Traverse City News and Events

New Design Plan Unveiled For GT Commons Natural Area

By Beth Milligan | Nov. 8, 2022

A new design plan for the Grand Traverse Commons Natural Area was unveiled at a public open house Monday, showing a proposed 9.65-mile trail system for the park – including mountain biking, hiking, and other new trails – as well as new park trailheads, amenities, and safety and environmental upgrades. Several million dollars’ worth of improvements are recommended at the Commons Natural Area as part of Garfield Township’s first formal plan for the property since acquiring it in the early 1990s.

Garfield Township and consultant Environmental Consulting & Technology, Inc. (ECT) – with assistance from Rock Solid Trail Contracting, the country’s largest mountain bike trail builder – worked throughout 2022 to create the new design plan for the 185-acre site, including holding multiple open houses and public input sessions. While Garfield Township has owned the Commons Natural Area since 1993 – acquiring another 40 acres from the state in recent years to expand the site – it’s never been truly “formalized as a park,” Township Planning Director John Sych previously told The Ticker.

The lack of a formal plan has led to a hodgepodge network of rogue or “social” trails being illegally built by park users – one of which recently claimed the life of a cyclist – and environmental erosion and damage. Other parts of the park contain old State Hospital infrastructure, like gravel mining, that's never been properly addressed. The Commons Natural Area has 9.36 miles of existing trails today; more than half of those trails – over 5 miles – are rogue trails, while only four miles are sanctioned trails. “The overall length, configuration, style, and density of social trails suggests existing sanctioned trails are not meeting the needs of current users,” according to ECT. The lifting in 2021 of a previous deed restriction on biking on the property opened up its usage possibilities and allowed Garfield Township to proceed with creating a new vision for the property.

While the new design plan calls for almost the same total amount of trails as exists today – 9.65 miles – the recommended location, density, and type of trails differs significantly from the current park configuration. To “appeal to a wide variety of users,” consultants are recommending installing four different trail types on the property:

> Mountain Bike Trails (2.78 miles): Planned for the west and southwest sections of the park, mountain bike trails are envisioned to be bike-optimized singletrack trails with optional lines, technical or flowy sections, frequent grade reversals, and insloped turns, rollers, and berms.
> Hiking Trails (1.77 miles): Planned for the east, west, and southwest sections of the park, hiking trails will be open to foot traffic only in two directions and lead to destinations or points of interest. They will “tend to be narrower and have higher grades than mountain bike trails,” according to the report, though with less frequent grade reversals.
> Multi-Use Trails (1.8 miles): Multi-use trails are intended to host both hikers and bikers. They will have gentle grades, long lines of sight, wider tread, and features that can accommodate both user groups. With a maximum grade of 10 percent, multi-use trails will provide connectivity between other trails and shared points of interest in the park for both hikers and bikers.
> Conservation Recreation Trails (2.84 miles): These trails – the easiest and most accessible – will “accommodate a wide variety of users, including walkers, strollers, balance bicycles, some wheelchair users, and those unable to access biking or hiking single-track trails,” according to the plan. The trails will have gentle grades and a natural crushed rock surface. They are envisioned for the northeast loop, southern ‘lollipop’ out, and the back loop of the park.

Another half-mile of existing and proposed trail connectors are also planned, as well the addition of nine trail intersection hubs “to allow for safe management of shared trail areas for a variety of user groups,” according to the plan. Consultants noted that the “vast concentration of trails are best suited for the hilly terrain to the west/southwest” part of the Commons Natural Area, while the “northeast portion of the park is less hilly with wetlands and creeks, making it less suitable for a concentration of trail types – especially with the goal of natural restoration in mind.”

The plan calls for closing many of the existing social trails, noting they “do not comply with modern and sustainable trail-building practices” and that “many sections are too steep or not properly armored.” While several existing two-tracks will be incorporated into the Conservation Recreation trail network, most single-track rogue trails “cannot be captured within the alignment of new trails” due to both safety and environmental risks, according to the plan. Those trails are intended to be physically closed off and returned to a natural state as part of the new design.

The design plan also addresses trailhead improvements and other amenities. The Red Drive Trailhead – the only trailhead located entirely within the township-owned Commons Natural Area – is recommended to be developed as the primary trailhead, with modern bathrooms, drinking water, benches, a welcome kiosk, wayfinding signage, and wildlife overlooks. Limited improvements are recommended at the secondary Yellow Drive and Gray Drive trailheads, located within The Village at Grand Traverse Commons. The plan recommends possibly closing the Munson Parking Lot Trailhead, Historic Barns Trailhead (though leaving the connecting trail to the property in place), and the existing Long Lake Road Trailhead due to congestion and safety concerns. Instead, a new Long Lake Road Trailhead is being considered near the overflow lot on Munson property; a new Copper Ridge Trailhead is also proposed.

Bicycle service stations, benches and tables, wayfinding and interpretive signage, improved trash and recycling collection, viewing platforms, access to artesian wells, and green infrastructure and stormwater management systems are also proposed throughout the site. The new design plan also calls for restoring the gravel mining area and a former shooting range to their natural states, as well as better monitoring the park's beloved “Hippy Tree” to reduce detrimental impacts. Habitat and environmental considerations are highlighted throughout the plan, including allowing the land to heal in eroded and damaged areas, protecting and enhancing environmentally sensitive habitat, and planning for long-term sustainability of improvements.

Sustainability is also reflected in the budget for the new Commons Natural Area plan, which calls for allocating 5-10 percent of the initial construction budget for ongoing trail maintenance. The total construction estimate for all improvements is $2,979,300-$5,898,100, coming in at an average of $4.4 million. That would put long-term management as a separate budget line item at $220,000, in addition to engineering and contingency costs. ECT recommended a five-year phased approach for the township to fundraise and implement improvements in stages, starting with $150,000 in 2023 that would cover final design and permitting for the new trail system and Red Drive Trailhead, plus restoration activities and public engagement. Sych tells The Ticker the five-year schedule outlined by ECT “is a starting point that is the most conservative approach.” He adds: “It’s our hope and strong desire to secure funding from a variety of sources to move implementation at a faster pace. We recognize that expectations are high and want to respond appropriately.”

Following Monday’s unveiling of the new design plan, Garfield Township will accept public comment on the plan through November 21 (the plan can be viewed here; comments can be emailed to parks@garfield-twp.com). The plan will be included in the township's larger Parks and Recreation Master Plan that is currently being updated and will be presented to Parks and Recreation commissioners December 5. Following a required 30-day public review period of the master plan, the township board of trustees is expected to hold a public hearing on the draft on January 10. Once the new Parks and Recreation Master Plan (including the Commons Natural Area design plan) is approved, the township can start applying for funds for park upgrades in 2023, Sych says. ECT also recommended township officials start working next on policy updates for the Commons Natural Area, including addressing e-bikes and e-sports, park hours, surveillance, the type and number of events allowed on the property, and public awareness around conservation easements and deed restrictions affecting the park.

Pictured (clockwise left to right): New conceptual trail network at GT Commons Natural Area (available in more detail/higher resolution here within design plan); conceptual rendering of Conservation Recreation Trail; existing Meadows Trail)

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