Traverse City News and Events

Housing, Water, Access/Mobility Top City Commission Priority List

By Beth Milligan | Jan. 10, 2022

Traverse City commissioners walked away from a four-hour strategic planning session Saturday with a list of seven key priority areas they intend to focus on the next two years, with plans to attach goals, action steps, and timelines to each category. Topping the list were issues of housing/homelessness and water systems, including drinking, stormwater, and sanitary/wastewater systems. Commissioners started the process of identifying action steps for those two priorities Saturday and will continue the discussion at a February session, where they’ll also tackle the remaining five priorities of access/mobility, providing opportunities for people to connect with each other and the natural world, economic development, city operations/public engagement, and climate crisis/resiliency.

With four new commissioners joining the board following the November election, Saturday’s strategic planning session – led by consultant Megan Motil of Parallel Solutions – provided the first opportunity for commissioners to share their individual priorities and coalesce around a shared set of goals for the next two years. Motil led commissioners through a series of survey and discussion exercises designed to find consensus around common values. Taking steps to address housing and homelessness, as well as to better manage and maintain the city’s water systems, quickly rose to the top of the priority list. Commissioner Mi Stanley and Mayor Pro Tem Amy Shamroe both said that leaders needed to attach better definitions to terms typically used to discuss housing, including “homeless” and “affordable housing,” to reflect the nuanced realities of city residents.

“I think that we need to be conscious as we're having this discussion that when we talk about workforce housing, a lot of the people who are experiencing homelessness, who are couch surfing, who are living in a trailer in an RV park...are people who are working in our city,” said Stanley. “We have a group of people who work in our community who are experiencing homelessness who we don't think of (as being in that group).” Shamroe agreed, adding that “affordable housing” as a governmental term has a “strict definition” tied to a specific income range. Hospitality and service workers who are often considered to be in the “missing middle” of housing in Traverse City can be ineligible for so-called affordable housing if they earn “even a hair above that” income requirement, Shamroe said. “They’re still missing housing...the threshold for affordable is very low,” she said.

Commissioners listed as a housing-related goal increasing “opportunities for more diverse housing through public and private options,” with action steps to include exploring a charter amendment for inclusive housing funding, identifying funding sources for diverse housing, removing barriers to allow for incentivizing housing solutions, and identifying city properties for housing. Building public awareness of the “benefits of density so we can be an environmentally sustainable city” and awareness of “income sensitivity so that we can understand the issue of diverse housing” were also listed as possible steps. Offering incentives via zoning, continuing to extend PILOT (or tax break) agreements to developers who build below-market rental units, and collaborating with community groups like Safe Harbor also fell under the housing priority umbrella.

Traverse City Police Department Chief Jeff O’Brien emphasized the importance of working with a range of local partners to address the issue of homelessness. “It's going to take a collective effort,” he said. “You have to have law enforcement, you have to have the judicial system, you have to have the health professionals.” Noting that those groups often work in “little silos,” O’Brien encouraged commissioners to “pressure the other elected officials to come to the table, and let’s solve this problem. There are successful models in other communities that have reduced homelessness by 55, 60 percent.” Mayor Richard Lewis agreed that even if city leaders can’t solve homelessness single-handedly, they have a responsibility to do what they can to work toward solutions. “It is our problem,” he said. “It’s a part of our community.”

Managing and maintaining the city’s drinking, stormwater, and sanitary/wastewater systems was also identified as a top priority by commissioners. “We have an obligation by law to manage and maintain the drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater systems for the health and safety of the citizens and environment,” summarized Commissioner Mark Wilson. Commissioners discussed the need to invest “proactively and consistently” in water systems to “reduce harm to the systems themselves as well public health and safety.” Initial action steps could include commissioners reviewing detailed consultant reports recently provided to the city that analyze the city’s wastewater and drinking water systems by the end of March, and having a new ad hoc committee of commissioners working on a possible stormwater utility meet with representatives from the Watershed Center and other local stakeholders and report back to the commission by May.

Commissioners will have another public four-hour session in February – tentatively slated for either February 5 or 12 – in which they’ll continue discussing housing and water, as well as the other five priorities. Those areas and some of the initial projects and goals attached to them include:

> Access & Mobility: This category includes improvements to trails, sidewalks, streets, footpaths, parking, bridges, and active transportation.
> Providing Opportunities for People to Connect with Each Other & the Natural World: This category includes park improvements, the Union Street Dam/FishPass project, the Lower Boardman River Unified Plan, the Sara Hardy Downtown Farmers Market, the Traverse City Senior Center, and public art projects.
> Economic Development: This category includes topics such as living wages, TIF 97, childcare, and parking decks, as well as tying into other priority areas like access/mobility and active transportation.
> City Operations & Public Engagement: This category includes city departments having what they need including people, maintaining institutional knowledge as staff transition/retire, working on having a living wage for city staff and guidelines for contractors, and continuing to invest in the city's engagement/communications with the public.
> Climate Crisis & Resiliency: This category affects every other priority, commissioners agreed, as they stated their desire to consider future climate impacts on the community and invest in sustainable solutions for Traverse City. Stanley said she wanted to make sure the city didn’t have “purely a car-centric vision for the future,” while Commissioner Tim Werner said that nearly every goal commissioners discussed Saturday “could be done better in terms of the climate,” such as offering incentives to encourage low-carbon development footprints. Motil agreed that climate impacts seemed to comprise a theme “that goes above and beyond and through all of your different strategic issue areas you’ve discussed.”

Toward the end of Saturday’s meeting, Motil summarized the commission’s input and general themes that emerged in the four-hour session. “You were thinking long term and optimistically,” she said. “You said you wanted to be rooted in solutions and thinking about future generations. The theme of climate was running through your conversation...and you mentioned understanding that constituents may want opposing things, and that you'd be making decisions with that in mind.” Lewis agreed, saying that his goal with this and next month’s sessions was to help staff understand the commission’s top priorities for the next two years among a wide range of pressing community needs likely to crop up.

“We need to help staff to move forward on those topics, because we know individually we can’t do anything,” he said. “We have to rely on them. Everything on (this list) is important.”

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