Traverse City News and Events

Proposed Changes At Morgan Farms Aim To Spur Development

By Beth Milligan | Feb. 5, 2019

A development plagued by years of lawsuits, rotating owners, and construction plan changes could reinvent itself once again in an effort to attract new growth to the neighborhood.

Representatives for a portion of the 132-acre Morgan Farms subdivision on M-72 will appear before Traverse City planning commissioners tonight (Tuesday) with a request to amend the zoning plan for the property, scaling back commercial space to make room for more residential units. Morgan Farms was established in 2003 as a planned unit development (PUD), or a property with its own specific zoning plan. The PUD outlines 38 conditions that must be met for development to occur in the neighborhood, dictating everything from architectural styles to landscaping to parking to utilities.

Morgan Farms was originally envisioned as a three-phase development. Current houses in the subdivision were built as part of phase one, but phase two – planned housing on the western wooded hillside property – and phase three, the creation of a neighborhood center with a mix of residential and commercial units, stalled and were never built. While the original plans envisioned Morgan Farms as a vibrant community hub with a mix of dwelling types, ages, and income levels – as well as recreational and commercial offerings to encourage walkability – what exists today is a “partially built neighborhood of mostly single-family detached dwellings, some townhouses, and apartment flats,” according to a 2018 memo from City Planning Director Russ Soyring.

Doug Mansfield of Mansfield Land Use Consultants is working on behalf of the Roland H. Habrecht Trust, which owns the western portion of the proposed phase-three neighborhood center property. The group wants to change the required commercial-to-residential mix on that site from a 45-55 percent ratio to a 15-85 percent ratio, cutting commercial space from 170,665 square feet to a minimum 74,226 square feet. Mansfield argues the marketplace has changed dramatically since 2003 and says there is no longer demand for the type of sprawling commercial space outlined in the PUD, particularly compared to housing needs in the region.

“It has become apparent that the commercial/office square footage originally approved is out of scale and intensity, and no longer attractive to the marketplace…it should be realized that when originally approved, the Morgan Farms PUD was to provide some 200,000 square feet of (total) commercial uses. That is no longer desirable or viable,” Mansfield wrote in a memo to Soyring.

Soyring agrees Morgan Farms would likely become more marketable with a different commercial-residential mix and is supportive of the zoning amendment. “We might have made (the PUD) too precise and rigid,” Soyring tells The Ticker. “As market forces change, and the economics of development change, you do need to allow some flexibility to make projects viable. I think this will help with the possibility for more redevelopment.”

Increasing the number of residents living in the neighborhood would also likely attract tenants to what commercial space does remain at Morgan Farms, Soyring says. He compares the proposed new 74,226 square-foot commercial minimum to the neighboring West Bay Shopping Center – home to Tom’s West Bay – which covers 52,649 square feet. “This is more than enough commercial space to support neighborhood services for Morgan Farms,” according to Soyring. He is also recommending the city put a maximum cap on the commercial-residential ratio – 35-65 percent – to ensure the subdivision doesn’t tip too far in either direction.

Planning commissioners tonight will discuss the rezoning request and consider scheduling a March 5 public hearing on the proposal, after which they could vote to approve the amendment. The amendment would then go to the Traverse City commission for approval, as well as to Garfield Township trustees, since part of the property crosses township boundaries. Pat Lindsay, property owner of the eastern portion of the planned neighborhood center, has also agreed to amend his site to have a 15-85 percent commercial-residential mix; that request will appear simultaneously before planning commissioners tonight. Soyring is also in talks with Lindsay about changing some of the design layout of his property, which could provide a more cohesive flow throughout the western and eastern sites – a step toward overcoming divisions that have grown between property owners over the years and guiding Morgan Farms back toward a more unified vision.

The zoning amendment could also help resolve a pending lawsuit filed against the city by the Roland H. Habrecht Trust in 2018 over a previous request to amend the PUD. That request, which aimed to bring 240 market-rate apartments to the neighborhood center site, was rejected by the city because it did not meet the commercial-residential ratio requirements. Neighbors also opposed the apartments being built. Soyring says he’s received several emails from neighbors about the new proposed zoning amendment; while he doesn’t “sense any opposition” to changing the commercial-residential mix, some residents appear to still have concerns it could pave the way for rental units to come into the neighborhood. However, the original intent of the PUD was to have a mix of housing types and incomes, Soyring notes. "That was the goal of the PUD...and (rentals) might help in a way with that diversity," he says.

The city planning director is hopeful discussions between all of the involved parties will eventually lead to a positive outcome at Morgan Farms. “We just have to listen carefully to each other’s concerns, find common ground, and hopefully the market will respond,” he says.

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