Development At Front & Pine Moves Ahead
By Beth Milligan | May 17, 2019
After 12 years of property ownership and four years of public debate, lawsuits, and building redesigns, developers Erik Falconer and Joe Sarafa are ready to break ground on a new development at the corner of West Front and Pine Streets this summer.
Two new buildings are planned for the property next to Riverview Terrace, with construction on the first building slated to start in July on the east side of the site currently used as a permit parking lot. The four-story, 73,000 square-foot building (pictured) will have retail and office tenants – to be announced – on the lower two floors, while the upper floors will serve as a new 4Front Credit Union administrative center. The center will centralize team members “currently dispersed across seven Traverse City area locations, including several branch offices,” according to a 4Front release. 4Front’s other branch operations will not be impacted by the new project, the release states. According to CEO David Leusink, 4Front sought a location and building design for its headquarters “that not only supports our mission, but integrates with the overall look and character of downtown Traverse City.”
The existing parking lot – leased by the developers to Traverse City’s Downtown Development Authority (DDA) for public permit parking – will close on June 28 to accommodate construction. The DDA is considering options to replace the 85 lost parking spaces this summer, including designating underutilized meters downtown as both permit and metered spaces, according to Parking Director Nicole VanNess. The DDA is also looking to potential partnerships with Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) and Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) for downtown employees to park in school lots on the edge of town and shuttle in on BATA’s free Bayline or Destination Downtown buses. The DDA had approached Central United Methodist Church about leasing part of its lot for permit parking, but that proposal was rejected, VanNess says.
At just over 57 feet tall, the proposed building is a use by right, meaning developers do not have to go through a public election or special land use permit process for approval. Instead, they will go through a basic site plan review with the city’s planning commission. The soonest the project could appear on the commission’s agenda is July 2, according to City Planning Director Russ Soyring. “Typically site plans get approved on the same night,” Soyring says. “I did look at the drawings for this…and this one appears to be pretty black-and-white.”
With a summer construction start date, the mixed-use building is targeted for a late 2020 completion. Falconer says he and Sarafa are working simultaneously on finalizing plans for a second building on the property, to be located on the lower western half next to the Boardman River. The partners went through a land division process to separate the two parcels in order to expand development opportunities for the site, Falconer says. Tree clearing also recently took place so the parcel is ready for development this year if plans are finalized in time. While a variety of uses and tenants are up for consideration for the second building, Falconer is hopeful it will feature a residential component – a key aspect of past plans for the property, when two controversial nine-story buildings were proposed.
“I would love for there to be a residential component, and hopefully a significant one,” says Falconer. “That’s just my personal preference. Residential is an important component to any downtown urban area and its vitality, so I hope we can still incorporate that.”
The second building could face more red tape than the first due to its proximity to the river. Traverse City is in the midst of changing its setback requirements for riverfront parcels – city commissioners will vote Monday on measuring setbacks from the high water mark instead of the dock line – and the property is also in a flood plain. That will require special review from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE, formerly the DEQ) to ensure development doesn’t impact the site’s flood capacity. “We want to respect the river,” says Falconer. “I don’t think we’ll have an issue coming up with a plan that’s going to be very accommodative of the natural resources there.”
The development could also have several ripple effects on downtown. For one, the project is one of a handful that have come forward that could change the DDA’s sidewalk snowmelt policy. Falconer and Sarafa hope to install a snowmelt system around the West Front/Pine site, stretching from the intersection corner west to the West Front Street Bridge and south to the property line of Riverview Terrace. The DDA’s policy allows for developers and the DDA to split costs on installing snowmelt, but only if an entire block is upgraded. Two property owners on both the north and south sides of State Street near Cass Street have also sought to install snowmelt in smaller sections. DDA CEO Jean Derenzy says she is working on a proposal to change the snowmelt policy to accommodate such projects.
The development could also have an impact on parking – as well as the construction of a new downtown parking deck. Falconer says his project will have some on-site private parking, but will also utilize surrounding pubic parking, including a planned new deck across the street at 145 West Front Street. Other nearby developments, like those underway in the Warehouse District, are also expected to rely at least partially on the new deck for parking. In order for deck construction to be funded, however, the DDA needs more revenue to come into the area’s tax increment financing (TIF) 97 fund. Projects like West Front/Pine and Warehouse District developments will help bring in those tax revenues, but not immediately – creating a “chicken-and-egg” scenario of needing a new deck now to supply parking for projects coming online that will later contribute toward the deck’s construction costs. Derenzy says the likely solution will be to extend the life of TIF 97 to accommodate long-term financing for the deck – an option being studied now by an ad hoc committee of DDA board members and city commissioners. Falconer and Sarafa have also worked to accommodate the city's goal of reducing driveways/curb cuts downtown by entering into an agreement with the Traverse City Housing Commission to consolidate and share driveways into Riverview Terrace and the new development.
Derenzy says creating a 4Front headquarters downtown will bring higher-paying jobs to the district, boosting foot traffic to retail stores and restaurants and creating a desirable mix of businesses downtown. “It’s a great opportunity for the west end and a chance to help reinvigorate that (corridor),” she says. For Falconer, the start of new construction represents a closing chapter to a more than decade-long pursuit of redeveloping the vacant site. “It’s been a learning process for me as a developer and a steward of this downtown piece of property,” he says, discussing the evolution of project plans over the last dozen years. “It’s important that stewards listen to their neighbors, the community, and economic realities in order to pull together and execute a project of this size.”
Pictured: Rendering of building one of the new West Front/Pine development, as viewed from the east. Photo credit: Integrated Architecture