Proposed Developments Stack Up On US-31
By Beth Milligan | Nov. 10, 2019
Two credit unions are planning to open new branches on US-31 near Meijer, the latest in a series of developments in a half-mile stretch of road – including two new hotels and a proposed Chick-fil-A – that could eventually prompt considerations of a new traffic signal in the corridor.
Representatives from Michigan State University Federal Credit Union (MSUFCU) and Lake Michigan Credit Union (LMCU) will appear before Garfield Township planning commissioners Wednesday at 7pm at the township hall to discuss separate plans to open new branches on the east side of US-31 roughly 2,000 feet apart. MSUFCU is planning to merge two parcels at 3750 N. US-31 near Big Boy – one of which is currently home to Smith Chiropractic and Wellness, which will relocate – and demolish the existing buildings to make way for a new 10,131 square-foot branch.
The branch is one of two locations MSUFCU is opening in Traverse City as the credit union expands into northern Michigan, according to Chief Marketing Officer Deidre Davis. MSUFCU has also purchased the building at 312 South Union Street, home to Northern Title Agency – which is moving further down Union – and a former part of City Bike Shop, which relocated to Eighth Street this fall. Davis says MSUFCU will open a “temporary” branch in the Union Street space in December or January to service customers until the US-31 location can be built out.
“(Union Street) will be a fully functional branch, it just won’t be as large a space or as detailed in the design as a permanent branch,” she says. With 2,000 existing customers in a 30-mile radius of Traverse City, Davis says MSUFCU wanted to start operating as soon as possible “so members don’t have to wait until spring 2021 for service.” That is when the US-31 branch is expected to open, with a groundbreaking planned for April 2020. Once the US-31 branch is open, MSUFCU will turn its sights to redeveloping the Union Street property into a second full-service branch.
The credit union’s first step, however, is to get township planning commission approval of a special use permit (SUP) for the US-31 site, which is required in order for MSUFCU to operate a drive-thru. If planning commissioners feel comfortable with project plans Wednesday, they will set a public hearing on the SUP request for December 11.
Lake Michigan Credit Union, meanwhile, could receive approval for its plans as soon as Wednesday night. LMCU is planning to open a 3,362 square-foot branch at 3650 N. US-31 between McDonald’s and the retail center that houses Sleep Number, Firehouse Subs, and Tropical Smoothie Café. Though only a few parcels away from MSUFCU’s site on the same side of US-31, LMCU falls in a different zoning district – one that allows drive-thrus by right, with no SUP required.
LMCU’s branch will be located directly in front of two hotels planned to be built on the back section of the property. Property owner Miller Snowden Development Group struck a deal with North Michigan Hospitality Management to open a Tru by Hilton hotel and a Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott on the nearly seven-acre back lot. Planning commissioners approved plans for the hotels in October, with construction on the Tru by Hilton expected to start in April and a groundbreaking on Fairfield Inn & Suites targeted for 2022 or 2023. LMCU and the hotels will be serviced by a joint driveway onto US-31. In a note to planning commissioners, township staff suggested that a “reconfigured version of the joint driveway will provide improved access without creating additional driveways onto US-31. Staff is recommending that a discussion ensue between all affected property owners to determine if a better flow of traffic can be designed.”
Another project on Wednesday’s planning commission agenda could further complicate traffic flow in the corridor: a planned opening of a Chick-fil-A fast-food restaurant and drive-thru at the current Flap Jack Shack site at 3980 US-31. Township planning commissioners will hold a public hearing on that project as part of this week’s meeting, one of the last steps before staff returns with a “findings of fact” and recommendation at the board’s next meeting on whether the project should receive its requested SUP to build a drive-thru.
Township Planning Director John Sych previously told The Ticker he’d like to have discussions with Chick-fil-A representatives and planning commissioners about sharing entrances with the neighboring Walgreens so restaurant traffic utilizes the same intersection light as Walgreens and Meijer. Otherwise, traffic congestion could be an issue with cars trying to turn left onto US-31 from the Chick-fil-A driveway just north of the intersection, he acknowledged. Chick-fil-A’s website indicates most of its restaurants serve “well over 100 cars in the drive-thru during peak hours.”
Rick Liptak, Traverse City Transportation Service Center manager for the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), says the five-lane US-31 corridor has enough capacity to handle traffic generated by the addition of two hotels, two banks, and a Chick-fil-A in the same half-mile stretch. The problem, he says, is not the number of cars that will be using the highway, but rather the number trying to turn out of businesses – particularly left – onto the road. “The section through there would be able to handle that (growth) from a theoretical volume of traffic,” he says. “The issue would be access points for how they get out onto 31.”
Liptak says MDOT is already in discussions with some of the developments about addressing traffic issues. One key solution is trying to combine driveways, or manage access points, so that each of the high-impact businesses coming online doesn’t require its own entrance and exit, creating multiple traffic conflict points in a corridor already riddled with them. A longer-term solution could be considering a traffic signal at the intersection of US-31 and Franke Road (pictured). That intersection – right near where LMCU and the hotels are planned – is surrounded by high-trafficked businesses, including McDonald's, Panera Bread, and Great Wolf Lodge.
“We’ve studied that intersection in the past for a signal,” Liptak says. “There wasn’t enough traffic then, but at some point in the future, it could be looked at again.” Liptak isn’t sure on an exact timeline when MDOT would revisit a signal, but says the process would require another traffic study. In the meantime, he says, the department will continue to work with township officials and developers to monitor the impact of individual projects on traffic – with the most realistic solutions lying in designing site plans to minimize turn conflicts onto US-31.