Traverse City News and Events

City To Consider Limiting First-Floor Uses Downtown

By Beth Milligan | Feb. 1, 2022

Traverse City planning commissioners will discuss a proposal at their 7pm meeting tonight (Tuesday) to limit the types of uses that are allowed on the first floor of downtown buildings. A public hearing could follow March 1 on the ordinance change, which is intended to protect the vibrant nature of downtown by encouraging a ground-floor retail/restaurant mix and avoiding “dead spaces” that occur when first floors are occupied by parking, private offices, and short-term rentals, according to City Planning Director Shawn Winter.

Planning commissioners first discussed the proposal in late 2021 and will review the concept in more detail at tonight’s meeting, where they could agree to set a March 1 public hearing and then vote to forward the changes to city commissioners for final approval. The draft proposal includes new rules for different zoning districts downtown. In C-4b, which consists mainly of properties along Front Street, the plan calls for limiting the entire first floor of buildings to a short list of uses that includes retail stores, restaurants, drinking establishments, art galleries, theaters/live performance venues, cultural facilities, convenience stores, amusement/recreation services, and essential services. Winter says the entire first floor is being included in the rule to ensure that the back side of Front Street buildings remain engaging along the Boardman River, particularly as the city works to improve connectivity with the alleys and riverfront under the Lower Boardman River Unified Plan.

“We’re trying to focus on uses that create an engaging and inviting atmosphere that you keep you moving along the corridors and exploring,” Winter says. “What we’re trying to avoid is uses that create dead spaces in street-level activity: things like offices, interior parking, short-term rentals and residential, where people aren’t really interacting with the business or development. We’ve seen some of that happen already.” Winter cites as examples the conversion of two former popular downtown restaurants – Georgina’s on Front Street and Bistro Foufou on Cass Street – into an office space and a short-term vacation rental, respectively. “The space looks nice, but it’s always empty and dead when you walk by,” Winter says. “If we allow that to keep happening, the activity that makes downtown vibrant can quickly erode away.”

Changes are also proposed for the C-4a and C-4c zoning districts – which are more along the outskirts of downtown – but are less restrictive since they’re not right in the heart of the city’s shopping and dining center. All uses would generally be allowed on those properties, but residential dwellings, short-term rentals, and interior parking would be prohibited in the front 50 percent of a building lot. The rule would help avoid some “dead space” uses on the public-facing street level while still accommodating ground-floor commercial, “a recognition that office space is still an important component downtown, so in some districts on the periphery it may make sense on the first floor,” Winter says.

As is often the case with zoning changes, uses that would be banned on the first floor under the new proposal but exist right now in downtown Traverse City “would be grandfathered in as legal nonconforming uses and would be allowed to continue operating,” according to Winter. He also notes that the upper and below-grade floors of downtown buildings “would continue to be allowed to be occupied by any use in the district.” Staff have held two public engagement sessions on the proposal so far, including a hybrid in-person/virtual event at the City Opera House that drew 55 attendees and another virtual event that drew 15 attendees. Winter says the feedback from business owners was mostly “logistical,” including attendees wanting to know how long the ordinance rewrite process takes. Winter says one commercial realtor expressed opposition “to limiting the highest and best use of properties” by banning short-term rentals on first floors, while another retail business owner expressed “strong, enthusiastic support” for the proposal. Tonight’s meeting and the proposed March 1 public hearing will allow for more public input before planning commissioners vote on whether to recommend the proposal to city commissioners for approval.

Also at tonight’s planning commission meeting…
> Planning commissioners will consider approving a formal list of 2022 goals for the board after discussing priorities at a January meeting. The list consists of three main goals for this year: expand housing opportunities, create a riparian buffer zone ordinance, and begin the city’s new master plan rewrite process, along with a separate process to create a mobility and bicycle action plan. The latter plan will “include the assessment of the entire city street and non-motorized network, identification of community values and goals, a review of current policies and ordinances, a balanced summary and applicability of ‘Complete Streets’ and other mobility/bicycling best practices in the city, and an implementation plan that addresses opportunities for micro-mobility and identifies a preferred mobility and bicycle network plan,” according to the draft goals.

> Planning commissioners will hear from staff and TART Trails leaders on a proposal to widen and extend the segment of TART Trail that runs through downtown Traverse City in conjunction with next year’s Grandview Parkway reconstruction project. The proposal goes to the planning commission and Parks and Recreation commission this week before heading next to DDA board members and city commissioners for input, with the goal of moving forward with engineering and fundraising work for the trail expansion should city leaders support the project.

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