A Decade Of Debate: Riverview Terrace, Traverse City’s First Affordable Housing Project
By Karl Klockars | March 26, 2023
With the many housing projects discussed and in the works around Traverse City, we thought we’d look back on the long path to getting the city’s earliest HUD-funded housing project up and running: the ten-story Riverview Terrace complex at the corner of Front and Pine Streets.
Completed in 1977, its opening was the culmination of a multi-year effort to get 115 one-bedroom apartments built for low-income seniors in Traverse City. Here’s how it happened…and how it almost didn’t.
The need for senior housing was recognized as far back as 1962, when a study by the Mayor’s Committee on Aging recognized the high population of seniors in TC. Almost as soon as Housing and Urban Development was created in November 1965, citizens of Traverse City were already discussing ways to fund low-income senior housing.
An August 1965 report made the committee’s suggestions official: There was “deep concern and interest for the construction of low cost housing for qualified Senior Citizens in Traverse City…We feel that our city should step up and take its place alongside of many other communities in Michigan who are now operating such projects.”
In March 1967 (almost exactly 56 years ago), the wheels finally officially started to turn. The city commission passed a resolution that gave the go-ahead for an application to the Federal Housing Assistance Administration in pursuit of 130 units to be created. The city also created a resolution of cooperation that stated the city “will eliminate sub-standard dwelling units equal to the number of newly constructed housing units” which at the time numbered an estimated 31% of homes in Grand Traverse County.
By August 1967, funds had been appropriated for planning, site selection was underway, and an architect had been found. That architect delivered plans by April of 1968, including a sketch that looks surprisingly close to what was actually built. But the city still needed one thing: “We simply cannot go ahead with this important project without a certified workable program, … the existence of a local housing code,” said Housing Commission Chairman John Blakeslee.
That code ended up requiring a public vote, which became the most contentious part of the process. (Up until this point, there’s no documentation of any real on a public housing project slated for downtown.) Establishing a new housing code generated enough controversy to motivate a group called Citizens for Tax Reduction to be created. They ran a series of ads against the “Urban Renewal and Housing Code menace,” stoking fears that the government would demolish “all or part of our homes” if a housing code was enacted. That in turn prompted the formation of a Committee for Community Progress, if only to run large full-page ads in the Traverse City Record-Eagle urging citizens to vote “Yes” on the creation of a city housing code.
Traverse City voted no.
On Jun 14th, 1968, results showed that nearly half of the city’s registered voters turned down the code by a three-to-one margin. Nearly 2,500 votes were against, with 818 for the code, which prompted Mayor Royce Kephart to state that “This does, however, mean the end of prospects for any urban renewal program … and also prospects for any housing for the elderly program as far as I know.”
A spokesperson for opponents of the code, Dr. H. E. Dunn, stated that “the overwhelming vote against the new housing code should make clear to the city commission and the city administration that a majority – not a minority – of Traverse City citizens want no part of the proposed urban renewal program.” In October 1969, the city released the $2.5 Million in reserved urban renewal money back to the federal government.
Three years passed until when, in 1972, the state legislature enacted its own construction code act, clearing one more line of opposition to the project, and news emerged in December 1972 that the housing project still had a pulse. A proposed apartment complex that was in planning for five years was voted down due to a tax abatement issue, which allowed the housing commission to swoop in and make a purchase agreement with Gerald Oleson to acquire 1.7 acres on Pine Street along the Boardman River.
Any celebration that followed was brief: HUD freezed funding on subsidized housing projects in January of 1973, and though HUD Secretary George Romney had indicated that previously funded projects (like TC’s) would still proceed, indications were that all projects would be halted. It took until May 1973 to get another go-ahead from HUD, just one of nine projects in the state allowed to proceed.
The first time the name “Riverview Terrace” appeared in the daily paper was in November 1973, in a Record-Eagle story announcing the name of the new Senior Citizen Housing Unit as decided by a contest. Mrs. Edith Hays’ suggestion “was chosen from 16 entries submitted by senior citizens in the Grand Traverse Area. Mrs. Hays was presented with a check for $25 for naming the project.”
Then, as now, rising construction costs and funding issues again threatened to kill the project before it got off the ground. HUD had agreed to fund the project in January 1974 for $2.2 million, and the cheapest bid came in at just shy of $3 million.
The city commission fired off a letter to Governor Milliken noting an “urgent need for additional funds if the project to move forward as planned.” For not the first time since 1966 when efforts towards the project began, things again looked grim.
In August of that year, under the headline “Housing deal for seniors still alive”, a potential fix was reportedly proposed to the city to reduce the scale of the project, taking a floor or two from the original two-tower, ten-story project. Credited with keeping the project alive was Congressman Elford Cederberg, who was “instrumental” in getting HUD to give the thumbs up to a cost-cutting plan – though the executive director of the housing commission was quick to throw cold water on the idea, quoted as saying “Across the country, these programs have pretty well failed.”
A rebidding process was ordered in January 1975, following the removal of a single story from each of the towers and other structural changes to lower costs. At this point, even the local paper was adding some snark: “The senior housing project is almost old enough to apply for social security itself,” it wrote. Finally in May 1975, the logjam appeared to break: “Senior housing bid appears within budget” wrote the R-E as two contractors delivered bids of about $2.4 million for the project. HUD finally gave its approval in July 1975 and the project could finally get underway.
Contractors clearly moved quickly, and on May 26, 1976, the final piece of the top floor was dropped into place. “A fitting tribute to the bicentennial year” is how Housing Commission Chair Blakeslee described it after working for a decade on the project.
While outlining the process for getting residents into the facility, Blakeslee noted that nearly 20 percent of Traverse City’s population was made up of senior citizens, versus a national average of 10 percent (as of 2021, the city was up to 22 percent over age 65). Already, commissioners also knew affordable housing was going to be challenging to recreate due to higher land prices downtown.
Blakeslee was already looking three decades down the road, noting that the “semi-autonomous” housing commission would turn over its mantle to the city at that time, which would require a full-time director and secretary, and funding too. “The commission, authorized by state law, has ‘never been allocated any budget in 10 years,” Blakeslee said.
Final cost for Riverview Terrace according to a financial report published in January 1977: $2,831,000.
Today, Riverview Terrace houses 115 seniors, with a waitlist of up to three years.Comment