The developers behind the proposed nine-story development at the corner of Pine and Front streets are changing course, moving ahead instead with a redesigned 60-foot building at the site.
Erik Falconer will present the new project to Downtown Development Authority (DDA) board members at their 8am meeting today (Friday). The plans replace a concept originally proposed by Falconer and property co-owner Joe Sarafa for a 96-foot, 162-unit development at the site called River West. Following a contentious decision by city commissioners in 2015 to grant a special land use permit to the development, project opponents appealed the decision to Thirteenth Circuit Court. After Judge Philip Rodgers sided with opponents, vacating the permit, the developers appealed to the Michigan Court of Appeals, where the case still resides.
Falconer says the partners are proceeding with the lawsuit – “to the extent we can create clarity for development in our community and statewide, we would like to do so,” he says – but says the need to “have certainty and make progress” at the Pine Street property prompted the decision to revise project plans. “You can’t hold land forever,” says Falconer, who’s co-owned the property since 2007. “That’s the reality of real estate.”
The new project plans call for a 275,000 square-foot mixed-use development (pictured) at the corner of Front and Pine streets, with 15,000 square feet of commercial space on the ground floor, at least 220 apartment units on the upper floors, and private underground parking. Falconer says the partners hope to attract ground-floor businesses including a potential coffee shop, restaurant, fitness facility, and daycare center. At just under 60 feet, the development will avoid triggering an election under Proposal 3; it can also be built by right without city commission approval. The design features public courtyard and gathering spaces and offers “more space between the building and the river” than the original proposal, according to Falconer.
“We’re very excited about the new design and hope it’s something that can be embraced by everyone,” he says. “It’s been updated and is more reflective of the needs of the community right now. I think it’s a design that’s less imposing on Front Street…and has more accessible units.”
The original proposal featured a “bar bell” mix of affordable housing units on one end and luxury condos on the other end, Falconer says, with “a gap in the middle.” Under the new plans, units – which will be 100 percent apartment rentals – are “more homogenous, so we get a smoother distribution along the target income spectrum,” he says. “We don’t go as far to the low side, and we don’t go as far to the high side. I think we need accessible market-rate housing downtown for a range of incomes…this model will allow us to do that with a number of units that can start to meet the demand.”
Though the project doesn’t require DDA approval, Falconer will present the plans to DDA board for feedback. Next up in the process will be a standard site plan review before the city planning commission March 7. Falconer hopes the project could then break ground by late spring, with a targeted 18-month construction timeline. “We’d hope to be open by Thanksgiving 2018,” he says.
The River West moniker will be replaced by a new name that will be unveiled close to April, says Falconer, the same time developers plan to open a leasing office.
DDA Executive Director Rob Bacigalupi says the development is good news for downtown, as a proposed West Front Street parking deck across from the project site is contingent on surrounding development growth to proceed. “We hoped development would move forward, because it will give us more TIF (tax increment financing) revenue to pay for that,” Bacigalupi says. “Once we know the value of what they’re proposing, we’ll start crunching numbers.” Bacigalupi notes the project will also likely drive streetscape improvements and a new mid-block crossing on Front Street around the development site.
“The fact they are (building) apartments is also something we’ve really focused on,” Bacigalupi says. “We know we need them, and we have very few downtown. The more apartments we can have, the better.”
While the redesigned project might represent a compromise for the developers, Falconer says he believes the new building could ultimately prove an upgrade over the original design in the long-term.
“The elimination of high-end condos is the biggest improvement, the recognition of what’s best for downtown,” he says. “If we don’t intentionally create space for a range of incomes and jobs and employees to support the services we have all come to love and benefit from, we’re at material risk of not having a sustainable economy. It threatens what we love most about our community. I think we have a project now…that is more of what we need in Traverse City.”