First floor uses downtown, new firefighters, permits for the film festival on the city’s agenda

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Traverse City officials will consider possible changes to city zoning rules that would restrict certain uses of the first floor of downtown buildings, vote to hire three new firefighters from the Traverse City Fire Department, and approve permits for this year’s Traverse City Film Festival approve meeting tonight (Monday) at 7pm.

Commissioners tonight will consider scheduling a resolution vote on July 5 on a proposal to impose certain usage restrictions and design standards on downtown first floors. The proposal has evolved significantly since it was first discussed by planning commissioners in the autumn and winter. The original draft proposal was to restrict the entire first floor of buildings in District C-4b, consisting primarily of lots along Front Street, to a short list of uses that included retail stores, restaurants, pubs, art galleries, theaters/venues for Live performances, cultural facilities, grocery stores, amusement/recreational services and basic services. The goal was to prevent “dead spaces” with minimal customer interaction, such as offices and parking lots and residential units, from taking over more interactive uses such as restaurants and retail outlets on the first floors downtown.

However, director of town planning Shawn Winter says that when the planning commission sought public feedback on the proposal, “it became apparent that many of the property owners felt the approach was going too far.” He adds, “Given the current complexity in commercial markets were seriously concerned that under certain market conditions they could be curtailed if they were stuck on an empty ground floor that was of no use to the downtown area. City and DDA (Downtown Development Authority) staff were receptive to these concerns and asked the planning commission for more time to listen to property and business owners and come up with a revised approach.”

The revised design now focuses more on form than use, according to Winter. The restrictive list of uses on the ground floor has been removed, with the exception of retaining a ban on short-term rentals on the ground floor. “The uses allowed in a district are usually intended to be complementary, and many agreed that renting first-floor vacation homes does not complement the other uses,” says Winter. Also, the first 30 feet of interior space on the first floor of a building cannot be used for parking, storage, or utilities. The new rules also eliminate a current exemption that says purely residential buildings don’t have to meet the minimum window transparency requirement of 50 percent on the first floor, as well as an exemption that says purely residential buildings don’t have to meet the minimum height of 14 feet indoors first floor.

“The last two elements aim to provide a flexible space on the ground floor that can accommodate many needs,” says Winter. “For example, larger windows and higher ceilings do not prohibit a ground floor from being used for residential purposes, but the lack of adequate windows detracts from the interest that a look inside a commercial property brings, and an eight-foot ceiling would likely suggest retail use.” or ban restaurant as there would be no room for range hoods and ventilation or stacking of goods.” Winter adds, “Again, the point is to preserve and strengthen downtown, not ban and restrict our property and business owners, who have contributed so much to her liveliness.”

The city commissioners will also tonight consider authorizing City Manager Marty Colburn to begin the recruitment process to fill three new firefighter/paramedic positions for the Traverse City Fire Department (TCFD) in the 2022-23 budget, which the commissioners approved this month. Colburn added $360,000 to the budget, originally left out to fund the three positions, at the request of the commissioners. However, the actual discontinuation of these positions was subject to future Commission approval. The commissioners held a study session last week where they discussed the future of the fire service and whether it will become the city’s main ambulance provider. That discussion — and talks about renovating or rebuilding the city’s two fire stations — is expected to continue in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, however, Mayor Richard Lewis told commissioners that the TCFD “obviously” needs more staff and that the board should resolve this crisis first. Colburn accordingly urged the commissioners to give him the approval tonight “to try to start the hiring process as soon as possible”.

The commissioners will also consider granting permits for the Traverse City Film Festival to hold its event this year, its first festival since 2019. According to a memo from City Clerk Benjamin Marentette, who reviewed the festival’s plans, “while the festival in general may feel similar to those of years past, it’s a scaled-down version.” He pointed out that Open Space, State Theatre, Bijou by the Bay and one or two other “venues to be determined” to be played this year. TCFF Director Johanna Evans tells The ticker last week that venues such as the City Opera House, Lars Hockstad and the Milliken Auditorium will not be returning this year; Instead, TCFF will rent four additional screens at AMC. Evans said in TCFF’s application to the city that the festival “is working with BATA to provide transportation for festival goers and will be pickup points at park and ride locations, parking garages around the city and Thirlby Field.”

According to the bid, the festival kicks off on Tuesday, July 26 with an opening party at Block 200 of Front Street, nightly screenings at State and Bijou and an Open Space film. Free movies will continue for the remainder of the week at Open Space through Sunday 31st July. Evans wrote that TCFF “will also potentially create a second outdoor venue near the Grand Traverse Resort & Casino with programming geared toward youth and adults.” The TCFF program Wednesday through Sunday includes films or panels at 9:00 am, 12:00 pm, 3:00 pm, 6:00 pm and 9:00 pm, with one or two midnight films being shown at the State Theater.

“We’re hoping to host our panels and workshops this year at an outdoor location as well, a tent in Clinch Park behind Theater Bijou by the Bay,” Evans wrote. “The tent at Clinch Park will serve as the location for the Founders Day Party (July 24) and the Filmmakers Party (July 30). A private midweek happy hour for filmmakers and donors is also planned at Clinch Park, as well a volunteer party on August 1st. TCFF is seeking an exception to allow buskers to perform outside festival venues prior to screenings and will offer children’s programs in the Open Space from 7-9pm before the free family films. Evans said TCFF requested a meeting in July with the Traverse City Police Department “to coordinate staffing at the Open Space to promote public safety and enjoyment of free movies and festival fees for law enforcement and firefighters optimize”.

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