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Acme Seeks Funds for New Urbanist Redesign

Developers balk, hoping court will allow big boxes

April 5, 2006 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Acme's master plan prescribes a New Urbanist town center--a design that features walkable, compact neighborhoods and "main street"-style shopping, businesses, and residences.

ACME TOWNSHIP—Seven years ago Acme Township residents developed a master plan that directs commercial and residential growth to an envisioned town center and protects the area’s scenic vistas and farmland. Now a citizens committee has chosen a prominent new Urbanist architectural firm to design such a project. But, while township officials are gaining more support from local business groups for their vision, they and many township residents fear that financial and ongoing legal obstacles could squelch the idea.

Acme Township’s master plan, originally adopted in 1999, calls for building a brand new town center, complete with leafy, traditional neighborhoods and a downtown “like Suttons Bay or Elk Rapids.” But the plan’s dream of stopping sprawl by pointing most of the township’s future development away from its rolling hills and farmlands has turned into a legal drama that might force residents here to accept something that many of them do not want — a sprawling, regional shopping mall.

Among the important players in the drama, which is being closely watched across all of northern Michigan, are the jurists on the Michigan Court of Appeals. They are weighing a lower court ruling in a lawsuit that a citizens group won last summer against developers who own the site and proposed the shopping mall where the new town center would be located. 

Other key actors are the township's elected leaders, who continue to press for the kind of environmentally-sensitive, community-building development their master plan envisions. They want to hire the New Urbanist firm, RTKL Associates Inc., to assemble a detailed plan to replace the one that developers are currently defending in the Appellate Court — dubbed The Village at Grand Traverse. Township officials hope that if the alternate plan is attractive enough they can use it to convince the developers to drop their appeal and embrace Acme’s New Urbanist approach.

A third group in the drama is the development group behind The Village, and they remain uninterested in that idea. The developers  are pressing their appeal of the case, which they lost in district court last summer against the Concerned Citizens of Acme Township, the fourth group in this drama, which sued both the developers and the previous township board, which had approved the regional mall proposal. Meanwhile, current township officials say they are having trouble meeting the New Urbanist design firm’s fee for assembling the alternative proposal.

Because of the sheer size of the hotly contested Village project — and the long history of citizen involvement in Acme’s master plan —the outcome of the legal and political struggles in this tiny community will have huge implications for the region. If the township prevails, its victory could encourage other communities ito reshape their master plans and ordinances to stop sprawl, protect open space and farmland, reduce traffic congestion, and boost the area’s two main industries — tourism and agriculture.

“This is a regional development that will seriously affect other surrounding areas,” said Acme Township Supervisor Bill Kurtz. “We have the opportunity to build something bigger than just Acme.”

That is why the township is now looking for financial help outside of Acme — a community with about 4,300 people — to meet the approximately $250,000 consultant fee needed for a full-scale design that matches the master plan’s intentions. A group of citizens appointed by the township, the New Urbanism Advisory Committee, recently identified a firm that specializes in town centers and neighborhood designs that are walkable, affordable, and more compact than typical suburban tracts. The township has committed $50,000 to the process and is currently looking for additional funding.

A Big Victory, Delayed
The master plan’s supporters were jubilant last summer when Circuit Court Judge Phillip Rodgers rejected a proposal by The Village at Grand Traverse L.L.C that the previous township board had approved for the town center site — a 182-acre parcel along M-72, northeast of Traverse City. The Village plan, proposed in 2004, originally had 2.4 million sq. ft. of retail and commercial space, including two big-box retail stores (one would be operated by Meijer Inc.), an eight-story hotel, acres of parking lots, and residential development lacking the traditional grid design typical of older, walkable neighborhoods.

The developers, in response to intense criticism from many township residents, shrank their proposal slightly several times during negotiations with the previous township board. But the changes did not mollify critics, who repeatedly pointed out at public meetings that the proposed development is inconsistent with Acme’s master plan. They said it failed to integrate housing, workplaces, shopping, and recreation facilities into a compact, mixed-use, easily walkable neighborhood with an adjacent, traditional main street.

The popularity of such New Urbanist approaches to development has skyrocketed in many communities around the nation in the last 10 years, but is only now beginning to attract serious attention and a growing market share in Michigan. But, New Urbanist or not, what the township plan called for and what the Village developers proposed — and the previous Acme trustees approved, only to be voted out of office for doing so — turned out to be miles apart, according to Judge Rodgers.

“The project approved by the Acme Township Board bears no resemblance to the villages of Elk Rapids or Suttons Bay," the judge said in his remarkably scathing opinion. "It does not have small town appeal. It is a regional shopping mall. No portion of the township's master plan supports development of a regional shopping mall." 

The judge also scolded the board that approved the Village proposal — and sparked the lawsuit now under appeal — for being cavalier with the public process, botching the opportunity for site plan review, and surrendering too much control of the project’s design process to the developers.

Last fall, the newly elected township board formed a New Urbanism committee, which interviewed three nationally famous New Urbanist design firms. Early last month the committeeearly selected RTKL Associates Inc., a large, multinational firm with offices in North America, Europe, and Asia. If the township can find an additional $200,000 for the firm, the company will design a new town center and neighborhood whose core area, as the Acme master plan says, “feels and functions like a Main Street.”

Sharon Corpe, Acme’s Township manager, said she is excited about the process. 

“These design firms are of extremely high caliber, and just to be considered is thrilling,” said Ms. Corpe of the three firms the citizens investigated. “Hats off to the committee and their hard work; they have been extremely motivated ever since their inception in November of last year.”

Both the developers and Meijer have rejected invitations by the township and the committee to join the discussion and help finance the RTKL design process, electing instead to wait out their appeal to the state court. If they win, the developers and Meijer would be able to proceed with their original design — the one that many Acme citizens believe undermines the intent of the master plan.

Uncertainty Reigns
With an Appellate Court decision unlikely before this summer, township officials find themselves seeking support for a design project that could be rendered moot by an unfavorable court decision. 

So far, the township’s efforts to design and build an appropriate, New Urbanist style village center have garnered support from several of the region’s high-profile civic and business organizations, including the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce. 

"Acme is the gateway to the Grand Traverse region,” said Chamber President Doug Luciani, “so its development pattern helps define the 'Up North' experience unique to our area. Acme Township's plan to concentrate commercial and residential development into a new Town Center with the look and feel of existing villages is a great example of the type of growth that the Chamber encourages. It is a development that brings jobs, provides housing for workers on the east side of Traverse City, and helps protect the rural character along M-72."

But it remains to be seen whether the township can find funding to underwrite the design of what advocates say is a true town center.

If the township succeeds, RTKL would provide the community with a detailed conceptual design for the 182-acre site, list the steps officials and developers must take to realize that design, suggest necessary changes to the current zoning code, and prescribe vital public-private partnerships.

That design, according to the RTKL proposal, would incorporate a 230,000 sq. ft. Meijer store, which is close to the size that company wants to build on the site. But the New Urbanist proposal may suggest design ideas such as locating parking in the rear, building smaller, “liner” stores along the main building, or building a multi-level store. Wal-Mart, Meijer’s chief competitor, now builds two-story stores in certain situations, but Meijer continues to reject that idea.

Nate Scramlin is a Michigan State University graduate with a degree in urban and regional planning. He completes his internship with the Michigan Land Use Institute next month. You can reach him at nate@mlui.org.

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