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What Will Go Where?

Traverse City group recruits top team for ideas

January 11, 2007 | By Carolyn Kelly
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  How should Northwest Michigan manage its rapid growth? Residents, aided by sophisticated computer models and expert consultants, will decide.

TRAVERSE CITY—Several years ago, a determined group of citizens here finally persuaded the Grand Traverse County Road Commission to suspend its plans to build a bridge and five-lane highway through a wild river valley south of this northern Michigan town. Now a remarkably diverse group of local leaders is preparing to hire a team of experts to help the region solve the land use, growth, and traffic problems that the 17-year battle over the bridge represented.

If, as expected, the local leaders and the consulting team agree on a contract, the firms will lead a community-based “visioning” process to help residents design what six northwest Michigan counties can look like in the coming decades. The process will involve widespread citizen participation in dozens of meetings across the region and six major workshops in the Traverse City area. The final product will be a plan developed by citizens that local governments can support and implement. The project, which will likely start this spring, will last about two years and cost about $1.36 million, according to the latest contract negotiation meeting.

The six-county planning program, financed primarily by federal highway funds originally set aside for the embattled bridge and bypass, is one of the most ambitious in size and scope ever conducted in a rural area. It is sponsored by an equally distinctive alliance of local leaders, who call themselves the Land Use and Transportation Coordinating Group.

In every way the coordinating group is unique in the region. It is composed of a cross section of 34 civic and business leaders, among them environmentalists and road builders, developers and local elected leaders, many of whom had staked claims on one side of the highway battle or the other. More than two years ago, at the invitation of Grand Traverse County, the leaders agreed to establish a new convening organization and establish a decision-making process in which the entire community could participate. See Sidebar

“I think we’re ahead of the curve being a small community doing this kind of work,” said Bob Otwell, a member of the local group, a Michigan Land Use Institute board member, and chairman of TC-TALUS, the regional transportation planning organization that oversees the project’s financing, which also includes state and local funds. 

Many residents say that the project is arriving just in time: The region’s growth threatens northwest Michigan’s natural geography, its reputation as one of the nation’s best places to live, and by extension, a modern economy in housing, tourism, entrepreneurial business development, and agriculture.  

The Team and the Plan
The team of experts, which the local leaders chose in November after a rigorous national selection process, includes an engineering firm, a planning firm, two transportation firms, an economic analysis firm, a marketing agency, and a renowned Utah native who sparked what he calls a “Quality Growth” movement in the Salt Lake City region. Between them, the firms command a variety of skills: public communications, planning, engineering, economic analysis, traffic and growth modeling, and consensus building, to name just a few.

Veteran planner Jim Lively, a staff member of the Michigan Land Use Institute and a member of the committee that performed the national search, said he and his group, which includes representatives from the Michigan Department of Transportation and the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, found the decision was fairly easy to make after the many elaborate proposals were reviewed.

“We thought that the Mead and Hunt team was by far the best,” he said. “They’re set up to do exactly what we want—sophisticated scenario planning and lots of public involvement.”

The team will begin its work by gathering information and drawing residents into the planning process. They’ll survey the general public, analyze traffic patterns, catalog environmentally sensitive areas and cultural resources, and project population growth and housing needs. Then, using sophisticated computer programs, modeling, and visual displays, they will develop several future scenarios for where growth could occur in the Grand Traverse region.

Then residents will meet in "charrettes," or design workshops, where they can learn how decisions about everything from highway design and public transit availability to lot sizes and zoning rules produce the different scenarios. The stakeholders will figure out what their own personal priorities and values are, discuss which scenarios they prefer, and eventually reach a consensus. The team will then help township, village, city, county, and state officials steer the entire region in that direction.

Rock Stars in Town
Smaller versions of this kind of citizen-based planning have been tried with varying levels of success in the Grand Traverse region for nearly two decades. Benzie County, for instance, engaged in “visioning” as a preamble to writing a conservation-based master land use plan in the late 1990s that the county is steadily implementing.

What distinguishes the Land Use and Transportation Coordinating Group’s six-county program is how much money is being invested and who is being hired to lead it. Simply put, Traverse City recruited the best people in the country to undertake the work.

Fregonese Calthorpe Associates, the planning firm on the team, is at the vanguard of the new planning movement that is occurring nationally and globally in metropolitan regions. They are making a mark in helping regions design the transportation networks, housing choices, and retail and recreational opportunities that make them desirable places. Their work is as important to the 21st century as Frederick Law Olmstead’s landscape and park designs—including Manhattan’s Central Park—were to the late 19th and 20th. The company is making it possible for regions to figure out how to arrange themselves in a century in which market factors—energy prices, environmental quality, population increases, land prices, and infrastructure costs—are radically different than what they were just a few years ago.

One of their most successful projects was Envision Utah, which produced Salt Lake City’s new plan for both accommodating the 3.4 millionmore residents expected to arrive in that region by 2050 and preserving the spectacular beauty of the Wasatch Front, the mountains that tower over the area. 

That effort translated residents’ core values—which participants determined were neighborliness, commitment to family, and reverence for nature and open space—into bricks, mortar, a rapid transit system, and great neighborhoods. Congress for the New Urbanism, a national network of planners and architects that is based in Chicago and promotes walkable neighborhoods as an alternative to sprawl, gave Envision Utah one of its prestigious Charter Awards in 2001.

The leader of that project, who also is a consultant to the Traverse region project, is Robert Grow, a lawyer and industrialist from Salt Lake City who hired Fregonese Calthorpe Associates and found the firm was able to quickly grasp his  region’s culture and preferences. The firm has also helped metropolises from Texas to Tennessee, and from California to Chicago accomplish what Salt Lake City did, and Grand Traverse hopes to.

“You want a rock star who’ll play the region’s music,” Mr. Grow advised in an interview with the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service.

John Fregonese’s experience as a small town planner should be an asset for the Grand Traverse project. Before founding his firm in 1997 and leading growth management efforts in Portland, Ore., from 1992 to 1997, Mr. Fregonese was a planner for 16 years in rural Oregon, in communities of 10,000 to 20,000 people. It was, said Mr. Fregonese, a great way to learn about the consequences of planning.

“Being a small-city planner, you really see the direct impact of what you do and you have to deal with the pros and cons of land use policies at the personal level,” said Mr. Fregonese in an interview. “I like working at the smaller scale, in places like Traverse City.”

Carolyn Kelly is the associate editor of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach her at carolyn@mlui.org.
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