Reimagining The Civic Center
By Beth Milligan | May 9, 2019
Grand Traverse County Parks and Recreation commissioners tonight (Thursday) will discuss a proposed conceptual plan to redesign the county-owned Civic Center – one that imagines new parking and entrance configurations, separated walking track pathways for cyclists and pedestrians, numerous building and landscaping improvements, and a new pump track and traffic garden for Norte.
The plan is a “high-level” vision created by Traverse City-based consulting firm Influence Design Forum (IDF) with input from park users and tenant groups. Parks and Recreation hired IDF to develop design and landscaping options for the Civic Center, particularly the northern section, which has seen a heavy surge in usage in recent years. In addition to summer baseball and softball games, the north end hosts the park’s concessions stand, skate park, Howe Arena and the newly renovated Easling Pool, the new Norte Wheelhouse, and half of the site’s walking/cycling track. The area is also home to a historic Native American Marker Tree, which county staff hope to better showcase with placemaking upgrades.
Parks and Recreation Director Kristine Erickson says staff and commissioners wanted to step back and take a bigger view of the entire Civic Center, trying to imagine how best it could be laid out and improved to accommodate a growing number of diverse park users – a figure that’s now averaging between 750,000 and 1 million visitors per year. “We’ve been struggling with uses of the parkland here,” she explains. “There’s a need for more parking. When there are arena events, people were parking in the back on the grass, which is a danger to people on the walking path. We’ve been trying to figure out how to make improvements to the north end of this property to start with, so everybody can better coexist.”
After interviewing park users, IDF found that top concerns about the Civic Center include lack of wayfinding and signage, unmanaged and insufficient parking, conflict points between vehicles and pedestrians, poor internal pedestrian circulation, cut-through traffic, and no “sense of arrival” at either the Civic Center or the main park building. Users also said the building – which hosts Howe Arena, Easling Pool/Central Y, and staff offices – needs a larger lobby and a community room, exterior façade improvements, and more locker rooms for hockey. From a programming perspective, meanwhile, users said “park use policy should be improved” for the Civic Center, noting that a wide range of groups are providing “very different programs” – with some organizations operating full-time at the park, while others are only seasonal or part-time, according to IDF.
In response, IDF created a series of conceptual images proposing redesigns of key sections of the park. The images show a new vehicle entrance off East Front Street near the back of Howe Arena, with a new rear parking lot providing 27 spaces and a drop-off area behind the building. The Civic Center’s walking path would go under the new driveway entrance as a pedestrian tunnel, avoiding vehicle/pedestrian conflicts. New “gateway” pedestrian entrances are proposed at both the northeastern and northwestern corners, offering masonry walls with signage to welcome visitors; the northeastern gate imagines separate access off Fair Street for pedestrians and cyclists. The walking path around the entire Civic Center would also separate cyclist and pedestrian uses via widened pathways.
The Civic Center building itself is also imagined to expand, with a 3,500 square-foot building envelope proposed for the northeastern section of the building and another 6,000-8,000 square feet at the southwestern section near the front parking lot. A reconfigured front lot would provide 40 new parking spaces and separated drop-off lanes. Reconfigured street parking on Fair and Titus streets could also significantly expand parking options for the Civic Center, images show.
Other proposed park elements include a circular compass landscaping design around the Native American Marker Tree with four unique quadrants representing the “four directions and circle of life,” as well as a nearby native landscape and meadow. In the northwestern section of the park, IDF proposes refurbishing the current facilities management building to provide new offices for staff, Norte, and other partner groups, and using surrounding outdoor space for a Norte pump track and traffic garden (pictured). A traffic garden is a children’s park that mimics real-life road designs and conditions to allow kids to learn and practice safe cycling skills in a protected environment.
After reviewing the proposed designs, Erickson says IDF did a “tremendous job” with collecting user feedback and creating new concepts that could “change the face of the Civic Center.” She continues: “There’s such amazing potential there…these are high-level, broad concepts, but Nate (Elkins, IDF founder) took it to that extreme so we could really see the potential of the Civic Center. We’ve refurbished our pool, we have Parallel 45 (theater company) coming in, we have a new playground. It’s time to reinvigorate the park and make it all it can be.”
Before any of the proposals can come to fruition, however, several key steps come next. First, Parks and Recreation commissioners will provide their feedback on the concepts at their 5pm meeting tonight. Commissioners have been given a checklist showing each individual design option (parking, landscaping, building expansion, etc.) in order to share their opinions. The public will also have a chance to weigh-in on the designs, as will Grand Traverse County commissioners. As input consolidates around preferred options, the Parks and Recreation board can look at updating the Parks and Recreation master plan – and/or creating a new master plan just for the Civic Center – to reflect the intended direction of the park.
Erickson notes the design options include projects both small and major, some of which could happen immediately or in the near-term future, and others of which could take years of planning and fundraising to accomplish. “Money is always an issue,” she acknowledges. But the new design concepts can help Parks and Recreation move toward a cohesive vision for the park, she says, giving the board the ability to obtain cost estimates and phase out projects in a deliberate manner.
“This shows us what an opportunity there is to develop this park to better serve the community and really make it our Central Park,” she says.
Photo credit: Influence Design Forum