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New Urbanism in Traverse City

A New Community

July 1, 1997 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Mary Ann Moore, a real estate broker and developer; is an astute businesswoman as adept at recognizing market niches and as she is in understanding social trends. Now those same skills have turned her into something of a cultural pioneer.

This year, Moore and her husband Tom, a home builder, are planning to construct a traditional neighborhood just off 14th street in Traverse City. The six-home development — featuring narrow streets, sidewalks, porches, and detached garages — is the region’s first example of the New Urbanism architectural movement that is sweeping the country.

The two-story, 1,500 square foot homes will sell for around $140,000. They are modeled after the city’s historic architecture. Along with bay windows and gabled roofs, the homes feature one other asset. They will be within walking distance to the supermarket, the stores on 14th street, and to downtown.

Russ Soyring, the director of planning in Traverse City, says if the development is successful, it could begin reshaping housing markets in Northwest Michigan by encouraging compact neighborhoods, affordability, and proximity to shops and services. The trend also would yield big dividends for the natural environment, Soyring asserts. Reviving traditional community design principles would enliven village life and preserve Northwest Michigan’s small towns. That would curb sprawl by reducing the size of home lots and the need to build new subdivisions in farm fields and forests.

Launched in the early 1990s, the New Urbanism represents a fresh embrace of the planning and architectural traditions that shaped some of the truly enduring and livable communities in the United States — from downtown Charleston, S.C., to Marshall, Mich., to Traverse City.

In such communities, parks, buildings, streets and other public spaces are paramount. A rich diversity of residences and businesses enhance civic life. "We used to plan and design communities that were an inspiration," said Peter Katz, the executive director of the Congress for the New Urbanism, who spoke in Traverse City last June. "We have the know how to do it again."

Despite the fact that New Urbanist ideals makes such sense for Traverse City, gaining approval for Moore’s project was not easy. Neighbors worried about drainage, and about the loss of a field where new houses would stand. Others became alarmed that traffic would increase.

The city fire Marshall nixed an idea for a service alley behind the new homes because it was dead end. The narrow street in front also was widened to accomodate big fire trucks. It took time for officials to examine the outdated zoning ordinance, which was approved in 1958, to see whether such a project could even be built in Traverse City.

A similar review sunk another promising New Urbanist project, a Crystal Flash convenience store and gas station on 14th street, that Soyring also championed last year. The idea was to put the store, which was architecturally modeled after an old town design, right on the corner of Union and 14th, with the pumps and parking spaces behind.

The project failed after neighbors objected and the city planning commission determined that having the building that close to the corner violated the zoning ordinance. The ordinance called for setting the building back as much as 20 feet to preserve what previous planners hoped would give the city more "open green space." The ordinance is so outmoded that Soyring is leading a staff project to rewrite it.

Soyring says he was disappointed because an opportunity was missed to build a distinctive store that would begin to give busy 14th street a neighborhood feel. Dave Scigliano, the executive vice president of Crystal Flash, which is now planning to build an ordinary fueling stop on the same site, said his company was annoyed. "I wish the planning department had a better pulse on the will of the various review committees," he said.

Fortunately, city officials did not have the same problem with Mary Ann Moore’s development. It was approved late last year by the planning commission and the city council. "Because I’m a real estate broker, I know there is so much demand for the ambiance of town living," she said. "People want the sidewalks. They want the narrower streets. They like the feeling of the Victorian and craftsman architecture. They want all the things that give them the feeling of safety, security, and neighborliness of a small town."

Soyring, who helped Moore incorporate New Urbanist features into the project, says he is both relieved and enthused. "We’ve been talking in the city for so long about these kinds of developments," he said. "Finally we are going to see what happens when a New Urbanism project is actually built."

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