Traverse City News and Events

Traverse City Eyes New Master Plan

By Beth Milligan | April 16, 2021

Every five years, communities in Michigan like Traverse City must review their master plan – a document that describes a vision for how the community will look and grow over the next 20 years – and determine if it needs to be updated or replaced. Master plans not only guide local zoning and decision-making, they also prioritize how money is spent in key areas like infrastructure and capital improvement projects. Traverse City’s master plan dates back to 2009, and City Planning Director Shawn Winter thinks it’s time for the community to have a new one – a vision that considers modern factors ranging from climate change and diversity to evolving transportation trends and post-pandemic land use.

Winter and city planning commissioners will hold a remote study session Tuesday at 7pm to discuss updating the city’s master plan ahead of a 2022 state deadline. The city adopted its current plan in 2009 and has amended it just once since, in 2017. In a memo to planning commissioners, Winter suggested the time is right for the city to consider adopting a new vision.

“Few would disagree that Traverse City has changed significantly in terms of development, transportation, demographics, and economy, among other components, since 2009,” he wrote. “There is little sign that the rate of our community’s evolution and changing needs will be subsiding in the future. Although updated just four years ago, the current amended master plan was built off the structure of the original master plan and may or may no longer be representative of the community’s future vision.”

A new master plan could address several categories missing from the current document, according to Winter, including diversity/inclusivity, resiliency/sustainability, and non-motorized transportation. He notes that Traverse City “is often dismissed as not being diverse” because of its lack of racial diversity – the community was 92.5 percent white as of July 2019, according to U.S. Census data. While the number of non-white community members has grown over the last 20 years, Winter points out that there are also “many ways in which a population can be diverse,” including religion, age, gender identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, disability, and level of education. If Traverse City doesn’t understand and recognize the diversity it does have, Winter says, the city won’t make planning decisions that meet its residents' needs.

“The housing issue, for example, is reflective of our socioeconomic diversity,” he says. “We see houses on the market for extremely high prices, and they’re bought in no time, but workers are struggling to find housing in the community. Another example that been brought up in our (planning) field a lot is gender diversity and how we design our public spaces. When we have a mass transit system, how does it work with a mother who has a stroller and a kid in tow? Have we thought about those needs?”

Traverse City also needs to be thinking about resiliency and sustainability, Winter says – especially as it relates to climate change and a post-pandemic landscape. Green infrastructure “rises toward the top of the list,” according to Winter, and can offer benefits like habitat creation, improved aesthetics in landscaping, placemaking, and the reduction of urban heat islands. Efficiently using land – “one of our most valuable and limited resources,” Winter says – can help minimize the city’s carbon footprint. That could include master plan policies that encourage density as well as the concept of a “15-minute community,” where nodes of activity and commerce allow residents to take care of a majority of their daily needs within a 15-minute walk of their home. The pandemic demonstrated the need for communities to have “flexibility” when it comes to land use, according to Winter. “For example, there could be a greatly reduced need for office space,” he says. “It’s not just the pandemic, but climate change and our environment that is impacting development.”

While Winter says Traverse City has a “robust” non-motorized transportation network – a resource bolstered by the city’s recent sidewalk infill and gap program, Safe Routes to School construction, and the planned completion of the Boardman Lake Trail – he says the current master plan lacks an overall non-motorized plan “that prescribes a comprehensive network, the type and location of different facilities, and an action plan for prioritization and implantation.” Evolving transportation trends could also impact city planning; if in 10 years people are primarily driving electric vehicles, or if self-driving vehicles take off, is the city prepared with electric vehicle charging stations or different parking and drop-off/pick-up areas that accommodate those technologies?

Creating a new master plan is not typically a cheap process: It can run into the tens of thousands of dollars, often because consultants are needed to assist city staff with the 12-14 month effort of writing a new plan and organizing the numerous public input sessions that shape the document. Winter says the cost is an “investment” in the future of Traverse City, saying “it is worth every penny if it is done right.” He is discussing the idea of a new plan with planning commissioners now – and will soon be soliciting input from city management and city commissioners – so that funds can be allocated in the upcoming 2021-22 budget, which is approved in June. Winter is hopefully there will be support to create a new vision for the city for the next 20 years, a process he emphasizes will be heavily driven by public input.

“Public engagement is the foundation of this process,” Winter says. “This is a community that is highly engaged, so there needs to be a high level of engagement throughout the process. That's the most expensive part, but we will have a much better end product.”

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