It's been called one of the "10 Great Streets" in the country by the American Planning Association.
But Front Street, downtown Traverse City's picturesque corridor, has also stirred fierce debate throughout its history on how the street should be designed and used. In the 1960s, city officials – reacting to community pressure – changed Front Street to one-way, then faltered and reverted back to two-way, before voters initiated a city referendum that permanently designated the street as one-way in 1967.
Today, up to 10,000 drivers a day still navigate Front Street on a one-way basis. But increased tourism to the area, an expanded presence of pedestrians and bikers downtown, and frequent requests to close Front Street for special events have all generated discussion among local leaders on whether the street's current design is still the most appropriate for the city's modern needs. The Ticker asked two of those leaders, city planner Russ Soyring and Traverse City Downtown Development Authority (DDA) executive director Bryan Crough, to weigh in on three possible scenarios for Front Street moving forward.
Converting Front to a Two-Way Street
Urban planners who've visited Traverse City in recent years have all agreed: The best option for Front would be converting it to a two-way street. Soyring also favors the plan, noting that one-way streets are confusing for tourists and cause drivers to speed and treat the corridor as a thoroughfare, rather than a destination. “Converting to two-way would give drivers and visitors a different perspective of downtown, and highlight different merchants,” Soyring says.
There are challenges to converting to a two-way street. Some merchants don't have rear-access delivery available, so loading out front is necessary, and “many owners will also tell you that traffic always used to be backed up on Front when it was two-way,” says Crough. Soyring notes that limiting left-hand turns and creating designated loading zones could help mitigate some of these concerns in a two-way street scenario.
Using One Lane on Front for Expanded Sidewalks/Parking
Another possible scenario for Front: Keep the street one-way, but convert one of its lanes into additional parking spots or expanded sidewalks (allowing merchants to add sidewalk tables, displays or bench/rest areas). “It's a great idea,” says Soyring, noting half lanes could be added at intersections for left-hand turns. “You'd have to consider the impact on traffic, though.”
Making Front Pedestrian Access-Only
Imagine Friday Night Live on Front Street year round: No cars, only pedestrians. Some residents have championed the idea, citing cities like Madison and Boulder that have popular pedestrian-only areas downtown. But Soyring and Crough both oppose the concept. “This is a trend that started in the 1970s to compete with malls,” explains Crough. "But it was a failed experiment. If you don't have the population to support it, it makes your downtown look dead.” Soyring agrees. “We could maybe consider something like this on a seasonal basis,” he says, “but I don't think we have the population to justify it otherwise.”
So what's ultimately the best option for Front Street? Crough says converting Front to a two-way street “seems to make sense,” but doesn't want the DDA to take a role in spearheading the movement, noting that changes in traffic patterns could impact neighborhoods outside of his district. “I think the city should lead this particular effort,” he says.
Soyring, meanwhile, says the city has plenty of other projects on its plate, and Front Street “isn't necessarily a top priority” at this time.
“My preference is that Front would be a two-way street,” he says. “But there is a fear of change in Traverse City. People tend not to want to mess with something that's working, even if there's a better option available. So when it comes to making any major changes, the residents and merchants have to lead the charge. Any momentum for changing or redesigning Front Street will ultimately have to come from them.”