Traverse City News and Events

Improvements On The Way For Thirlby Field, Nearby Parking Lots

By Craig Manning | April 14, 2021

A new project could bring a new parking lot, upgraded ticket booth areas, and several other improvements to Thirlby Field. Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) would convert an informal dirt-and-grass parking area on the south side of Griffin Street into a proper paved lot, and would require the relocation of an area the City of Traverse City uses in the winter for a public ice rink. It also clashes with the vision for the Thirlby Field area laid forth in the city master plan, which had previously earmarked the area for housing. However, TCAPS, which owns the property, is not beholden to the city master plan and intends to go its own way with the land.

The proposed improvements were first presented two months ago during a TCAPS board finance committee meeting. At the meeting, Christine Thomas-Hill, associate superintendent of finance and operation for TCAPS, shared a preliminary design for the project (pictured) and walked committee members through potential improvements to Thirlby Field’s parking areas, fencing, landscaping, stormwater management, and ticketing booths. Thomas-Hill noted that TCAPS has money set aside to pay for the project, and that Superintendent Dr. John VanWagoner has discussed conceptual designs with the city as a courtesy.

A key benefit of the project, Thomas-Hill said, is that it would help to streamline and formalize parking at Thirlby. The area set aside for a new parking lot is already regularly used as a parking lot for the facility, but is an unpaved dirt area with no clearly identifiable parking spaces. Thomas-Hill estimated that Thirlby hosts “hundreds” of events in a given year: It’s the home football and lacrosse field for both Traverse City Central High School and West Senior High, and also nets TCAPS rental revenue for other events – including St. Francis home football games. As such, TCAPS believes adding better parking infrastructure would create major functional improvements well worth the cost of investment.

“One of the benefits of paving the parking lot is it’s organized and therefore we can get more parking in there,” Thomas-Hill said. “Right now, the way [the lot is used] is made up by people who get there. We’re not really able to gain efficiencies as far as how many people we can have park in that area.”

In addition to the new 222-car parking lot, the project would add dedicated bus parking for away teams; a new gating area for coaches, officials, and emergency personnel; a formal ticketing booth and archway entrance on the southeast side of the venue; new stormwater management systems throughout the venue; improvements to make the perimeter fencing around the venue consistent; and landscape buffers between the parking lot and adjacent roads.

The plans also set aside two other smaller parking areas. The first would be on the north side of Griffin Street, just outside of the new entry archway, and would include 30 standard spaces and 12 ADA spaces.

The second lot, an 11-space parking strip, would serve the relocated city ice rink. During the winter months, the city runs a public outdoor rink at the corner of 14th Street and Pine Street, occupying part of the lot that TCAPS is hoping to convert to Thirlby’s main parking area. The school district has denoted a spot further west on the lot for the rink.

VanWagoner said that the rink and the city master plan were the two main points of discussion during his talks with City Manager Marty Colburn and now-retired City Planner Russ Soyring. In those conversations, VanWagoner confirmed that the city was still interested in operating a public rink at the site.

As for the city master plan, that document currently calls for housing development along Griffin Street. VanWagoner bristled at the idea and communicated to the city that the district had no plans to give up the land in question for that purpose.

“Just to be clear, the city plan – which kind of mind-boggles me – has had housing all built in the area near Griffin Street,” VanWagoner explained to the board finance committee. “So they would love to see that, but they, in Marty [Colburn]’s words, ‘understood’ that this was something we felt was our property. And I don’t see any point, with the investments that have been made in Thirlby Field – a field that was just re-turfed this past summer – where we see in the future that this changes to where it would become a housing complex area…we think making it a dedicated parking lot…makes a lot of sense from that standpoint, to continue to develop this area and make it look like more of a public school district-maintained facility, versus this empty grass field that is rented out for parking and different things.”

Colburn says the city never had an intention of telling TCAPS what to do with its own property. Rather, he explains that the city completed a corridor study in 2013 that “had envisioned what could be,” and part of that vision was more of a cityscape neighborhood design around Thirlby Field.
“It’s a vision,” Colburn tells The Ticker. “And we liked it, obviously – to put the buildings up close to the road and kind of create that dynamic of a corridor in which there's the human-scale element with the buildings and the street. Throughout that area, we wanted to encourage more mixed use of commercial and residential development. But the property owners obviously have their rights of use to the property, and to take it a step further, school districts actually don’t have to follow city zoning.”

While TCAPS will be going against the city master plan, VanWagoner does think the improvements at Thirlby could benefit the city at large. The site, he noted, is often used by the city as a parking area for shuttling guests to Film Festival or Cherry Festival events. He also raised the idea of the lot potentially becoming an attractive spot for the Sara Hardy Downtown Farmer’s Market.

According to TCAPS Executive Director of Communications Christine Guitar, the Thirlby project is still in the “preliminary planning/discussion stage,” with no moves yet to officially approve the plans or send the project out for bid. When asked about property stakes and heavy equipment that have recently been spotted on the property, Guitar tells The Ticker that TCAPS is currently taking soil borings “to review soil characteristics” at the site.

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