City Enters Final Push To Complete Boardman River Plan
By Beth Milligan | June 10, 2021
A Traverse City planning process that kicked off in 2018 to create a cohesive vision for the Lower Boardman River – the 1.6-mile urban stretch between Boardman Lake and Grand Traverse Bay – is wrapping up this year, with officials preparing to mount a final public engagement push this summer before unveiling the completed plan this fall.
The Lower Boardman Leadership Team, a group of stakeholders that includes a variety of local government, environmental, and resident representatives, met remotely Wednesday to discuss plans for upcoming public input sessions. Officials plan to take both virtual and in-person comment – with meetings tentatively targeted for July 13 and 14 – on a series of storyboards depicting possible uses and opportunities along the Boardman River. The storyboards illustrate many ideas already provided by the public during “robust” input sessions that took place before the pandemic, according to Traverse City Downtown Development Authority (DDA) COO Harry Burkholder. COVID-19 put the river planning process on hold for months, but the leadership team has since reconvened and is ready to wrap up their work.
In recent presentations to the DDA and city planning commission, Burkholder reminded city officials that a “lack of a comprehensive and cohesive vision for the river corridor” was the impetus behind creating a master plan (also called a unified plan) for the Lower Boardman. “The question continues to be, ‘What is the river corridor going to look like?’” he told planning commissioners, referring to both the developed and undeveloped sections of the urban Boardman. New infill buildings and a “number of well-intentioned but disjointed public access projects” have impacted the Boardman’s waterfront with little coordination between projects or big-picture considerations for the river as a whole, Burkholder said. After “years of turning our back to the river,” the goal of the unified plan is to “face and engage” the river, he said: creating detailed plans for the northern and southern sections of the downtown stretch as well as recommendations for land use and zoning policies, such as riparian buffer requirements.
Initial public feedback identified a number of priorities for the Lower Boardman. Those include improving public access to the river (such as with boardwalks and pedestrian bridges), softening the shoreline, limiting/managing development, removing/limiting parking on riverbanks, increasing building setbacks, improving stormwater management, and keeping the corridor natural and passive where possible. Consulting group SmithGroup is working on converting those priorities into visuals; for example, depicting possible options for new boardwalks and pedestrian bridges or reimagining some of the alleys behind Front Street to better showcase the waterfront.
The Leadership Team discussed giving attendees at upcoming meetings green and red dots to stick on visual elements they like or dislike, as well using online GIS-type maps to collect feedback and comments on various sections of the river. In addition to general public meetings, the city also plans to hold targeted feedback sessions this summer with stakeholders such as recreation groups, event organizers, fisheries, sustainable/natural resource groups, and business and property owners. Officials discussed in particular the importance of getting input from property owners in the 100 and 200 blocks of Front Street. “Pop-up” feedback events are also possible in the coming weeks, such as at the Sara Hardy Downtown Farmers Market. “We really need to make efforts to reach out to folks that maybe don’t traditionally participate,” Burkholder said.
All of the public input this summer will be used to refine the initial list of priorities and storyboard options into a final unified plan that will be presented for adoption to city boards this fall. “Ultimately, we hope to have a series of land use recommendations as well as physical recommendations that we slowly...hope to implement over time,” Burkholder told planning commissioners. The draft document is already having an impact downtown; city staff told planning commissioners that the developers behind a new mixed-use building going up along the Boardman River at 309 West Front Street have incorporated some of the recommended elements in their plans, such as building setbacks and public access to the river.
Leadership Team members discussed the need Wednesday to be realistic with the public about what’s possible along the Lower Boardman as the city works to complete a unified plan. Leadership Team Co-Chair Brett Fessell of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians noted the river is not a “pristine pre-European environment” and can’t realistically be returned to that state, pointing out current conditions like sheetwall, hardened banks, development, and infrastructure that exist along the urban waterfront. “It’s important we somehow explain that in the field,” he said, in order to “temper some of the ideas that just might be unachievable.”
Former City Planning Director Russ Soyring agreed, recommending that photos of current conditions along the river be presented next to visionary sketches to help the public understand the constraints that exist at different sites. “It’s rather brutal in some locations,” he said, describing concrete rubble piles and hard-surface parking lots that dot sections of the river. While Leadership Team members agreed there are numerous short and long-term opportunities to enhance the waterfront and improve public access and connectivity, the unified plan will also need to realistically accommodate the demands of an urban environment.
“We’re working with a degraded environment for the most part,” Soyring said, adding that it’d be important accordingly to give the public “a context of what the river looks like (now) and what it might look like in the future.”Comment