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Treading the Path to Prosperity

Even in rural northern Michigan, people are trading cars for bikes and walking shoes

May 29, 2006 | By Carolyn Kelly
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Gary Howe

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

It did not have a sweeping view of a crystalline-blue bay. Nor did it feature a footpath that ran along rugged dunes or led into an Up North forest. In fact, all the property in the older part of Empire had was a quite unglamorous mobile home.

But it did have a sidewalk that led to a tiny downtown with a restaurant, a small grocery store, a post office, an art gallery and other small businesses and, further along, a Lake Michigan beach open to everyone. And that’s why, according to real estate agent Laura Sielaff, a mother she knows was happy to pay $85,000 for that property in Empire, a small village along northwest Michigan’s coastline. One day, the mom told Ms. Sielaff, she would build a home that would allow her children to grow up just a quick, safe walk away from many friendly and practical places.

The Michigan Land Use Institute’s special report, entitled Going to Town: New Urbanism arrives in northern Michigan, documents many stories like this one. The report confirms that more people are becoming more interested in living somewhere that does not require a car for every single purchase of bread, milk, or other daily necessities. Ms. Sielaff, for one, who works for Sleeping Bear Realty in Benzie County, just south of Empire, said she is seeing more interest in “walkable” neighborhoods every day.

Chris Stapleton, who owns Stapleton Realty in nearby Beulah, said the same thing. 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 that city’s downtown neighborhoods simply because “people with young kids want to be able to take their kids to town.”

And it’s not just about walking. Most of those moving to so-called “New Urbanist” neighborhoods like those now rising in Empire, Traverse City, Harbor Springs and other spots around the region are doubtless like their counterparts in other areas of the country, where traditional neighborhood and downtown design have been around awhile longer and are selling at a healthy clip. They want more out of life than a cul-de-sac can typically give them. It starts with walking, to be sure, but the path these people trod leads to a richness of experience that, until New Urbanism came along, was threatening to disappear from the American way of life.

Places to Go, Things to See
Ed Kalat, a physician, and Greg Piaskowski, the director of Traverse City’s Agency on Aging, are a good example of those who are happy to have moved to a place where they can convert their morning commute into a pleasant work-out. Both walk or bike a mile or two to work every morning now that they live in Midtown, the New Urbanist neighborhood in that town that is half-built and already fully occupied. 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.

Barb Cooper, a realtor who helped the Midtown project sell out its first 36 units, and her husband, Tom, say that since they moved to Midtown they are walking so much that they have sold one of their cars. So have a retired couple who live there, Sherry and Steve Constantine.

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

Ms. Constantine also said she enjoys another New Urbanist feature while she and her husband stroll through their new neighborhood: 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, the 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
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 and good credit, 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 businesses 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 encourages 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 Brian 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.”

The Institute will host community forums on New Urbanism in northwest Michigan on May 31 and June 8. Click here for more information.

This article is excerpted from Going to Town: New Urbanism arrives in northern Michigan. Carolyn Kelly is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s associate editor. Reach her at carolyn@mlui.org.

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