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Small Is Beautiful

A neighborhood’s lure in Harbor Springs

June 11, 2004 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

The Cottage Company

Rob Mossburg’s Bay Street Cottages project in Harbor Springs is an enclave of compact, fairytale homes carefully set around a common lawn and walkway, like fine furniture in an airy living room.

Two years ago builder Rob Mossburg moved to Harbor Springs with one of his characteristically insightful ideas that generally startle people who first hear it, but nevertheless have defined his entire career. Mr. Mossburg proposed to build 18 homes set 15 feet apart on an acre of land in town and priced at around half a million dollars apiece. It wasn’t just the price that set people aflutter. It was the size of the buildings. Half would be 975 square feet; the other half 1,200 square feet. Why, folks wondered, would any right-thinking buyer, especially those in Harbor Springs who could afford to build big and fabulous lakefront homes, even consider something so small in a downtown neighborhood?

But small, it turns out, is indeed beautiful, especially when it comes in the environmentally sensitive and architecturally distinguished package that Mr. Mossburg and his industrious family of builders and designers put together at the corner of Bay and Zoll Streets at the eastern edge of Harbor’s Spring’s tony downtown.  Mr. Mossburg’s Bay Street Cottages project is an enclave of compact fairytale homes carefully set around a common lawn and walkway, like fine furniture in an airy living room. Though there are just two interior floor plans for the two-story cottages, the exterior gabled roof lines, windows, mahogany Dutch-style doors, porches, and siding are all different, giving the development the warmth and charm of a 19th century hamlet. And because of the family’s commitment to conserving the land and natural resources of their newly adopted hometown, a portion of the profits from each cottage sale are donated to protect open space around Harbor Springs.

“It’s a way for us to give something back to a place that we love,” said Mr. Mossburg, who was raised in Monroe, the oldest son of a builder.

Buyers, most of them wealthy couples making investments in second or third homes, have been snapping up the cottage concept since Mr. Mossburg opened the first one on Bay Street last summer. Eleven of the eighteen have been built, and eight sold. “People were a little nervous when Rob first brought the idea to the planning commission,” said Fred Geuder, Harbor Springs’ city manager. “But the comments I hear now are largely positive. You don’t hear negative. It looks good. It’s quality work and an asset to downtown. What’s gone up there has surprised a lot of people.”

Prosperity In The Right Package
It really shouldn’t. Essentially what the 42-year-old Mr. Mossburg did was take the luxury condominiums and undistinguished apartment-style building the city’s zoning code would have allowed on the 1.25-acre lot and break it up into freestanding homes that have more character and are likely to be more valuable. It took Mr. Mossburg six months to convince the city to change its zoning code in a way that would encourage such innovations. He argued that giving builders more flexibility to construct small houses clustered together would be great for homeowners, good for downtown businesses they could walk to, and would generate substantial revenue for city coffers. When Bay Street Cottages is completed it will be valued at roughly $9 million and generate more than $150,000 a year in city, county, and school property taxes, almost 15 times more than the declining motel that used to occupy the site.

It also helps that the cottages are exquisitely detailed inside and out. Both the larger three-bedroom version ($575,000) and the smaller two-bedroom model ($455,000) feature two baths with subway-style white tile walls and custom tile floors. The kitchens have granite counters, distressed French country cabinets, and top-of-the-line appliances. Both models also boast hardwood floors, solid wood doors, waist-high beadboard walls, magnificent moldings and other woodwork, period-style windows, and cathedral ceilings in the living area. The mood of the light-filled homes is calm and feminine, as though the lady of the house has been busy all morning putting out cut flowers and rolling dough for fresh-baked apple pies.

“In general, and especially in summer cottages, I love a soft, feminine feel,” said Volitta Mossburg, Rob’s wife, who everyone knows as Vee and the decorator who designed the interiors. “I believe a summer home should be a retreat from the world, a nurturing place to relax and rejuvenate. An Up North cottage should be an escape from all that is mundane.”

Design, Design, Design
Along with their approachable size, another innovation is how the Bay Street cottages effortlessly enclose the outdoor space, like children holding hands in a circle. The concept is inspired by a decade-old national movement of architects and builders known as the New Urbanism, which counts the Mossburgs among its growing flock in northern Michigan. New Urbanism is reviving the building design and land planning principles of what used to be called plain old “urbanism,” and which in the late 19th century produced the distinctive village centers and walkable neighborhoods of Harbor Springs and dozens of other great small towns of Northern Michigan.

But after World War Two old urbanism succumbed to suburbanism and then to the ugly sprawl that is engulfing the region. Now a handful of northern Michigan builders, like the Mossburgs, are pushing back. New Urbanist neighborhoods and developments have been built in Traverse City and Manistee. More are under construction in Empire in Leelanau County, at the site of the old state hospital on Traverse City’s west side, at Crystal Mountain Resort in Benzie County, and in other communities.

“I’m a builder. I keep my ears open and I kind of got it as soon as I heard it,” Mr. Mossburg said in an interview. “I looked for opportunities to make New Urbanism work.”

Vee, a trim and attractive dark-haired woman who joined her husband during the interview, cast a knowing glance his way and explained that “looking for opportunities” is Mr. Mossburg’s code for making things happen. She was raised in Ohio and met her husband in Atlanta 20 years ago, where he’d briefly alighted early in a hotel development and management career that also took him, and them, to Los Angeles and Wichita. He made his fortune by helping to refine the concept of the extended-stay hotel. He joined a development and investment group that built and sold two of the best-known hotel chains in the country – Residence Inns and Summerfield Suites.

Throughout their journey Vee and Rob held fast to his boyhood dream of living in northern Michigan, where he’d spent summer vacations. One day, after the sale of Summerfield Suites, the Mossburgs looked at each other and she suddenly knew the family’s next move, to Harbor Springs, was imminent.

“When Rob gets something in his mind it’s only a matter of time before it happens,” explains Mrs. Mossburg.  “He’s like a snowball rolling downhill. Once it gets started it just gets bigger and bigger.”

Family Values Include Innovation, Hard Work
Big enough in fact to include most of his significant others. The senior staff of the Cottage Company includes Mr. Mossburg’s wife, parents, sister, and brother-in-law, all of whom he convinced to join him in Harbor Springs. Jill Nuding, who is Rob’s sister and left her own successful hotel career in Atlanta to oversee customer services for the Cottage Company, describes the experience of living and working with her family in Harbor Springs, as “almost like a dream come true.”  And why not? The scenery is gorgeous. The market for luxurious homes is strong. And the Mossburgs seem like warm, sincere, earnest people who actually like each other.

Rob especially seems nothing at all like a business barricuda, though his career is testament to an instinct for understanding markets and a fearlessness in pursuing them. In fact Mr. Mossburg, who has a square face, strong shoulders, thinning blonde hair, and an open and friendly demeanor, seems more like the easygoing golf pro at an upscale country club. Only his startling eyes, which are robin's-egg blue and as striking as a raptor’s, reveal what is so obviously a proven talent and fierce ambition.

Indeed, Bay Street Cottages is just the latest manifestation of an unfolding vision that, midway through a productive life, Mr. Mossburg is developing for himself and his family. The giveaway that more is afoot than making a profit is how he and his wife are linking an ethic of conservation and environmental integrity to the Cottage Company’s projects.

For instance, some of the Bay Street Cottages were built with flooring and other construction materials that Mr. Mossburg salvaged during demolition of the motel that stood on the property. He installed an underground filtering system to cleanse runoff from the development before it reaches Little Traverse Bay, about a block away. A selling point for the cottages is their energy efficiency, and the hardwood floors are milled in Pennsylvania from timbers salvaged from old barns and buildings.

Land Conservation Included
But the most important conservation measure, by far, is the agreement that the Mossburgs reached with a local farm family and the Little Traverse Bay Conservancy to buy the development rights and permanently protect 35 acres of open space in a greenbelt that the conservancy is establishing to prevent sprawl from enveloping Harbor Springs. The amount of protected acreage represents how much land would have succumbed to development if 18 homes had been built on conventional large lots. The Mossburgs won’t say how much they are donating from the sale of each cottage to finance the purchase of the conservation easement out of respect for the privacy of the landowners.

“I’ve never worked with any people who are so positive,” said Mary Kay O’Donnell, director of land protection for the Little Traverse Bay Conservancy. “You know, sometimes you meet people like that and you wonder, is it for real? It’s real with Rob and Vee and their entire family. They always have smiles on their faces. They go into a project and they ask how can we make this work? How can we make it better? They have a real concern about the community they’ve chosen to live in, and they are making it better.”

Keith Schneider, a journalist and editor, is deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. A version of this article was published in the May 2004 edition of Traverse: Northern Michigan’s  Magazine.


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