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Supersizing Acme:

To get ‘The Village’, first decode the developers’ language

January 24, 2005 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Is this a shopping center, a mega-mall, a lifestyle center or a town center? That depends on who you talk to.

ACME — As developers here continue their three-year push for township and judicial approval for building the region’s largest shopping center, euphemisms and misnomers abound.

First, we have “The Village at Grand Traverse” — the name of the proposed mall, of course — suing Acme — the cartoonishly nondescript name of a place that’s truly exceptional. It’s not to be just any mall, either; it’s to be a “lifestyle center,” suggesting self-fulfillment can be found in Aisle 5.

The big-box stores are “anchors,” apparently meant to moor the 182-acre former hay and apple farm sitting along Acme Creek and its headwaters. The parking lot’s curbside grass is “open space”; the setback from the highway is a “greenbelt.” The main entrance is “Main Street.” The “old” town board is one month removed; the “new” town board is led by an old hand. Got it?

In a place where everything is not what it’s named, reading the landscape is the name of the game.

Common and Uncommon Ground
So let’s begin with what most people agree upon: Acme township residents in the late 1990s planned for a “town center,” meaning a traditional northern Michigan downtown. In 2003, developers proposed a 2.4-million-sq.-ft. shopping center, hotel, and housing complex on the town center site — a suburban strip mall with some high-end brands and a giant grocery-goods-and-garden store (Michigan-based Meijer).

This also has unanimous agreement: Everyone’s suing each other.

That’s it on the common ground. Now here’s the rest of the story: Sitting on the eastern edge of Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay, Acme Township blends sandy beaches, shoreline motels, cherry farms, golf courses, homes, and cabins. Only 4,300 people live here — locals, newcomers, Traverse City commuters, and second-home owners. But Acme’s growing fast and is part of what’s projected to be the Midwest’s fastest-growing region.

Acme sits on the west end of M-72, the two-lane highway connecting I-75 to U.S. 31 and East Grand Traverse Bay. It is the home of the towering Grand Traverse Resort and Turtle Creek Casino.

People live or visit here because they love what they see, and they are dead set on preserving their quality of life. Their survey responses, their community master plan, their casual conversations, and, indeed, their vote for local government all plainly say that. Places like Acme must succeed in their planning and land use goals if Michigan is to find a way out of the catastrophic cycle of build-and-abandon development, an unsustainable pattern that’s spreading to rural townships.

The Heart of the Matter
If there was any question that Michiganians have had enough of sprawl, the state-appointed, bipartisan Michigan Land Use Leadership Council answered it in 2003, when, struck by the widespread outcry against poor land use planning it heard at public listening sessions, the council issued some 150 recommendations for curbing haphazard growth. The public-private council’s essential recommendations: Save tax dollars, satisfy the greatest number of people, and protect the environment by strengthening communities at their core, preserving open lands, and building new community centers when there’s population and development potential to justify it.

Acme could have it all: It wants to efficiently manage traffic and growth, it has an expanse of farmland and natural areas worth protecting, and it is striving to establish a new town center that would meet the needs of the broad public. Its goals are as admirable as they are difficult. Michigan’s largely outdated planning laws, plethora of local governments, and tendency to allow big developers to call the shots tilt the playing field.

“The heart of a town center is a downtown core area that feels and functions like a Main Street,” says the Acme Community Master Plan, reflecting the views of residents who drafted and reviewed it at town hall meetings. Many think the old town board sacrificed that sense of place and scale in October when it approved the shopping center in lame duck session. Voters had replaced the town board in the August primary election, widely considered a referendum on the shopping center.

But Acme’s wholly new board, buoyed by an organized and supportive citizenry, seems energized by trying to establish a true town center. Here are four snapshots of the action to watch for in Acme this year:

The Lawsuits
Citing zoning irregularities, citizens sued to overturn the original approval of the shopping mall, succeeding in early 2004. Undeterred, the old township board passed much the same plan again in front of hundreds of vocally opposed residents. The Concerned Citizens of Acme Township sued again, claiming that the board overreached in its sweeping approval.

Now Meijer wants to build its huge store there, but the new town board put a hold on the site plan application while litigation unfolds; it also proposed a township-wide moratorium on big-box stores, which could ensnare Meijer if the circuit court rejects the shopping center again. Meijer has a Plan B, though: They own a site that’s zoned commercial right across the street. Because that site lacks sewer service, Meijer migrated to the proposed shopping center, which has utility hookups.

The developers and Meijer countersued this month, claiming the new town board is too sympathetic to the Concerned Citizens. Denny Rohn, president of the group, laughs at the idea that her unstaffed group has somehow co-opted local government. She said her organization has no financial ties with the township board nor other sway.

Snapshot: If the court strikes down the shopping center again, it might never see daylight.

The Enormity
Even people who love to buy cheap stuff at Wal-Mart know the Goliath-like negative connotations of the term “big box.” The proposed 207,000-sq.-ft. Meijer, plus its attached 25,000-sq.-ft. outdoor garden center and 1,130-space parking lot, dwarfs some of the region’s existing “big” boxes and would cover 22 acres.

Meijer stores operate 24 hours a day and makes at least 60,000 weekly sales, according to the company’s website. That means there’s room for nearly all of Acme’s roughly 1,500 families to shop there together 40 times a week. Talk about supersizing it. Meanwhile, if Meijer eventually builds on the shopping center site, it could sell its parcel across the street to a commercial, but non-competing, big-box company.

That’s precisely the kind of double vision that new Township Supervisor Bill Kurtz dreads. “The Village at Grand Traverse developers say the whole project will be ‘market driven,’” Mr. Kurtz said. “That means Lowe’s, Home Depot, Borders Books — just a duplicate of what’s already across town. That’s not what Acme residents were seeking when they voted for me and the rest of the board.”  He hopes the Acme Township planning commission will swiftly approve a moratorium on big-box development.

A nationwide criticism of big boxes is that they kill off existing stores, outgrow their own shells, and soon build larger “super stores” somewhere down the road, leaving hulking skeletons behind and shoppers clogging the under-built trail to the new places. In Acme, a locally owned Tom’s Food Market and a K-Mart operate just a few miles from the Village site; are they the prey? More optimistically, some big-box chains — notably Home Depot and Wal-Mart — are experimenting with 40,000-50,000-sq.-ft. stores to better fit into downtowns and other commercial centers and better please shoppers who don’t want to walk a mile to buy a light bulb.

Snapshot: Meijer is not experimenting with smaller sizes and better designs yet, but it might begin to think outside the (big) box if bounced in court.

The Traffic
M-72 runs along the north side of the proposed Village and is already nearing its traffic capacity. The M-72—U.S. 31 intersection, about a half-mile miles west of the Village site, is already overloaded. Fully built, the proposed shopping center and housing complex would easily double the highway’s existing traffic, according to the developers’ study. Would gridlock ensue on M-72? Likely. Would the Michigan Department of Transportation ever sign off on the Village before widening the highway, which is not in the state’s five-year construction plan? Unlikely.

And is the expected traffic congestion actually avoidable? Grand Traverse County needs up to about 500,000 square feet or retail space for residents and up to 800,000 square feet when visitors are included, according to the developers’ market study. Should Acme meet all that “up to” in one fell swoop? Or should development occur closer to where people live and work, especially when about two-thirds of county residents live in its western half, far from Acme, and would only go there by car?

The market study said that the Village would draw only 5 percent of its traffic from Acme residents and more than half of it from completely outside of Grand Traverse County. A typical town center draws just 20 percent of its customers from so far away, but the Village more than doubles that rate because its goal is having “anchors with regional appeal.” “If the center is developed without the anchor stores, then the trade area could be significantly smaller,” the market study found, and so would the traffic volume.

Jim Goss, a Village partner who lives in Acme, said he won’t comment during this round of litigation. So he will not say whether the astounding price his group paid for the parcel — $7 million, or $38,000 an acre — created inordinate pressure to enlarge the development in order to recoup costs.

Concerned Citizen Rohn said it’s obvious that the land’s inflated price, which soared when the township selected the site for the town center, has also inflated the project’s scale and target market: “Jim Goss has got up at township meetings and talked about how he just wants to provide local residents with a place to buy clothing. I guess he meant residents of the whole region. We still want a town center that meets Acme’s needs first.”

Snapshot: Traffic congestion is a top-tier concern in Grand Traverse County. Public and private leaders just launched a far-reaching regional land use and transportation study that might define a vision much brighter than more malls and traffic nightmares.

The Sense of Place
What’s almost lost in all this conflict is what everyone agrees upon: Acme Township’s landscape and lakeshore are priceless. The locals know it, the business owners bank on it, and the visitors soak it up. So any significant change to the environment deserves extra care. Yet the old township board approved the Village without requiring an environmental impact assessment.

So Concerned Citizens paid for one. According to the report, by Ball Environmental & Planning Associates, the shopping center would cover about 110 acres with hard surfaces and significantly alter the quality and quantity of water flowing into Acme Creek, a trout creek that empties into heavily touristed East Grand Traverse Bay.

In addition, protecting farms and open space is another way to defend Acme’s environment and quality of life, according to the community master plan. In November, township voters approved a new property tax that will raise $255,000 a year to buy “development rights” from farmers, paying them the profit they would realize if they developed their land and allowing them to instead reinvest it in farming and other needs.

The program is a step toward fulfillment of Acme’s master plan, which calls for concentrating new growth in a town center, protecting farm prosperity, and conserving open lands and natural resources. It calls for time-released growth, not the instant variety that big boxes and malls embody.

Snapshot: “In fact, if the format and anchor mix are not compromised, this [Village] project can be leveraged to further enhance the market’s image as a shopping mecca for vacationing families in northern Michigan,” the Village at Grand Traverse marketing study advised.

But until the litigation shakes out, shoppers shouldn’t plan their pilgrimage just yet.

Kelly Thayer, a journalist and transportation analyst at the Michigan Land Use Institute, is using his writing and planning skills to help make Michigan a model of Smart Growth. Reach him at kelly@mlui.org.

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