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Small Town or Sprawl Town?

Citizen group, new Acme board pursue uncommon ground

November 17, 2004 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Doug Rose

Acme Township’s new Board of Trustees opposes building a “lifestyle center” with one million square feet of shopping on 182 acres of farmland. Most Acme voters prefer a true “town center” with traditional neighborhoods, fewer stores, and smaller parking lots.

ACME TOWNSHIP — If you build it, they will come — and others will die. So it goes with “lifestyle centers,” upscale strip malls on steroids, like the one proposed here, that are all the development rage. Downtowns, and even wimpy little strip malls, dry up and die in their wake.

Most of the people in northwest Michigan’s Acme Township do not view this as progress. They just tossed out their township board (minus one retiree) for supporting a 1 million square-foot lifestyle center, the proposed "Village at Grand Traverse," and elected a whole new board that opposes it.

At stake in this far-reaching struggle is the soothing soul and bankable charm of Acme Township and the Grand Traverse region. Acme is the gateway to this area for tourists flocking up Interstate 75. Driving through the traffic-choked "village" (the place would draw 34,000 visitors a day in a township of 4,300 people) will surely obliterate the sense of arriving at what the region's visitors bureau calls “a world apart.” Conversely, developing a true town center to manage growth and traffic and preserve open lands could provide an excellent model for properly accommodating the region’s population growth, the Midwest’s most rapid.

In other words, the region needs Acme to get this right.

Since the mid-1990s Acme’s residents and local officials have been trying to do just that. The community planned for a town center along Acme Creek, where people could live and where parks and public buildings produce a hometown feeling that would be the heart of a better Acme Township.

In 2003, though, developers looked at the town center parcel opposite the Grand Traverse Resort along M-72 near U.S. 31, just north of Traverse City, and instead drew up plans for a huge lifestyle mall, plus two super-size stores, a seven-story hotel, stand-alone restaurants, and housing around the margins. If it is built, the proposed lifestyle center would slay the dreamed-of town center and, very likely, nearby strip malls as well. A citizen group sued to stop the project later that year and won because the township’s town center ordinance was flawed.

Recently the developers reapplied under different zoning rules. The group, Concerned Citizens of Acme Township (CCAT), filed suit again, seeking to overturn the lame-duck township board’s conceptual approval in October of a slightly refined lifestyle center plan that still contains more than 1 million square feet of commercial space. Housing would come in a later phase only if the market calls for it.

“A lifestyle center will kill a traditional downtown. I don’t think there’s really a question about that,” said Terry Sanford, director of planning and design at Nederveld Associates, a community planning and engineering firm in Grand Rapids.

Defending a Good Track Record
The litigation hinges on procedural questions surrounding the project approval and the allegation that the developers coerced the town board with an implied threat to sue if not satisfied. It’s officially CCAT v. Acme Township, but it could just as well be Small Town v. Sprawl Town. The newly elected board takes over on Nov. 20 and must respond to the lawsuit by late December; many people think it will side with CCAT.

Incoming township board members, some of whom have impressive public service pedigrees, say they will reach out to local residents through listening sessions, advisory committees, perhaps a survey, and a more inclusive governing style.

“This board will be citizen-driven, not developer-driven,” promised local businessman Bill Kurtz, the incoming supervisor and a former school board, county commission, and Acme Township board member. “We need to engage the public in the process and listen to them. We’ll likely have a public visioning session, because we haven’t had one since 1996. We’ll continue to update the master plan.”

If the court does reject the lifestyle center development, it will be yet another example of local citizens defeating an unwise, unwanted development proposal. Since the mid-1990s, coastal residents between Manistee and the Mackinac Bridge have defeated a state highway bypass in Petoskey, a coal-burning power plant in Manistee, a Wal-Mart near Charlevoix, subdivisions in the farm district west of Traverse City, and a local bridge and highway bypass just south of there.

In each case the citizen message was not “no growth” but “there’s a better way.” And residents do support some of those “better ways.” Just this month, for example, Acme voters approved a 10-year property tax to purchase farmers’ development rights, quashing sprawl by taking their property off the commercial market and giving them cash for fresh business investments.

Now the township must figure out how to transform the proposed Village into a genuine town center. The outgoing board leaned on a “market-based” approach that allowed developers and their attorneys to design the Village. The new board is counting on favorable legal outcomes, new public partnerships, and bold action to get ahead of, and a handle on, Acme’s growth. One CCAT member says that a lot rests on officials listening to others more closely.

“One of the reasons for the election is that the board seemed to listen to the public and then do the exact opposite,” said Denny Rohn, president of CCAT, which sometimes draws 400 people, almost 10 percent of the township’s population, to its meetings. “We’re hopeful we can overturn this project and start again with these developers and work toward a real town center. They’ve never come to us and asked to talk and work together.We may get the right to start over again. And then the public must be brought to the table. I think it would be to the developers’ advantage.”

Two Years or 20?
But the developers seem unconvinced. Ken Petterson, one of their local attorneys, said he has a “legitimate concern” that new board members are defending against a lawsuit brought by their “compatriots.” When told that apparently only one of seven incoming township trustees is a CCAT member, Mr. Petterson replied: “Whether they are card-carrying members or not, they are in league with CCAT. That said, my client’s interest is a ‘property rights interest’ that transcends whoever is serving on the board.”

Typically, developers purchase an option to buy land contingent upon its rezoning. But the Village developers bought the 182-acre Acme parcel outright in 2003 for $7 million, or about $38,000 an acre, even though it was zoned for residential, not retail, development. CCAT leaders point to statements and letters from the developers suggesting that township officials assured the developers that an outright purchase would work because they’d certainly receive the needed rezoning. The developers and their attorneys say nothing illegal happened but don’t elaborate.

So, if the Acme developers win, will their Village at Grand Traverse really be a mix of stores, restaurants, houses, public buildings, and open space, or just a whole lot of “lifestyle” commercial development and parking, perhaps with some housing included? That is what happened at Grand Traverse Crossing, in nearby Garfield Township. It was to be a town center of sorts, but Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Circuit City, Office Max, and Burger King occupy most of the “town” and it’s truly dangerous to try to bicycle or walk to get there.

The Acme developers this month applied for township review of the first of their Village’s four planned project phases: the 207,000-square foot Meijer outlet, which, including parking, covers 22 acres. Jim Goss, a Village partner who points proudly to his family’s deep roots in the area, says that any additional development might be three to four years off because adjacent public roads, including M-72, cannot handle much more traffic. The public meeting concerning Phase One approval is set for Nov. 29.

Beyond Phase One, though, looms a much larger question: Will the Village fill in over 20 years, as advertised, or end up in a few years, after the roads are widened, as only an instant shopping center? Steve Smith, a Village developer, partnered in a lifestyle mall in downstate Lansing Township called the Eastwood Towne Center, which contains strictly commercial development. Built just two years ago, the place sold in June for $85 million. Could getting in, selling high, and getting out be the plan for Acme too?

“I guess everything has a price, but I don’t plan on wanting to sell anything,” said Mr. Goss. “I really think this is something that’s really needed out here. I never imagined that there would be such stiff opposition.”

The Heart of the Matter
While Mr. Goss ponders his personal long-range options, community-planning experts say that Acme Township has an opportunity to avoid costly sprawl and develop something truly unique.

“Like any organism, a community thrives best when it has a strong heart,” said Don Chen, who directs Smart Growth America in Washington, D.C., a national coalition working for better community design. “We've seen a growing awareness of this essential fact over the last several years, as communities that grew up in the auto age have come together to plan and build the town centers they never had. From Georgia to California, towns and aging suburbs are finding that a beautiful, shared gathering place, where people are as welcome outside their cars as inside, brings a renewed civic pride and sense of joy at possessing a piece of a thriving community.”

Mr. Sanford, the Grand Rapids planner, says communities commonly require a guarantee that a specified amount of commercial and residential space will be built in a “mixed-use” project so that it doesn’t become a shopping center disguised as a town center. Mr. Sanford said that lifestyle centers are a sort of safe choice for some shoppers, giving them an “urban fix where people feel like they’re going to a town but really going to a mall.”

A majority of Acme voters have said they don’t want a false fix, though. They want a small-town growth strategy, not a new lifestyle. Failing that, residents and resorters will have another Oakland County on their hands: sprawled, paved, and evacuated on weekends to get away to places like … Acme Township is today.

Kelly Thayer, a journalist and transportation analyst, directs the Institute’s Smart Growth projects in Benzie and Grand Traverse Counties. Reach him at kelly@mlui.org.

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