Planning Commission Tackles Projects Including Morgan Farms, Front Street Developments
By Beth Milligan | April 21, 2020
Traverse City planning commissioners will consider approving changes tonight (Tuesday) to the plans for Morgan Farms subdivision on M-72 – a move that would significantly reduce the amount of housing in the neighborhood, but also prevent heavy tree loss from clear-cutting. The project is one of three developments to come before planning commissioners in recent weeks despite the pandemic, with the board last week approving two new buildings on West Front Street.
Rembrandt Construction/Jeffrey Black is applying for approval to reduce the number of homes planned to be built in Hilltop Estates – a 42.3-acre wooded hillside section on the west side of Morgan Farms – from 62 to 16. The entire subdivision is part of a planned unit development (PUD), or a zoning plan created for a specific property. Making changes to the PUD requires approval from city staff and/or planning and city commissioners, depending on how significant the changes are. Morgan Farms was envisioned as a multi-phase development; the current houses in the subdivision were built as part of phase one, while Hilltop Estates represents phase two. The future creation of a neighborhood center with a mix of residential and commercial units is phase three.
City Planning Director Russ Soyring says when the PUD was originally submitted in 2002 – with further changes approved in later years – plans for Hilltop Estates were primarily conceptual and did not include detailed surveying of the site. More recent assessments show that in order to accommodate 62 homes and include graded roads to service them on the steep hillside property – parts of which Soyring compares to the steepest parts of Wayne Hill – developers would “have to nearly clear-cut that hillside to get that type of density up there.” That would result in heavy tree loss on the forested lot, which includes both hardwood and evergreen areas.
Soyring says Rembrandt Construction would “like to see the trees saved and have some luxury homes with open space around them and not make it a barren landscape.” The proposed reduction in houses would allow developers to protect 70 percent of the site as preserved open space and include a pedestrian trail network within 800 feet of every home. Streets would be as “narrow as possible” and utilize green infrastructure to manage stormwater, according to staff conditions recommended to be tied to the change approval. The homes in Hilltop Estates would still need to meet the aesthetic and design standards outlined in the Morgan Farms PUD.
Soyring says the requested change requires planning commissioners to weigh two dueling city priorities: encouraging more housing and residential density wherever possible, and aggressively protecting local trees and increasing the city’s tree canopy. Eliminating 46 homes will “take away from where we want to go with additional (housing) density in that area…but the planning commission and city commission both have a very strong interest in saving trees,” says Soyring.
Planning commissioners could also be asked to weigh in on phase three of Morgan Farms in May, according to both Soyring and City Manager Marty Colburn. That phase of development, owned by the Roland H. Habrecht Trust, has undergone several changes and court proceedings in recent years as the developers sought to dramatically scale back commercial plans for the neighborhood center and focus primarily on residential construction. City commissioners last year approved changing the commercial-residential ratio, but included impervious surface requirements opposed by developers. The city has since been meeting with project representatives and working on plans for the site that will be brought to planning commissioners for review and could eventually allow development to move forward on the property, according to Colburn.
City planning commissioners last week also approved two new buildings planned to be constructed kitty-corner from each other on West Front Street. Great Lakes Capital, a real estate private equity firm, is behind both developments, the first at 309 West Front Street along the Boardman River. The project will be located next to a four-story building already under construction at West Front/Pine that will house a new 4Front Credit Union administrative center and additional tenants. Great Lakes Capital’s new four-story building is proposed to include 96 dwelling units – with the third and fourth floors designated as residential – and 5,000 square feet of retail frontage along West Front Street. The building will have a basement parking garage with 95 vehicle parking spaces and five motorcycle spaces. Developers refined project plans after an initial March deadlock from the planning commission to address concerns with delivery circulation and floodplain risk, among other issues. The project is a use-by-right, meaning the property is already zoned for the proposed plans; however, the development required planning commission approval because it is expected to generate 500 or more vehicle trips per day.
Great Lakes Capital is also planning to build a four-story mixed-used development at 124 West Front Street, the current “hole in the ground” site next to J&S Hamburg. Project plans call for 80 apartments – 58 one-bedroom and 22 two-bedroom units – plus a nearly 2,500 square-foot fitness area and over 10,000 square feet of retail space on the ground floor. An underground parking deck with 75 vehicle spaces and five motorcycle spaces will be included in the building, with access off West Front Street. Planning commissioners advocated for including design features that would warn pedestrians and motorists when cars are exiting the parking ramp.
The two new buildings on West Front Street – both of which will require varying degrees of environmental clean-up as part of construction – are considered to be sister projects, with possible shared amenities between the tenants of the two sites.Comment