Traverse City News and Events

20 Years Later: The Village at Grand Traverse Commons

By Ross Boissoneau | May 18, 2022

It was 20 years ago this month that the massive undertaking which eventually became the Village at Grand Traverse Commons got underway. “We took the title on May 6, 2002,” says Raymond Minervini of The Minervini Group, which has been working on the property since that date. His father Ray is largely credited as the visionary, but it was and continues to be a family affair.

The Northern Michigan Asylum (later the State Hospital), built in 1885, was one of 73 so-called “Kirkbride Plan” hospitals constructed in the country. Today, it’s one of the few Kirkbride structures still standing, and the only one in Michigan. 

After the hospital closed in 1989, the property was transferred to the Grand Traverse Commons Redevelopment Corporation, which had representatives from both Garfield Township and the city. Discussions on how to redevelop the property ensued for a decade, as developers, state and local government entities, and citizens were involved in formulating plans for the vacant and deteriorating buildings and surrounding land.

Marsha Minervini had moved to the area a year before the rest of the family; her brother-in-law was a former director at the State Hospital. “He said it was all going to be torn down,” says Marsha. A foreign exchange student from Germany visiting the family couldn’t believe it. “America is such a tear-down society. We live in homes that are 400 or 500 years old,” she told Marsha, who then got involved with the discussions.

When Ray moved north from the Detroit area, he too became a member of the group. A native of the Motor City, he’d seen many of that city’s historic buildings disappear, and he was hoping that wouldn’t be the case here. “I watched so many beautiful buildings demolished,” he says. He says you’d drive by one year and see a hole in the roof, then the next year the roof had collapsed, and finally the bulldozers moved in. “It was really sad.”

When the Redevelopment Corporation ultimately gave up hope and suggested the best – the only – option was to raze the buildings, Ray had other ideas. “I was one of the only advocates for preservation,” he says. “The committee said, ‘Have you ever done a project like this?’ I said, ‘Of course not. No one has.’"

“I knew it could be done. You just have to take on one section at a time.” So he came home one night and told Marsha, “If those buildings are going to be saved, I’m going to have to do it.”

That was the beginning. “I bought the whole site for $1,” says Ray, though he immediately pledged $1.5 million to replace the massive roof. “I said, if we fail, at least the building will be preserved for another 40 years.”

In the two decades since, the decaying former state hospital grounds have been transformed into a multi-use campus, with housing, restaurants, shops, and event spaces -- with much more to come. “You can look at it so many different ways, how we started and where we are,” says Raymond. Like his father, he’s been there since the start. “Dad has a keen eye. He knew it was worth fighting for.

Inspired by the new urbanism design movement, which touts the advantages of areas where work, home and shopping are all located close to one another – the original “walkable communities” perspective – the process began. None of it has been easy, or inexpensive. New wiring and plumbing. Asbestos and lead paint remediation. Connecting smaller rooms to enlarge them by cutting through solid brick walls, many of which were load-bearing. “We got really good at engineering design,” says Raymond. He estimates the cost thus far at $120 million.

The other challenge was persuading people and business owners to move there well before it was completed. Ray says the leasing agent told him the first thing he needed was a good restaurant. “I met the Danielsons, and they became the first commercial tenant. Fortunately it’s been a great success,” he says of Trattoria Stella, the Italian restaurant which continues to thrive.
 
In 2013, Boston-based Cordia Senior Living purchased the then-undeveloped north end from The Minervini Group. Cordia jumped into the $32 million project and created the “senior residential club,” which offers 81 private residences.

In addition to the shops, restaurants, offices and residences in Building 50, the property is also home to the Greenspire School, multiple nature trails, a Veterans Park, the Historic Barns Park and the Botanic Gardens. The former laundry is home to Left Foot Charley winery and Higher Grounds Trading Co. The site's former firehouse is now Pleasanton Brick Oven Bakery. The Minervinis credit those who chose to move there early on, especially Cordia and Trattoria Stella, with helping make the ongoing project viable.

What lies ahead? Raymond says between 35 and 40 percent of the property is left to renovate or reuse, including the cottages on the south side and the old power plant. There are many ideas in the mix, including working with partners on co-development opportunities.

Ray says the one thing missing is a hotel. “A boutique hotel would be helpful. We were close to a deal ten years ago before the market crashed. Now we’re talking with a group out of Detroit,” he says.

Ray believes the problem with most of the hotels in the area is that they are on busy streets. That makes them easy to access by car, but walking from them to anywhere is dangerous. A hotel at the Commons, by contrast, would allow patrons to walk to dinner or shopping, go hiking or ride a bike, all without having to get in their car. “We have the Botanic Gardens, 500 acres of parkland. We’re convinced it would be a home run for any hotel,” he says.

The project has received recognition from many quarters. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 and designated a Michigan State Historic Site in 1985. Media from around the world including the New York Times, BBC Travel and dozens of others, have hailed the project.

Ironically, it was never the Minervinis’ intent to jump feet-first into an all-consuming project, which 20 years in is still far from completion. “When I moved here, I thought I’d be semi-retired. Do a couple small jobs,” says Ray.

Instead, fate – and a sense of preserving the past – had other plans. “The Commons turned 20 the week before Ray turned 80,” says Marsha. “We love it.”

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