In the highly desirable downtown neighborhoods of Traverse City, Michigan, affordable housing is scarce. Bounded by a beautiful bay of Lake Michigan on one side, and Boardman Lake on the other, the city’s land base is already largely built, and development is further limited by zoning that restricts building height to 65′. According to Kim Pontius, CEO of the 900-member Traverse Area Association of REALTORS® (TAAR), this presents challenges for the economy of the city, whose largest employers are located downtown; for the surrounding counties, which rely on the urban property tax revenue; and for the REALTORS®, who aren’t able to respond to the demand for affordable housing where it is needed.
With a REALTOR® Party Smart Growth Action Grant, TAAR helped the city engage a specialized consulting firm to create a 3D economic model demonstrating the potential tax revenue from various possible development configurations. “This is just the information needed to assist developers and the City Commission in making good decisions for the community,” says Pontius, noting that the municipal budget didn’t allow for this level of analysis. In fact, it was the City Manager and the head of the city Planning Department who brought the project to TAAR’s attention, and asked for funding assistance: the REALTORS® of the Traverse City region have earned a strong local reputation, when it comes to Smart Growth projects. The $15,000 grant covered about half the cost of the analysis, and the balance was funded by the city and county.
The report itself was dramatic and clear. “I’ve been involved in economic development and transportation planning long enough to know that the whole world changes when you begin looking at situations in 3D, instead of 2D,” says Pontius. Urban 3, the firm we hired, has tremendous expertise in addressing all the issues and conveying results with powerful visuals.” The Asheville, NC-based firm spent several months collecting data, then developed its report, using colorful three-dimensional graphics that revealed beyond question where the highest tax-value development could occur. Joe Minicozzi, principal of Urban 3—and a very engaging speaker—presented his findings to a broad audience on four separate occasions, all of which TAAR helped promote: at a downtown theatre, at a local school auditorium, at the opera house and at a Rotary Club meeting.
The report, called “Building Potent, Lasting Value in Traverse City,” is posted on the city website, and that of TAAR, as is a link to Minicozzi’s presentation.
“It was no surprise that the highest taxable value by far is in the heart of the city,” explains Pontius. “What Joe did was to show just how much higher, while attempting to enlighten the audience that going vertical is the only way to capture ample tax revenue for the city and county to prosper.” Using examples of other cities that have limited building heights, Urban 3 showed how such restrictions will ultimately defeat the prosperity goal. The report drills down and reveals that 52% the land in Traverse City is actually un-taxable, and therefore not part of the revenue stream, and shows the critical difference between a parcel’s true cash value and assessed taxable value.
Pontius reports that TAAR’s support of the project has only strengthened the association’s healthy working relationship with the municipal and county governments. “The head of the Planning Department and the City Manager can’t say enough good things about the help the REALTORS® have provided,” he says, adding, “It’s clear we’re continuing to serve the best possible future of the city. Now that the report exists, the data will be an ongoing critical reference. Meanwhile, it’s planted seeds, and gotten people thinking.”
To learn more about how the REALTORS® of greater Traverse City, Michigan are helping to educate planning commissions at the city, county, and township level, contact Kimberly R. Pontius, CEO of the Traverse Area Association of REALTORS®, at 231-947-2050.