Traverse City News and Events

Should Downtown Pay For Heated Sidewalks?

By Beth Milligan | Feb. 13, 2019

It’s a frequent sight during Traverse City winters: downtown property owners bundled up against the wind and snow, shoveling the sidewalks in front of their businesses – many of them multiple times a day. While city crews clear sidewalks after major snow events, property owners – both commercial and residential – are required by city ordinance to keep their walkways clear.

But as the Traverse City Downtown Development Authority (DDA) looks for ways to increase visits to downtown and improve the walkability of the district, officials are revisiting the possibility of installing heated sidewalks throughout key corridors – and also debating who should pay for them.

Snowmelt systems can already be found in small, scattered sections of downtown: in front of the 101 North Park building, near the Clinch Park tunnel, in front of the Old Towne Corner development, and at both public parking garages, among other sites. Until recently, the northern sidewalk of State Street was also heated from the Cass Street intersection east to Mode’s Bum Steer. But the failure last season of the boiler that powers the system has prompted the DDA to revisit its heated sidewalk policy, which doesn’t spell out who’s responsible for maintenance or major repairs when snowmelt systems go down.

“We haven’t really addressed that piece of it,” says DDA CEO Jean Derenzy. “The policy is silent on that issue of what happens when (the system) is beyond its useful life.”

The DDA last updated its snowmelt policy in 2015, allowing property owners to request heated sidewalks to be installed when new streetscape projects occur on their block, splitting the costs with the city for the snowmelt installation. At least 51 percent of property owners on the block have to agree to the project in order for it to go forward, and the DDA has to approve funding for its half. A variation of that process occurred back in 2002 when three property owners teamed up with the city to pay for the snowmelt system on State Street – a project that cost $85,200.

James Owens of Max’s Service paid for 45 percent of the project, while the city paid 45.58 percent; Robert Mode of Mode’s Bum Steer and Mark Dancer each paid 4.71 percent, according to Derenzy. But with the boiler now needing to be replaced – and no contract terms in place for how repairs are covered – Derenzy wants to work with the DDA board to create a plan not only for addressing State Street but a possible larger network of heated sidewalks downtown. Snowmelt projects are neither economical nor practical to tackle in small sections, a reality that has pushed the DDA to consider options for addressing entire blocks.

Current Max’s Service owner Jeff Owens – James Owens’ son – says he’d be willing to contribute toward repairing the State Street system, though he’d like to see a DDA proposal for cost-sharing. “I’d like to see what they have to say,” he says. “The flip side of it is that things don’t last forever. I don’t think it’s fair that I wouldn’t be responsible for some of that (cost)…and we have definitely enjoyed having the snowmelt system.” Having heated sidewalks not only cuts down on staff time needed to shovel and maintain walkways, but also preserves the store’s interior, Owens says. “The shoveling isn’t the bad part, it’s the amount of salt that gets tracked into the store and ruins the carpet,” he says.

The DDA nearly installed snowmelt on the northern half of the 200 block of Front Street between Park and Cass streets in 2016, when the State Theatre offered to host the boiler system in its basement and team up with other property owners to pay half the cost. But the city only received one bid on the project – which came in 36 percent higher than the estimated $380,000 budget – and the DDA lacked sufficient owner support to move forward. Derenzy says to her knowledge, no other snowmelt projects have materialized under the new policy.

That lack of progress has raised a larger philosophical issue for the DDA: Are snowmelt systems important enough that the organization should just pay to install them, regardless of whether property owners can contribute? “That’s the big question,” says Derenzy. “If we’re living in northern Michigan, and we want a walkable community, how important are snowmelt systems? It seems to be high on the list of needed infrastructure.” Snowmelt systems not only keep sidewalks clear during the winter – providing safe passage for the elderly, families with strollers and small children, and those with disabilities or mobility challenges – but also save on costly annual salt purchases and offer environmental benefits. Salt scattered on icy sidewalks often makes its way into stormwater drains - and thus local waterways – and also infects the root systems of street trees. Several downtown trees along Front Street have been killed and will need to be removed due to sidewalk salt, Derenzy says.

At the DDA’s January board meeting, Mayor Jim Carruthers criticized the lack of heated sidewalks downtown. “We have snowmelt on State, but we don’t have it on Front,” he scoffed. “I think we need to figure out how to do that. I think many of our Up North communities are doing that. We get a lot of complaints in the wintertime about slippery sidewalks…how do we make this happen?”

One option could be to include snowmelt projects in the DDA’s tax increment financing (TIF) plans, according to Derenzy. When city officials approved renewing the TIF 2 plan in 2015, one of the projects included in the plan was snowmelt installation on Eighth, Boardman, Lake , Union, and Cass streets. But the project, which carries a $1.6 million price tag, isn’t targeted to take place until 2032. City leaders are also considering extending the TIF 97 plan when it expires in 2027; Derenzy has suggested snowmelt systems could be included along with other streetscape improvements as part of that plan.

But downtown visitors could potentially see heated sidewalks much sooner than a decade out, at least on Front Street – if DDA board members and city commissioners prioritize funding for the project. Derenzy says as part of this spring’s budget process, the DDA will review its capital improvement plan and determine projects that will be paid for with TIF funding over the next five years. “I want to talk about getting Front Street and State Street done,” Derenzy says of snowmelt installation. Discussions will also involve property owners, whose input is critical in prioritizing projects and determining what contributions – if any – they’re willing to make. The DDA paying entirely for heated sidewalks with no owner contributions could monopolize a considerable chunk of TIF funding, requiring other downtown projects to take a back seat. Some level of owner participation, on the other hand – whether 50 percent or another rate – could free up funding for other projects to also move ahead.

“That’s why there needs to be more involvement of the owners in the plan,” Derenzy says, “so we can see what they support over the next five years.”

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