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Traverse City’s The Village at Grand Traverse Commons Is a Neighborhood Within a Vibrant City

By Andrea Messinger

Location: Traverse City, Northwest Michigan
Population: 14,532

Old, maybe neglected, a building, a block, or an entire state hospital can be restored and recast into the world for a new purpose. There’s a 125-year-old facility in Traverse City that’s a living example of old becoming new again.

The historic front lawn of the former asylum was the site of the Second Annual Village Bocce Ball Tournament in July, drawing nearly one hundred players from the Traverse City area. Photo by Kristen Messner.

Reuse is not always easy—as this Traverse City example shows—but it can be inspirational and go a long way toward transforming life in communities large and small. Nostalgic, perhaps with a hint of modern romance, these sites preserve our sense of heritage and offer a chance to live in step with our ideals.

The Northern Michigan Asylum for the Insane was built in 1885. It was an elaborate, self-sufficient community producing its own heat, electricity, furniture, and food year-round. But by 1989, the rise in funding cuts and successful drug therapies turned Traverse City’s largest employer into a ghost town.

For children growing up in the area, the empty grounds were sort of an enchanted place, with skyscraping willows and overgrown gardens that could captivate for hours. Schoolyard tales of haunted buildings and underground torture chambers took the game of truth-or-dare to a whole new level. To state officials, however, the hospital’s crumbling infrastructure and obsolete buildings were a stark contrast to modern standards. Despite its historic significance, the property was deemed hazardous and slated for demolition. A grassroots group stopped the action and turned to the community for help. By 1993, the city of Traverse City and Garfield Township acquired the land and put the Grand Traverse Redevelopment Corporation (GTCRC) in charge of implementing a reuse program.

Then, not long after taking over the property, the GTCRC proposed getting rid of the hospital’s main structure, known as Building 50, a notable landmark for many local residents. From this threat another grassroots organization emerged. The “Committee to Preserve Building 50” raised money, petitioned, and ultimately won its campaign for a national search to identify a firm that could restore the campus and keep it open to the public.

The first developer failed and the community went back to the drawing board. Although there was a push to transform the area into an assisted living facility, local developers and planners spoke up about the demand for vibrant, mixed-use projects that would create a greater likelihood of success. In 2000, The Minervini Group applied for the job. The organization was a local team assembled by Traverse City resident and respected historic renovator and builder Ray Minervini.

“My father’s intent was to preserve the area’s rich history, build a true neighborhood, and give future generations something beautiful and sustainable,” spokesman Raymond Minervini II said.

Condominium owners Annie and Craig Okerstrom-Lang prepare appetizers during a casual dinner party for Village neighbors. Photo by Kristen Messner.

Concerns about a stigma associated with redeveloping a former mental institution were set aside after market research demonstrated strong interest in the project.

The Minervinis worked with the community to establish financing through private investment and funding mechanisms, utilizing brownfield redevelopment tax credits and TIF, historic tax credits, renaissance zones, and two $1 million grants for cleanup from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Starting in 2002, the first phase of the project was finished 11 months ahead of schedule. While major renovations continue, by 2005, the old state hospital was transformed into The Village at Grand Traverse Commons. It is now a neighborhood within a vibrant city–complete with condos, offices, shops and more. The Village is best described as old-world, historic charm meets cosmopolitan vitality.

“Ray is building something unique, he really wants people that are passionate about what they do and make. He purposefully built smaller units to support mixed-income tenants, and right now he’s working on creating affordable rental housing,” said Traverse City Planning Director Russell Soyring.

Located about a mile from downtown and right next to northern lower Michigan’s largest employer, Munson Medical Center, The Village is home to a variety of physicians and other professionals. A destination for visitors and townies alike, it attracts entrepreneurs, artists, food connoisseurs, and anyone looking to enjoy the local culture.

“The Village is a strong, multi-economic and multi-generational community,” Minervini II notes. “The people here are highly entrepreneurial and passionate about what they do. Twenty-somethings and 70-somethings coexist and together create a vibrant, sustainable way of life.”

The feelings inspired by the modern-day shops, eateries, and professional services are perhaps amplified by the ever-present spirit of Dr. James Decker Munson, the asylum’s first superintendent. A firm believer that “beauty is therapy,” Munson would probably like knowing the exotic trees and plants from around the world he provided his patients still bring joy and peace to the area.

Munson also held a “work is therapy” belief. Hiking the many trails to and from buildings where farming, furniture construction, and fruit canning once gave his patients a purpose, is indeed rehabilitating. The 480-acre New York Central Park-like setting includes preserved parkland, historic arboretums and inviting hiking and biking trails.

The organic and naturally leavened breads from Pleasanton Brick Oven Bakery are just some of the many local goods offered at the weekly Village Farmer’s Market. Photo by Kristen Messner.

The diversity of the community brings about an array of cultural events and activities such as live music performances, church worship, ladies nights and more. The Village’s summer farmer’s market was so popular it moved indoors for the winter where local growers gladly offer their greenhouse goods along with honey and jams year-round.

The development is far from complete but at almost full occupancy. The renaissance zone makes it a tax-free choice for commercial businesses and startup companies while urbanites are eager to invest in residential units.

“There isn’t a lot of capital for Ray to work with, but he’s taken an approach that’s really appropriate. He’s staying flexible and letting the marketplace decide what’s next instead of planning really far ahead,” Soyring said. “Sinking everything into sewer lines and infrastructure for down the road can kill a project like this.” With $42 million in private investment to date, the Village is the proud creator of more than 300 new jobs. “We’re growing high-skilled jobs in ones and twos,” Minervini II said.

With so much excitement around the Commons, city officials are exploring the logical next step—a transit system connecting downtown, the marina, and the area’s anchor institutions, including Northernwestern Michigan College and Munson Medical Center. One of the key advantages to adopting an economic development strategy that includes trends in community design like reuse and public transit is that it combats urban sprawl—the cheap, new-build construction on the outskirts of town that isolates people, jobs, and economies. Unlike these developments, The Village shares in the qualities and characteristics that have historically made the healthiest and most vibrant neighborhoods. It is environmentally responsible, diverse and walkable with various housing options and a healthy business climate.

Dynamic initiatives like The Village at Grand Traverse Commons and other reuse projects, such as the City Opera House and State Theatre, are what set Traverse City apart for those who want their city to say something about who they are and what they believe in.

As the Minervinis like to say, Building 50 was Traverse City’s white elephant; every community has a burdensome gift from the past that has potential value. To transform it into something of lasting importance for a community takes a strong grassroots organization, and one or two committed entrepreneurs working with local leaders toward a common goal.

Andrea Messinger is legislative and communications coordinator for the League. She can be reached at 734-669-6318 or amessinger@mml.org.

 

 

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