, which has 185 members. “There are so many open ended questions – environmental, traffic, economic feasibility. All we have is parking lots and huge amounts of retail proposed. How can you approve this without those studies and that information addressed?”  

The Traverse City Record-Eagle, the region’s daily newspaper, also cautioned the trustees not to vote on the project. “If the township board has any respect for the wishes of the voters, board members should also abandon - publicly - any plans to vote on the project before they leave office on Nov. 20,” said the newspaper in a sharply worded editorial on August 26.

Still, growth management advocates said they fear township officials could approve the development’s conceptual design anyway. Township trustees, led by Supervisor Dave Amon, claim that the proposal is the best one Acme can expect for the site and that objections to the plan’s heavy emphasis on retail space are simply not realistic. Mr. Amon has told the projects opponents and supporters that he is carefully weighing their views and is open-minded.

The vote to replace Acme’s board of trustees reflected the steadily growing influence of Smart Growth advocates in northern Michigan’s five-county Grand Traverse region, which is at the center of the fastest growing region in the Middle West. Voters in Leelanau County’s Elmwood Township in early August also dispatched their growth-at-any-cost supervisor. Grand Traverse County commissioners in late July voted unanimously to direct the county road commission to stop spending any more money to build a proposed $55 million highway and bridge across the Boardman River. And the same month Benzie County commissioners unanimously approved a request by residents to hold a special election next year to consider raising property taxes to pay for a new county-wide public bus system.

Opponents of the 182-acre Acme township project, known as the Village at Grand Traverse, dispute the developer’s assertion that the project design represents the state of the art for retail, office, and housing that conserves land and natural resources. They say there are dozens of better examples for fitting new developments into a rural setting and are prospering with much smaller office and retail structures, including supermarkets, drug stores, cafes, and even small movie theaters.

One of the most successful so-called “New Urbanism” communities is Middleton Hills, almost directly across Lake Michigan from here, and eight miles north of Madison, Wis. Construction on Middleton Hills, which spreads across 150 acres, began nine years ago and is 60 percent completed. It will eventually have 434 bungalow, craftsman, and prairie-style homes in a variety of sizes, and 100,000 square feet of commercial space, just one-eighth of what the new village in Acme has proposed.

The design for the 2.4 million-square-foot Village at Grand Traverse, which would be built near the intersection of U.S. 31 and M-72, has about 800,000 square feet of retail and “mixed use” commercial and office space, including a 200,000 sq. ft. big-box store, up to 800 residential units, and a 250-room hotel. The project’s developers claim it is an excellent example of New Urbanism because, among other reasons, the development features residential development within walking distance of nearby stores, a grid-based street design, and a layout that includes small parks, recreational areas and, developers say, a “small town” feel.

Leaders of Concerned Citizens of Acme Township insist the Village at Grand Traverse is actually a mega-mall in disguise, complete with huge parking lots, heavy auto traffic, and suburban-style housing that violate many Smart Growth principles and the spirit, if not the exact language, of the township’s master plan. They say that the large amount of retail development is unnecessary for the project’s success. 

Defending the Master Plan
The conflict between the current Acme trustees and citizens who oppose the Village at Grand Traverse turns on differing interpretations of the township’s master plan, which was adopted in 1999. The master plan calls for stopping sprawl in this scenic agricultural township, northeast of Traverse City, by concentrating both residential and commercial development in a compact town center that, according to the document, should be a modern-day version of one of the many century-old villages that dot the northern Michigan countryside.

The master plan specifically calls for building a brand new village, complete with streets laid out in a traditional grid, and a modest town center that resembles Elk Rapids or Suttons Bay, two nearby communities with central business districts surrounded by leafy neighborhoods.

One of the big questions that underlies the discussion about growth and development in Acme Township is whether a new village built along traditional design principles is possible. “We know from a practical standpoint that you can’t build a little community like Elk Rapids or Suttons Bay out in the middle of nowhere and have it be viable,” Herb Smith, chair of the Acme Planning Commission, told Northern Express, a regional weekly newspaper, in July. “Those towns were established over many years in a traditional way.”

But national experts on new urbanism say that a gradual approach is precisely what is needed to make such developments work. They maintain that it is increasingly common to build new neighborhoods that look and feel like old ones in greenfields such as the 182-acre site that is at the center of Acme’s intense debate and that many such developments have much smaller commercial components than the Village at Grand Traverse proposes.

Traditional Designs Make Economic Sense
“Many places have gotten by with just a small food market in their development at first,” according to Jackie Benson, who for 10 years promoted Seaside, the Florida development that most experts regard as the nation’s first new community designed around traditional neighborhood principles. Ms. Benson’s Atlanta-based company, TND Marketing, assists communities and developers who are building walkable communities. She said that some traditionally-designed communities, including Seaside, initially subsidize various small, service-oriented stores and view the expenditures as marketing expenses. This allows a new project’s first residents to obtain some vital services without depending on their cars.

“You attract people to your development because you have a café or a small market,” she said. “Traditional neighborhood design sells the experience of living in a certain kind of place. That is what they are buying. ”

But Steve Hayward, the Lansing-area planner who is the consultant to the Village at Grand Traverse, insisted in an interview with the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service that his project meets and even exceeds every requirement of the Acme Township master plan.

“Nowhere in the Acme master plan does it say this must be a traditional neighborhood design, or new urbanist design,” Mr. Hayward said. “We meet over 80 percent of the characteristics contained in the Charter for New Urbanism. We are at 100 percent except for ‘green’ architecture.”

Mr. Hayward added that other consultants he and the developers have approached carefully evaluated the Acme Township master plan, as well as the design for the Village at Grand Traverse, the market, and the economic feasibility. Those experts said a smaller development would not work. “If one example can be found in a comparable market, we will look at it,” said Mr. Hayward.

In Wisconsin, A Model That Fits
One example that should invite Mr. Hayward’s scrutiny is Middleton Hills. Jane Grabowski-Miller, the project’s design director, said in an interview that Middleton Hills originally intended to emphasize office over retail space, but then the market shifted.

“We realized we needed an anchor store for the commercial development to be successful,” she said. “The most logical anchor for a neighborhood is a grocery store and that is what we decided to do.”

In order to help Middleton Hill’s main street area retain a neighborly, downtown feeling, the centerpiece grocery store includes “liner stores”—smaller shops built into the side of the larger building that faces the street. Unlike the parking for Acme’s anchor, which covers acres of blacktop and protrudes into the development, the parking for Middleton Hills’ grocery is on the side of the store that is opposite its “main street” entrance and serves customers who live outside the development. There’s another, even more dramatic difference: The Village at Grand Traverse’s anchor would occupy 200,000 square feet, Middleton Hills’ just 45,000 square feet.

Ms. Grabowski agrees that anchors are crucial, but she doesn’t believe they have to be huge. She said quality is the key. “You don’t want to end up with a nail salon and tattoo parlor,” she said. “You have to really look for service the people who live there will use, and address their needs. That’s what makes New Urbanism different. If we had just said forget it, it would have been just like every other subdivision.”

Taking Their Time
Ms. Grabowski said that Middleton Hills’ commercial development started with a very small grocer that the developer subsidized when the new neighborhood only had a few houses. It took the company a long time to find a full-scale grocer that was willing to build to the developer’s exacting specifications.

“Now that we have found a grocery store,” she said, “we have a dry cleaner, a pizza store, and other service-oriented businesses coming in.” She adds that the slow development of a retail anchor has not hurt business over the long run: “We had a slow start with our residential sales, but now Middleton homes keep appreciating. It does take longer to get there, but the lots are now in great demand. We had to have a lottery on the properties we built last year.”

Ms. Benson, the Atlanta consultant, said that she sees demand for New Urbanism growing. “If the people who call me are any indication, we are not a niche market anymore,” she said. “Traditional neighborhood design is not only becoming a more popular way to develop, it is becoming sometimes the only way.”

“I think real estate developers, and particularly commercial brokers, are prone to say this is the formula,” added Ms. Benson. “It is the easy road that many of the guys take. But it is not necessarily the most profitable in the long run. If you are creative, I personally believe there are enough examples out there on how to make money, maybe even more money, our way. Malls are dying, and it’s not just because of the economy. Every year there are more town centers; that is all people are talking about now.”



In a unanimous vote, the Acme Township Board of Trustees last night approved a conceptual plan for the Village at Grand Traverse, a hotly contested development that will rise in a 182-acre field just northeast of Traverse City. The board did so despite the fact that all five of its members who ran for re-election in the Aug. 3 primary lost by wide margins, largely due to their steadfast support of the development project.

Chris Bzdok, an attorney for Concerned Citizens of Acme Township, a group that organized to stop the development in its present proposed form, said CCAT may now pursue a lawsuit to stop the project. The group successfully stalled the project with a legal challenge in March; this time, however, Mr. Bzdok indicated that a suit could well look into the possibility that township officials made improper, off-the-record promises to the developers before any official votes were taken on the matter.

“If the township predecides a project and finds ways around the public process,” the attorney told the Traverse City Record Eagle, “they are exposing themselves to further legal challenge. In our mind it raises very, very serious questions about how this project operated behind closed doors.”

The project as currently configured would include 770,000 square feet of retail space, 365,000 square feet of “mixed use” space, government facilities, 820 housing units, and  a 250-room hotel. Opponents want the commercial and mixed use space, and the large parking lots that come with them, drastically reduced.

Jim Dulzo, a journalist and former broadcaster, is managing editor of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at jimdulzo@mlui.org


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