Traverse City News and Events

DDA Unveils Three Design Concepts For Downtown Riverfront Revamp

By Craig Manning | Sept. 8, 2022

A pedestrian bridge stretching over Grandview Parkway and the Boardman River, connecting the downtown area to the bay shore in a brand-new way. A public square taking up residence on a shuttered portion of Cass Street. A lengthy boardwalk traversing a newly naturalized riverbank – one complete with an amphitheater, native pollinator habitats, floating wetlands, and more.

These are just a few of the big ideas that could become reality in downtown Traverse City, depending on how the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) and its design partner, INFORM Studio, proceed with a reimagined riverfront. Yesterday (Wednesday), the DDA and INFORM Studio hosted an all-day open house downtown that showcased three “takes” on a conceptual waterfront design plan. The main sections at issue are the alley spaces along the 100 and 200 blocks of the river, though the design concepts also incorporate other areas – such as the adjacent section of Cass Road and the J. Smith Walkway between Pangea’s and Kilwins.

The riverfront redesign is part of the DDA’s “unified plan” for the 1.6 miles of the lower Boardman/Ottaway River, which runs from Boardman Lake to the Grand Traverse Bay. One central question posed during that planning process what to do with the sections of riverfront that exist downtown, between Union and Cass streets. Earlier this year, the DDA hired INFORM Studio to develop conceptual plans around that question.

The DDA and INFORM held a previous open house in June to gather input from property owners, businesses, and community members about what they most wanted to see from a reimagined riverfront. INFORM’s designers took those ideas and compiled them into the three conceptual designs presented on Wednesday. Here's a basic rundown of the three design takes and what they could bring to the riverfront.

Take #1: “In take #1 the entirety of the north side of the river is returned to a more naturalized bank, allowing the river to stretch into the landscape,” noted a display board shared by INFORM on Wednesday. Features include an amphitheater and pollinator meadow on the 100 block’s north side, as well as “diverse access to the water” – including access points on both sides of the Boardman for pedestrian and watercraft traffic alike. The design incorporates a kayak parking location on the south side of the river, behind downtown shops like Ella’s, Momentum, and Happy Feet. Most crucially of all, take #1 features a pedestrian and cycling bridge on the 200 block, which would cross over not just the Boardman River but also the entirety of Grandview Parkway. That bridge is intended “to connect the downtown to the beach, bay, and trails,” per INFORM Studio. The existing pedestrian bridge near the J. Smith Walkway, meanwhile, would be converted into a “dining bridge,” with spots to sit and eat while overlooking the river. Thanks to the naturalization-heavy design, take #1 would also “minimize parking throughout the site as much as possible.”

Take #2: The intention of take #2 is to “create connectedness through a series of interlinked and dispersed path networks while creating opportunities to engage the river and the urban space in different ways from unique perspectives.” While the design would retain a “moderate level” of parking on the north side of the river, it would also add a “continuous boardwalk” design that, thanks to two new pedestrian bridges – a brand-new bridge in the 200 block and an “overlook bridge” that would replace the existing pedestrian bridge near the J. Smith Walkway – would span both sides of the riverfront. Both bridges would only cross the river and wouldn’t incorporate a Grandview crossing. The design would mix naturalized elements (such as garden terraces and a wetland park) and more urban spaces (“The Deck,” described as “a new public square in the heart of downtown overlooking the river”). The Cass Street Bridge would be closed to vehicular traffic and incorporated into The Deck. Cass Street south of the river would remain a roadway, but would become a “shared street with pedestrian priority that could be closed off to vehicles during special events.” Vehicular traffic would mostly be limited to deliveries.

Take #3: The most crucial aspect of this design is that it would permanently close Cass Street between Front Street and the north side of the river. The turn-off from Grandview Parkway onto Cass would be retained to allow access to Lot B, but the Cass Street Bridge and the stretch of roadway south to Front Street would all be converted into a “central square.” The take #3 design would also incorporate a new features into the 200 block, including a “sun deck” on the north side of the river” and a series of so-called “urban overlook rooms” on the south side. Beyond these public spaces, though, take #3 would “restore as much of the river edge as possible through naturalization and riparian edges.”

All three design takes would also reimagine the J. Smith Walkway, adding a tree grove, more outdoor seating, new lighting features, and seasonal adjustments to maximize use.

While INFORM Studio compiled its design ideas into three design concepts for the purposes of Wednesday’s open house, Eric Klooster – who serves as INFORM’s director of architecture and as lead designer for the DDA’s riverfront project – tells The Ticker the goal is ultimately to “mix and match” whichever aspects of each design end up getting the best public response. “We actually don’t want someone to say, ‘I vote for take #3,’ because there are probably parts of take #3 that they don’t like,” Klooster explains. “Instead, we’re asking, ‘What parts do you like the most [from each design]?’”

To that point, attendees at Wednesday’s open house were asked to vote on features they liked most, with aspects from each design garnering significant support. From take #1, for instance, locals seemed to love the amphitheater meadow and the Grandview Parkway Bridge. Take #2, meanwhile, was popular for its continuous boardwalk, overlook bridge, and wetland park, while take #3 drew considerable interest for its permanent conversion of Cass into a pedestrian-only public square. Harry Burkholder, the DDA’s chief operations officer, says the idea is to take those pieces of feedback and combine them into “the best mixtape of the Boardman River plan.”

Those who weren’t able to attend the open house on Wednesday will be able to review the three concepts and submit feedback via a public survey at dda.downtowntc.com/boardman-riverwalk, which should go live today or tomorrow.

INFORM Studio plans to present its final conceptual design to the DDA board in October; that meeting will be open to the public. Burkholder says the DDA hopes to break ground in 2024, though that timeline would depend on funding and other factors.

And speaking of funding, the DDA announced on Wednesday that it had received a $1 million grant through the Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s Revitalization and Placemaking Program. That money is specifically earmarked for the riverfront project.

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