Michigan Land Use Institute

MLUI / Articles from 1995 to 2012 / Going to Town

Going to Town

Hot new ‘old-style’ neighborhoods can protect Up North's beauty and prosperity

April 27, 2006 | By Carolyn Kelly
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Gary Howe

Traverse City's new Midtown development is one of many that are persuading Up North newcomers to live in towns rather than in sprawling suburban cul-de-sacs

Sherry Constantine thinks that she and her husband, Steve, have added another 10 years to their lives by moving to Midtown, a new neighborhood in the heart of Traverse City.

They walk or bike almost everywhere they go, whether dining out on Saturday night or going to church on Sunday morning. Ms. Constantine walks to art classes near the hospital and Mr. Constantine rides the BATA bus to Suttons Bay and bikes all the way home, just for fun. One brisk Friday evening in January, they walked over to the Old Town Playhouse to buy tickets to Anatomy of a Murder. The theater is just down the street from their new condo, so they still had plenty of time for a bite to eat back home, or something to sip on at 310, a new restaurant, before curtain time.

With so much to see and do in Midtown, it’s hardly surprising that 35 out of the 36 luxury condominiums and moderately priced townhouses in the project’s first phase sold in just over a year. Barb Cooper, of Classic Realty, who represented the Midtown development, says it’s easy to sell a brand-new place that is within a stone’s throw of Boardman Lake and River and downtown Traverse City.

“You don’t really have to sell them,” she said. “You really just have to tell them the truth.”

Ms. Cooper—who also lives in Midtown—is one of many Grand Traverse region realtors who say that, even as the housing market cools after a 13-year, nationwide boom, the demand for homes in walkable neighborhoods remains strong. She said the new approach to development is so popular simply because it meets the needs of so many different people.Children can walk to parks and schools along safe, tree-lined sidewalks. Teenagers can get around without pleading for rides or buying their own cars. Singles and couples can dine out, go to concerts, or barhop without constantly searching for parking or jumping in and out of their cars. Professionals can trade in stressful commutes for pleasant walks or bike rides. Elderly people can buy groceries, visit the doctor, and go to church without asking someone for a ride.

In this special report, Going to Town, the Michigan Land Use Institutedocuments newfound interest among northwest Michigan’s developers and government officials in neighborhoods like Midtown. Rising gas prices, escalating traffic congestion, and a rapidly growing population wary of both—and eager for a more sensible, healthier lifestyle—are fueling that interest. Today traditional-style neighborhood or town center developments are being planned, are already rising, or are now full of satisfied residents not only in larger towns such as Traverse City, Manistee, and Petoskey, but also in villages like Empire and Harbor Springs, and even rural townships like Acme.

MLUI/Gary Howe

Studies confirm that more younger people now prefer living, working, and playing in walkable downtowns.

Some are “infill” projects, built on old brownfield sites; others extend a town’s existing neighborhood street grids outward; still others hope to transform greenfields into brand-new, bustling centers of commercial, public, and home life. All of them draw on a new vision for building neighborhoods and downtowns with a set of principles called New Urbanism. Whether this trend again dominates housing patterns in northwest Michigan—after decades of suburbanization that many longtime residents find worrisome—depends on whether more newcomers can be convinced that their vision of living out in the countryside can become instead one of living in a town where the countryside is close by and preserved.

Going to Town documents, explains, and encourages New Urbanism because it is essential to curbing the rapidly worsening sprawl in the region, the state’s fastest growing, and preserving the scenery and natural resources essential to its economy. Part One describes New Urbanism and tells why it is growing in popularity among elected leaders, developers, and citizens. Part Two recounts several new neighborhood success stories. Part Three outlines the basic steps to building such neighborhoods, and offers more technical explanations of New Urbanist precepts.

Easy to Love
The rise of New Urbanism is one of the most profound changes in American housing and commercial development patterns since the 1950s. That’s when heavily subsidized freeways, the country’s blossoming love affair with the auto, and revisions to zoning laws drove new homes, businesses, and stores away from each other, birthed the modern suburb and, with it, the country’s expensive, severe sprawl problem.

New Urbanism is a response to a different set of market signals prompted by sweeping changes in the shape of the 21st-century economy and culture. According to a University of Southern California study, two of the most important signals picked up by developers are the aging of a wealthier and healthier generation of approaching retirees and the advance of young adults interested in an alternative to conventional suburbs.

The study, published by national mortgage lender Fannie Mae, found that middle-aged and older households—whose numbers are growing rapidly as baby boomers age—now place a higher priority on living in walkable communities close to shopping, health care, and public transportation than do households headed by adults between the age of 35 and 44. But with the size of that younger group—which often demands detached, single-family homes—shrinking in coming years, and with the study showing very young adults embracing both urban and suburban models, the study confirms that building new neighborhoods and town centers is good business.

MLUI/Gary Howe

Traverse City physician Ed Kalat uses his bike more for getting around now that he lives in Midtown.

In fact, the researchers project that, based on demographics alone, over one-quarter of American households shopping for a home in 2010 will be looking for compact, walkable neighborhoods—a huge leap in demand. Further growing this new housing market will be other, younger people who tire of worsening traffic congestion, meet people like the Constantines, and themselves discover the charms of walkable neighborhoods.

Also abetting the trend will be the developers themselves. As they respond to the new market and expand the supply of new neighborhoods and town centers, their projects will become more affordable, eliminating the price advantage of today’s suburban developments, which rising gas prices are already beginning to negate.  

Price: Bad and Good News
Right now, there is no disputing that New Urbanist developments cost more. One study by the University of Maryland’s National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education examined 48,070 real estate sales transactions in Washington County, Ore., between 1990 and 2000. It found that, on average, homebuyers were willing to pay a 15.5 percent premium for homes in New Urbanist neighborhoods. The good news is that the study confirms that such neighborhoods are indeed hot commodities.

But, without special economic incentives, changes in zoning laws, the dedication of some units to lower-income families, government-sponsored affordable housing trust funds, and other efforts to keep costs down—such as location-efficient mortgages that offer larger loans in return for living in places where one car will suffice—the bad news is that many families with modest incomes will not be able to afford such neighborhoods. Most New Urbanist advocates support affordable housing initiatives, but they also assert that, as such developments become mainstream and supply increases, their prices will fall.

Prosperous developers and reformed suburbanites are not the only ones excited by the rising popularity of new neighborhoods and town centers. Local officials are discovering that in-town developments boost their government’s tax base without exploding their budgets because they make efficient use of everything from existing sidewalks, roads, sewers, and water mains to public safety services like fire and police protection. 

And, sensitive to the rising importance of protecting northern Michigan's quality of life, local government officials support New Urbanist neighborhood developments because they greatly reduce traffic congestion, bad air, polluted pavement runoff, and view-ruining sprawl.

Walking the Talk
Most fans of new neighborhoods say that walkability is the chief attraction. Laura Sielaff, of Sleeping Bear Realty in Benzie County, said that one mother paid $85,000 for a lot with a mobile home in one of Empire’s older neighborhoods so she could build a new house there, allowing her children to grow up on a block with sidewalks.

Chris Stapleton, owner of Stapleton Realty in Beulah, says she finds that many families now want easier access to shops and entertainment than suburban tracts offer: Parents like taking their kids to the library, the public beach, or downtown without strapping everyone into car seats and driving for 45 minutes. Ms. Stapleton says that, while home sales at the edges of Traverse City remain good, the market is now exceptionally strong within the city’s downtown neighborhoods simply because “people with young kids want to be able to take their kids to town.”

Busy professionals like the fact that they can get plenty of exercise by walking or biking to work everyday. Ed Kalat, a physician, and Greg Piaskowski, the director of Traverse City’s Agency on Aging, walk or bike a mile or two to work every morning now that they live in Midtown. Both men say that they’ve boosted their level of activity since moving to downtown Traverse City from, respectively, Garfield Township, which encircles Traverse City, and the countryside near Cedar, west of Traverse City.

Ms. Cooper, the Midtown realtor, and her husband, Tom, are walking so much that they have sold one of their cars. So have the Constantines.

“We have done very well as a one-car couple,” said Ms. Constantine. “It’s absolutely doable.”

Variety: The Spice

MLUI/Gary Howe

Many seniors enjoy the diversity and convienience of walkable downtowns.

Another New Urbanist feature that residents say attracts them is the variety of people who live there.

“Since we’ve all come in together, with a range of ages and income levels, Midtown is not an exclusive, gated community,” said Ms. Constantine. “With St. Francis High School down the street, and Central Grade School within walking distance, you see children and you see elderly folks—it’s a live community.”

New Urbanists say that mixing many single-family homes, duplexes, townhouses, condominiums, and apartments of different sizes in a single neighborhood leads to many positive, spontaneous, community-building interactions that happen far less frequently in car-dependent settings. People on foot bump into each other at the post office, coffee shop, or bakery; conversations spring up; good things happen: Younger people might offer to rake leaves or shovel snow for elderly neighbors. A middle-aged couple might advise a first-time homeowner about a good plumber. Retirees might volunteer their time at the local elementary school. It is called good, old-fashioned socializing.

In Empire, according to Ms. Sielaff, a new development called The New Neighborhood is triggering that phenomenon. The project extends the village’s old neighborhood grid, which includes some handy main street shops, into greenfields just across the main road. It offers modestly priced lots and homes that are attracting young families, year-round residents, and workers—diversity that virtually every small town in the state urgently needs.

“The kinds of people moving into The New Neighborhood,” Ms. Sielaff said, “are actually going to work and support a family. Some people who were renters in Empire had the opportunity to purchase homes because the houses going in there are more affordable. The Empire market was largely seasonal and retired residents until The New Neighborhood showed up.”

Stronger Economies, Better Citizens

MLUI/Gary Howe

What New Urbanists call "high-density, pedestrian-friendly" neighborhoods, kids call great places for Trick-or-Treating.

Traverse City’s Midtown and Empire’s The New Neighborhood have been particularly successful at bringing the generations together because HomeStretch, a local, nonprofit housing provider, bought units and sold them to local families at more affordable prices. The organization helps homebuyers who have steady jobs, good credit, career skills, but modest incomes.

Sarah Lucas, a 28-year-old planner raising a three-year-old son, fits that description. She jumped at the opportunity to buy a new Midtown condominium at a price she could afford on her salary of $33,000.

“The stress level just plummeted after I bought,” she said. “When you rent, you always know that you’re going to have to leave, and it’s expensive to come up with the security deposit and to find a decent, affordable place. Buying a house really stabilizes your life.”

HomeStretch’s work, like that of other nonprofits devoted to reducing the state’s severe shortage of affordable housing, actually helps a community’s economy, as well as the people that they serve. Reasonably priced starter homes attract and retain talented college graduates, families with children who will keep schools full and funded, and year-round households whose purchases can help keep Up North businesses profitable through the long winter months. 

And because New Urbanist neighborhoods are so closely connected, physically, to existing communities, they also are building better citizens. For example, since moving to Midtown from Midland, Mich., last April, the Constantines have not only made lots of friends, they have also plunged into Traverse City’s civic life. They walk to community meetings about managing the nearby waterfront or removing some of the dams along the Boardman River.

“We’ve found these town hall meetings and living in Midtown encourage people to be involved in the process of being a town,” Ms. Constantine said. She also thinks that Midtown, in the heart of a sizeable city, has refreshed her appreciation of the surrounding region’s rural culture, thanks to the easy walk to the Traverse City Farmers Market. 

“We’ve discovered this whole world of agriculture,” she said. “It’s the organic farmers you meet at the farmers market, the eggs and the meat and homemade bread.”  

Sustainable Prosperity Calling
Walking through Midtown, it’s hard to believe that the vibrant community was once the site of an abandoned factory and badly contaminated land. As the Institute reported in New Plans for Barren Lands: A brownfield redevelopment guide for Michigan’s northern coastal communities, the state’s brownfield redevelopment program triggered the redevelopment of the once-nasty area into a clean, safe, lively neighborhood.

But the project would have failed without a growing hunger for true community living that is safe, efficient, friendly, familiar, and favorable to the economies of local governments savvy enough to revise ordinances, devise incentives, and work closely with developers to encourage New Urbanist development. As Bryan Crough, director of the Traverse City Downtown Development Authority, points out, great neighborhoods, long-term regional planning, and Smart Growth are vital to the region’s economy.

“In his book The Rise of the Creative Class,” said Mr. Crough, “Richard Florida talks about a new strategy where people move to a great place and the industries end up coming there because the employees are already there. The premise is that the strategy of economic development is about creating great places and quality of life issues. When you look at our success in drawing small, entrepreneurial businesses, it’s astounding.”

Northern Michigan, with its beaches, dunes, forests, farmland, and small towns, has a long history of attracting entrepreneurs and artists. But for that to continue, the development that new people trigger must preserve the spectacular landscape and bounteous natural resources.

That is where New Urbanist neighborhoods come in: Great new neighborhoods and town centers attract great employees and customers while preserving farmland, forests, beaches, and open spaces. There are now many indications that, in northern Michigan, build it and they will come, and stay, and prosper.

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