Traverse City News and Events

TC Planning Commission To Consider Downtown Schools, New Housing Rules

By Beth Milligan | Sept. 4, 2021

Traverse City planning commissioners will consider allowing schools and colleges to operate in downtown Traverse City – a common practice in other urban communities that was recently raised for consideration here after The Children’s House expressed interest in relocating its junior high downtown. Planning commissioners will discuss the possible zoning change Wednesday at their 7pm meeting, where they’ll also hold public hearings on several housing rule changes that would allow for more density in residential neighborhoods.

Downtown Schools
Urban schools could be allowed in Traverse City’s C-4 district – which encompasses most of the downtown core – under a proposed staff-initiated zoning amendment. City Planning Director Shawn Winter notes that while public schools are exempt from most zoning regulations, private schools are not and therefore “need to be listed as an allowable use in order to operate in a district.” After The Children’s House recently inquired about relocating its junior high from its Long Lake Road campus to downtown, city staff reviewed the ordinance and discovered schools and colleges/universities aren’t listed as an allowed use – a fact Winter says came as a surprise to him.

“We were kind of scratching our heads as to why,” he says. “It’s a great land use mix to add on a number of fronts for our community. It adds a steady stream of people, which represents a market for other nearby businesses during the slowest months of the year. Students and parents are coming down, they’re attending events at the school, they might go out to eat before or after an event. And students get the benefit of being a part of our downtown.” Winter says it’s “very common” for communities to allow schools in the urban core, but that Traverse City hasn’t yet incorporated language into its zoning ordinance that would allow educational institutions downtown.

Planning commissioners will be asked Wednesday to weigh in on the amendment language and potentially schedule an October 5 hearing on the change. Winter says while he wants to hear the board’s take, he himself doesn’t see many downsides to allowing schools downtown. “You could have a discussion about traffic with drop-off and pick-up two times a day, but our downtown system is meant to handle that,” he says. “We have a large surge in the summer, we have draws like theaters that show we’re capable of handling traffic. And many people work downtown, so a lot of them would be coming here anyway. It’s not necessarily generating more trip ends.”

DDA CEO Jean Derenzy is also supportive of allowing schools downtown. She notes that tweens and teens ages 10-17 account for $44 billion in discretionary spending each year. “Most is spent on entertainment, food, and clothing, which we have in downtown Traverse City,” she says. Downtown schools are usually more accessible by walking, biking, and transit than suburban schools; downtowns can also become an “extended classroom” for students and offer after-school job opportunities for students old enough to work. Schools can become a “focal point for the community and a neighborhood anchor,” Derenzy says, with educational space often used “after school hours for a number of school and community events and activities.” Colleges and universities, meanwhile, can “serve as a catalyst for commercial and creative growth,” with a downtown location offering a competitive recruiting advantage for local educational institutions, according to Derenzy.

Director of Advancement Renee Hintz of The Children’s House confirmed to The Ticker that the school is interested in relocating its junior high classes downtown. However, she declined to identify an exact location or more details on the move, noting the project is still in the planning phase. “Our junior high program has grown over the last eight years from 4 students to 25,” she says, “and we are eager to find an appropriate spot in downtown Traverse City where the program can grow.”

Housing Rules
Planning commissioners Wednesday will hold public hearings on several proposed rule changes that would allow more density in residential neighborhoods. The changes, part of an effort to create more housing opportunities in the community, would go to the city commission for final approval if the planning commission votes to approve them.

One set of changes would combine several residential zoning districts – R-9, R-15, and R-29, so named for the number of units per acre each district currently allows – into a single new district called R-3. The new district would not have any density limits, similar to how the city’s C-3 and C-4 districts work. “Instead of regulating the number of units, we’d be regulating the development itself through height limits, impervious surface limits, setbacks, things like that,” explains Winter. “We’re managing the size and scale of the box, and leaving it up to developers how many units they’re going to carve out inside the building.” That change would keep buildings fairly uniform and regulated from the outside, but allow a developer flexibility, for example, to develop either 10 three-bedroom units or 30 one-bedroom units inside. Winter says lifting the density restrictions could allow more units to be built, especially when there’s a high market demand for studio or one-bedroom units.

Another set of proposed changes would impact the R-2 (mixed-density residential district) neighborhoods. Tweaks include increasing the number of allowed units on a lot from two to four. “Historically, the city has allowed people to build two separate detached homes on an R-2 lot,” says Winter. “Now we’ve added (allowed uses) such as triplexes and duplexes, so you can have three to four units contained in the same building. It still looks like a single-family home, and matches the context of the neighborhood, but with more units inside. We wanted to be respectful of the character of the neighborhood.” Lots in historic district neighborhoods would still have to go through the normal historic district approval process, Winter notes.

All of the residential changes are meant to remove hurdles to adding more housing in the city by means of “gentle, incremental residential infill in neighborhoods,” Winter says. “None of these will be very transformative alone…there’s no single change we can make that’s a panacea to addressing our housing problem. But where opportunity exists, we’re looking to remove barriers that our development regulations have put in place and increase the diversity of housing out there.”

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