Traverse City News and Events

DDA Talks Downtown Developments

By Beth Milligan | June 22, 2019

Weeks after Honor Bank announced plans to transform a one-story building at 415 East Front Street into a four-story mixed-use development, a similar project has been announced for a neighboring property at 401 East Front Street. Traverse City Downtown Development Authority (DDA) board members discussed the new plans Friday, as well as heard an update from the developers behind a new project at the corner of Front and Pine streets.

Bob Cornwell of Cornwell Architects plans to transform his architectural firm building along the Boardman River (pictured) into a three-story mixed-use development. The project will have commercial space on the first floor and residential units on the top two floors, plus a rooftop terrace. Cornwell went to the Historic Districts Commission in May to obtain approval to move ahead with the redevelopment.

Like many other downtown properties that are holdovers from the city’s industrial era, the Cornwell Architects building sits on land containing contaminants from past uses. The site housed a dry cleaning business in the 1940s and 1950s until Gordon Cornwell bought the building and converted it into an architectural firm, which it has remained through today. The close proximity of the contamination to the Boardman River prompted DDA board members Friday to approve seeking a $300,000 grant from the Michigan Environment, Great Lakes & Energy department (EGLE, formerly the Department of Environmental Quality) for environmental clean-up on the property.

DDA CEO Jean Derenzy explained that the grant would not require any matching funds from the DDA or the city and would not capture tax dollars like a brownfield application; rather, it was a straight-up grant made available by EGLE for clean-up projects. Derenzy said she is also working with Cornwell on an easement to provide public access to the Boardman River and a riverwalk as part of the redevelopment project.

DDA board members also heard an update Friday from developers Erik Falconer and Joe Sarafa, who are set to break ground this summer on a new two-phase development at the corner of West Front and Pine streets. The first building, which will serve in part as a new administrative center for 4Front Credit Union, will be a “73,500 square-foot, four-story, 60-foot office building with retail on the first floor,” Falconer told board members. 4Front will be on the upper floors with a small section of lobby usage; the remainder of the building will offer 11,000 square feet of retail space, with 4Front now looking for retail tenants.

Falconer said the property was a hidden-gem opportunity, saying it would convert a surface parking lot on Front Street “a block from our central downtown district” into a key connector property between downtown, West Front Street, and the Warehouse District. “You also have a piece of property that is available for development that literally is the only one that sits on an intersection of Front Street and the river,” Falconer said.

Falconer said the building would feature “unique” architectural amenities like open staircases between floors on the interior and high-quality glazing, masonry, and brick work on the exterior. A second building is envisioned to be built closer to the river in the future and could feature a mix of retail and housing. Because Traverse City’s ordinance aims to discourage the development of surface parking lots downtown – with past leaders seeking to preserve the limited amount of land for buildings and development instead – the project site will only offer 18-20 surface parking spaces. The limited amount of parking provoked criticism from DDA Board Member T. Michael Jackson, who said it was “totally inadequate to build a building that’s going to have 110 people working there daily, retail down on the bottoms floors, and no parking.” Said Jackson: “I know that’s the zoning…but I just don’t understand that.”

Derenzy noted the DDA needed to give a letter of support to the city to even have 18-20 surface parking spots at the project site – spaces that would otherwise be prohibited entirely. She pointed out a public parking deck is planned to be built directly across from the development at 145 West Front Street, and that developers were following the city’s rules and the DDA’s strategic plan. “(The DDA has historically said) we’re going to take care of parking, private (businesses) you take care of buildings,” she said. “We’re going to store the cars (in parking decks). We don’t want to store the cars in surface parking because of the high value (of land) within the downtown area.”

Other DDA board members praised the project. “I think it’s exciting to bring another 100 people downtown to work, to shop, to eat,” said Bill Golden, owner of Golden Shoes. “As a retailer, I’m excited for it.” Fellow board member and Sweet Pea owner Jeff Joubran agreed, saying that downtown retailers couldn’t survive on summer tourism sales alone. “We are supported by the people that work downtown,” he said. “The more employees we have downtown, the better it gets in the winter.”

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