Traverse City News and Events

Redesigning East Front Street

By Beth Milligan | Dec. 29, 2017

One street. Three blocks. Twelve public spaces.

A new report focused on improving East Front Street (pictured) from Park Street to Grandview Parkway could help shape future planning in the corridor, including the reconstruction of the streetscape in 2019. The 165-page document, published last week, follows several months of community input sessions led by Influence Design Forum to solicit public feedback on improving parks, bridges, sidewalks, plazas and public spaces along East Front Street.

A $5,000 planning grant from Rotary Charities helped pay for the project, which was meant to begin “a community conversation around what uses they would like to see (along East Front Street) in the future and begin to compare those uses against different programming ideas – activities, events, recreational uses, social gatherings – that may take place there,” according to Influence Design Forum. “The project is also meant to be a catalyst for improving the identity of this section of East Front Street with downtown Traverse City.”

Property owners have long contended East Front Street is overdue for the types of infrastructure and placemaking upgrades that have occurred in other sections of downtown, including West Front Street and the Warehouse District. A gateway to downtown for visitors approaching from the east, the corridor has also seen a sharp uptick in traffic in recent years due to an influx of new businesses, most notably The Little Fleet’s bar and food truck lot.

The city’s capital improvement plan (CIP) lists a planned $915,000 overhaul of the streetscape from Boardman Avenue to Grandview Parkway in two years, a project that prompted officials to seek the public’s help in creating a vision for the surrounding spaces along East Front. “It was meant to be a cohesive planning effort to look at the corridor and think of it as a whole instead of one little piece at a time,” says City Planning and Engineering Assistant Missy Luick.

Influence Design Forum’s Plan-It East report provides a detailed overview of a dozen spaces on East Front Street, ranging from the Front and Grandview intersection to the Murchie Bridge underpass to Wellington Plaza to the Boardman River boat launch. For each specific block or place, the plan compiles public feedback – including from a chalkboard erected on East Front Street, public meetings and over 300 responses on social media polls – to provide both short and long-term recommendations and “tasks” or action steps for each area.

The Front and Grandview intersection generated the most controversy of any quadrant, with respondents almost evenly divided between three options to fix the traffic flow: install a roundabout, reconstruct the road in the same configuration, or change the layout to a t-shaped intersection. The report notes the intersection “is not walkable, convenient or accessible, nor does it boast pedestrian activity” and that “the unique design of the intersection unfortunately does not improve the image users are left after passing through the intersection. The lack of walkability, charm and safety all contribute to a poor image and perception.”

Recommendations for city officials include further studying the three design options – including identifying costs and barriers for each scenario – and refining a long-term vision for the intersection. The city could also consider adding some type of “gateway” arch or feature that provides a clear visual cue to visitors that they are entering downtown. Other options include installing pop-up art along the TART Trail in the nearby greenspace and making improvements to the adjacent Mini Park to add placemaking elements near the intersection.

For the Murchie Bridge underpass, respondents highlighted challenges including low overhead clearance, a narrow promenade, multiple users trying to access limited space (include pedestrians, fishermen and bicyclists), and low lighting that creates safety concerns at night. The report notes that “sooner rather than later, major infrastructure upgrades or a complete overhaul will need to be completed to the Murchie Bridge underpass and connected spaces.” The plan recommends improvements to the promenade, railings, lighting, navigable river channel, stormwater and river health, trail and sidewalk egress points to the underpass, the plaza space on the north side of the bridge, and the coastal wetland area at the mouth of the Boardman.

Other suggested improvements along East Front Street featured in the report include constructing a sea wall at Wellington Plaza to slow stream bank erosion, making aesthetic improvements to the city’s pump station building, providing wayfinding signs for public bathrooms, and making pedestrian improvements on the Park Street bridge and Grandview Parkway crossing to the bay. Smaller-scale and less expensive options also dot the report, such as installing vending machines or water-bottle stations in certain areas and putting up public artwork and booking events and performances to bring vibrancy and activity to the corridor.

Luick says not every idea included in the report will necessarily come to fruition; some, such as the reconstruction of the Front and Grandview intersection, would likely take years of planning, public input and funding identification to be realized. “The nice thing about the way the report is designed is you can use each section as a standalone concept, so it’s not like you have to do the whole plan,” she says. “If a particular project is cost-prohibitive or a non-starter…you can still look at other improvements.”

But numerous ideas in the report could provide a planning guide in the next several years for the corridor. Luick says the next step will be for Influence Design Forum and city staff to present their findings to the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission, Downtown Development Authority, and Planning Commission in early 2018. Any projects or ideas that rise to the top in terms of priorities among those boards could be moved up the list in the city’s CIP so that they have funding and a timeline attached to them for completion. Influence Design Forum will also start a four-month process in January to create a schematic design for East Front’s streetscape reconstruction, which will be shaped in part by feedback from respondents in the Plan-It East report.

“I would guess a lot of improvements (on East Front Street) will happen in pieces,” says Luick. “We need to assess what projects we’d want to roll out first. The report isn’t something we want to just sit on a shelf.”

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