Traverse City News and Events

DDA Gears Up For Riverfront Redesign Process

By Beth Milligan | May 26, 2022

The Traverse City Downtown Development Authority (DDA) will kick off a public design process next week for a new riverwalk and pedestrian plaza in the 100 block alley of Front Street between Union and Cass streets. Consulting group Inform Studio will meet with business and property owners, city staff, and local nonprofits June 1 and 2 to gather feedback before holding a public open house July 13 to take input from residents on several conceptual designs. With the city having to relocate a 24-inch sanitary sewer main in the alley this fall due to an eroding retaining wall, the DDA is taking the opportunity to reenvision the entire alley corridor – including opening up public access to the Boardman/Ottaway with a riverwalk and plaza in the 100 block and making green improvements to the shoreline in the 200 block.

The DDA hired Inform Studio through a request-for-proposals (RFP) process for a $315,000 contract to lead a public engagement and design process this summer, eventually resulting in a recommended final plan with cost estimates that will be presented to city leaders for approval this fall. The retaining wall in the 100 and 200 alley blocks of Front Street is deteriorating due to rising water levels, which have scoured out the soil underneath the wall and created a three-foot gap between the wall bottom and river bottom. The scouring is now extending beyond the wall footing, leaking in soil from behind and leading to pavement failure, sidewalk failure, and disappearing signs in the alleys. Of greater concern is a large 24-inch sanitary sewer main that sits directly on the top of the river wall foundation and is at risk of failure if not addressed.

The city has received state funding to help address the retaining wall this fall. In the 100 block between Union and Cass streets (pictured), the sewer main will be relocated south further away from the river. In the 200 block between Cass and Park streets, where the wall is more stable, sheet piling and backfill will be installed to support the wall. Both projects offer the opportunity to rethink the entire alleyway and “get inspired about what this natural asset can bring to our community,” DDA CEO Jean Derenzy says of the Boardman/Ottaway. “Instead of turning our backs to the river, how we can we start turning our faces toward it and embracing it?”

In the 100 block, that could mean removing the retaining wall altogether along the river, restoring the natural shoreline and opening up public access to the water. Some parking could also be removed to create space for a riverwalk and pedestrian plaza along the Boardman/Ottaway, a project that would align with the city’s recently adopted Lower Boardman River Unified Plan. Public feedback used to create that plan – which will guide improvements in the urbanized section of the river between Boardman Lake and Grand Traverse Bay – consistently cited improved river access as a high priority. Inform Studio plans to look at not only the alleys but the entire area surrounding them, going north up to Grandview Parkway and south to all the businesses along Front Street. That will help ensure there is an integrated design that takes into consideration, for example, how improvements on the south side of the river would tie into amenities like the Sara Hardy Downtown Farmers Market on the north side of the river, according to project representatives.

“This is one of those projects that can be so transformative for the community,” says Wes Michaels, a landscape architect on the project team. “We all know with our industrial pasts how we used rivers for commerce. It was almost a back-of-house kind of thing. In the last 30-40 years, we’ve started to rethink them. How do we reconnect to the river?” The Lower Boardman River Unified Plan calls for moving away from “hardening” the waterfront, or using concrete or other construction materials that can damage natural habitats and exacerbate stormwater runoff. Michaels says that as part of the alley improvements in the 200 block, where the retaining wall is planned to remain in place, a “living shoreline” can be incorporated into the design using natural materials to stabilize the waterfront. “It’s not just concrete – it’s plants, it’s willows, it’s soil,” he says. “It’s integrating ecology.”

Inform Studio and DDA representatives say all options are on the table for the alley redesign, from completely transforming the alley into a pedestrian-focused corridor to design concepts that would still retain alley functionality like parking and vehicle traffic lanes. Inform Studio Principal Michael Guthrie acknowledges amenities like parking and service deliveries are key to many downtown businesses and says the firm’s first series of meetings next week will be “with people who the project would be immediately impacting to go through our understanding of the area and see what’s right, what’s wrong, what are we missing, and what are we dealing with in terms of context.” He adds: “It’s not the intent to take out the logistical aspect of the alley. But we also don’t want to take off the table that that could happen. We’re certainly not proposing anything (yet). We want to listen and respond.”

The DDA will release details in the coming weeks on a public open house planned for July 13 to show a handful of potential designs to the community for feedback. From there, design options will eventually be narrowed down to one that will be presented to DDA board members and city commissioners for adoption in the fall. Derenzy says the next step will be to start budgeting for the reconstruction. While the retaining wall work is already planned to take place this fall, placemaking elements like the riverwalk or plaza will likely take longer to complete given their anticipated price tag. “Costs will be incorporated into the 2023-24 budget, but we will have to identify how to pay for this,” says Derenzy. “Is it through a bond? Is it through TIF (tax increment financing)? It can’t be through TIF alone; we’d have to amend the plan. So there will be several steps after we get the conceptual design to determine how we’re going to implement it.”

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