Michigan Land Use Institute

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Traverse City Developer Ray Minervini

Turning disillusionment into a new urbanist dream

October 8, 2003 |

MLUI/Heidi Johnson
  Ray Minervini and Building 50.
Ray Minervini is the prime mover behind the Traverse City area’s most ambitious redevelopment project: Transforming the long-shuttered Traverse City State Hospital into the Village at the Commons. The visionary, campus-like development is converting a number of smaller, historic houses and the looming, gothic, castle-like Building 50 into apartments, stores, offices, and restaurants — essentially a new, self-contained village within the metropolitan area. Mr. Minervini grew up in one of Detroit’s many ethnic neighborhoods near the Eastern Market. Working for his dad, a construction contractor, he learned the business from the foundation up by building shopping malls and condos and restoring old buildings.

He moved to Traverse City in 1990. The Institute’s Jim Dulzo caught up with the fast-moving Mr. Minervini in his office next to Building 50, which is destined to become the Commons’ imposing, magnificent centerpiece.

Jim Dulzo: Why did you leave Detroit?
Ray Minervini: I was disillusioned with the city and didn’t see how it could climb out of its downward spiral. The continuing sprawl, the leapfrogging of development out into the countryside was making the city unsustainable. Detroit is a textbook example of urbanism gone bad.

JD: Do you still feel that way?
RM: You know, I recently was back there and took some time to drive around the city. I saw all of these loft apartment signs downtown! When I got to Belle Isle, it almost brought me to tears: The big fountain was rebuilt, it looked wonderful, there were people of all ethnicities around it taking pictures. It was a beautiful sight. Urbanity is sinking in everywhere, including Detroit.

JD: So, what is the big problem you see with development projects today?
RM: We’ve forgotten how to build them for people; we’re building them for cars. The width of the roads, the orientation of buildings to the street, houses with garages in the front and porches in the back, instead of the other way around. It deadens the streets.

JD: Is your Commons project an antidote?
RM: Our primary idea is people. We will accommodate autos, but we will not have the sea of asphalt other developments have. There’s a reason that when we have the Cherry Festival or other events like that, we do it in a downtown area rather than in the middle of some big mall’s parking lot. People just don’t like those things.

JD: Why did you join the Institute?
RM: The Institute understands land use. I’ve met a lot of the staff; their hearts are in preserving sustainable communities. It isn’t like they are just interested in saving the countryside; they are interested in quality of life everywhere. How can anybody dispute what they are doing? We are all just temporary stewards of everything, and we have a responsibility.

JD: Are you hopeful?
RM: When we begin to do things right people catch on to it. Just like something bad, something good can happen at an epidemic rate, too. Sprawl took awhile to happen; so fixing it will take some time. Our own development has been so well embraced for more reasons than having a beautiful building on beautiful grounds in close proximity to the downtown. More importantly, we tell people what we intend to create here is a true, sustainable community, a lifestyle that embraces urbanism. People say ‘Yeah!’

JD: Why should people join the Institute?
RM: The Institute gives us a collective voice for protecting the things that are truly important to us. When the Institute speaks, it speaks for thousands of members. There is strength in numbers. It is a form of community activism that is so important.

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