City Commission To Discuss Rooftop Facilities, Surplus Land, New ‘Housing Fund’

Building heights, stop signs, and surplus land: These are a few of the topics that will dominate the conversation at tonight’s regular meeting of the Traverse City commission. Specially, commissioners will discuss and potentially vote on whether to allow more freedom for rooftop amenities in city zoning, whether to install a four-way stop at the intersection of Sixth and Spruce, and whether to sell an unused piece of city-owned land on Cass Road and use the proceeds to establish a new housing fund.

Rooftop amenities

The Ticker reported last month that Traverse City planning commissioners had voted unanimously to recommend approval of a new zoning ordinance – one that would give developers more freedom to include rooftop spaces on their buildings.

The amendment would permit “occupiable enclosed space for rooftop amenities,” such as restrooms, storage areas, spaces used for food and beverage service, and “community rooms for the occupants of the building.” As written, the city’s zoning code allows for rooftop uses, but doesn’t allow “habitable enclosed space on the rooftop” if it is above the maximum building height permitted in that zoning district.

Notably, the city doesn’t count non-habitable rooftop features toward building height, so long as those features don’t exceed the citywide maximum of 60 feet. As a result, features like elevator shafts, stair towers, and rooftop utilities don’t usually factor into building height considerations. Habitable rooftop features, even if they reach to the same height as non-habitable features, are always counted toward building height, making it more difficult for developers to incorporate those types of uses into their rooftop spaces.

Per a memo from City Planning Director Shawn Winter, rooftop uses have become especially popular lately, thanks in part to a post-pandemic appreciation for outdoor spaces. As a result, the city has repeatedly seen habitable rooftop structures included conceptual building designs from developers, and has repeatedly had to ask developers to modify their building plans to “remove small restrooms, storage closets, and other reasonable spaces intended to support rooftop access. ” Developers, in turn, have sought variances from the city to be allowed to build those structures.

“The process of granting a variance comes with a lot of uncertainty and [is] not advisable best practice for regulating land use,” Winter wrote. “It is for this reason the City Attorney has reaffirmed her recommendation from four years ago to explore the formation of a…zoning text amendment to regulate this development design.”

The city commission will introduce that text amendment for discussion tonight. If passed, the ordinance would add an exception for rooftop amenities in seven zoning districts throughout the city. The zoning change would create a more formal and consistent allowance for rooftop amenities to “exceed the height limit of the district by a maximum of 15 feet,” so long as the building meets other requirements with its rooftop space. For instance, buildings located adjacent to recreational districts would be required to cease outdoor food and beverage service between 10:30pm and 6am, pause “outdoor performances and any other amplified sound” between 10pm and 7am, and meet certain setback requirements. In addition, occupiable enclosed rooftop amenity spaces would not be allowed to exceed “a total of 1,650 square feet or 20% of the rooftop area, which ever is less.”

Multi-stop control at Sixth and Spruce

City Commissioner Tim Werner has proposed that the city convert the intersection at Sixth Street and Spruce Street into a four-way stop. “This corner has been a problem for many years, and the residents have asked for the City to address the concerns on many occasions,” Werner wrote in a memo. “Until true traffic calming can be installed, I would like the City Commission to direct the City Manager to have a 4-way stop installed at the intersection.”

Currently, both directions of traffic on Spruce encounter stop signs at the intersection, but traffic on Sixth Street doesn’t stop.

Per the Michigan Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), “Multi-way stop control can be useful as a safety measure at intersections if certain traffic conditions exist.” High speed, high traffic volumes, and high incidence of vehicular crashes or vehicle/pedestrian conflicts are all conditions that can prompt the installation of multi-way stop control. The MUTCD instructs municipalities that decisions to implement multi-stop control “should be based on an engineering study” that looks at these criteria.

A July 2022 study from the city engineering department indicates that the intersection of Sixth and Spruce “does not meet warrants” that would trigger a four-way stop under MUTCD guidelines. For instance, there have been six crashes at the intersection in the past 10 years: two in 2021, two in 2018, one in 2016, and one in 2014. Five of those were two-car collisions caused by a southbound driver on Spruce failing to yield to a driver on Sixth; the other was a single-vehicle crash that occurred in the wintertime. MUTCD guidelines state that, in order to meet warrants for a multi-way stop, an intersection must have five preventable crashes in a 12-month period.

Per the city engineering report, the Sixth/Spruce intersection also falls short of MUTCD minimums in terms of traffic speed and overall traffic volume.

However, in his memo, Werner argued that the city has recently installed multi-way stops at other locations in the city – specifically, at the intersection of Front and Madison – despite those intersections also not meeting “warrants or similar standards” set by the MUTCD.

Cass Road property

City commissioners will discuss declaring a city-owned parcel located at 1383 Cass Road as surplus and authorizing it for sale through a public bidding process. The property in question is a 35-plus-acre parcel the city purchased from the Grand Traverse County Land Bank Authority in June 2021 for $320,423. The city intended the land to be used “for the purpose of relocating the railroad ‘wye’ near 14th Street,” but determined after purchasing the land “that a portion of the property was considered wetland, rendering it unsuitable for relocation of the wye. ” (A wye is a triangular junction of three rail lines.)

Starting last October, the city engaged the services of Mission North, a planning organization that specializes in “placemaking, mobility expertise, and sustainable economics,” with the goal of identifying ways to increase housing opportunities within the city. Part of Mission North’s job was to evaluate city-owned properties as potential locations for housing development. Mission North determined that, “due to its location outside of the City and its agricultural zoning, the [1383 Cass Road parcel] does not lend itself to addressing city housing needs” and should instead be sold. Furthermore, Mission North recommended that proceeds from that sale be deposited into a new “housing fund” for the city, with money earmarked to “assist the city in its goal of increasing housing opportunities” within city limits.

If commissioners do vote to declare the land as surplus and open up a public bidding process, the commission would still need to authorize any eventual decision to accept a bid and proceed with the sale of the land.

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