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Saving a piece of northern Michigan history, one bite at a time

Interior of Traverse City State Hospital

This week we're talking about contaminated sites with historic buildings that EGLE helped bring back to life with environmental cleanup. Community commitment to the old Traverse City State Hospital saved it from the wrecking ball, then a developer's vision and EGLE investment made history.

Less than a mile from downtown Traverse City, a wrecking ball idled, waiting to demolish a million square feet of blight and decay. The old Traverse City State Hospital buildings were historic, sure, but the long hallways were ankle-deep in peeled lead paint, chunks of plaster, asbestos, pigeon feathers, and animal droppings. Walls were tagged with graffiti and trees grew inside the building. Broken windows and holes in the roof let in rain and snow. Soil was contaminated with lead, solvents, and other hazardous materials. The engine was running, and the operator was ready to take the first swing.

Built between 1883 and 1885 as an institution for adults and children with mental illness, the hospital housed 3,600 patients at its peak. Patients and staff were half the city's population, and the hospital was the area's largest employer. By the early 1970s, with only 140 patients, most buildings were vacant and unused. The hospital closed in 1980 and the campus was abandoned.

The historic buildings that are now known as The Village at Grand Traverse Commons were saved by activist citizens who literally stood between the building and the wrecking ball. Some of the original stained glass windows, oak moldings, chair rails, and terrazzo floors remained, but it was hard to look past the blight and see its potential. Still, local support for saving the historic buildings was strong. In the early 1990s, the county bought the 484-acre campus and got to work on a plan to redevelop the site.

Ray Minervini, a builder who had retired to Traverse City, had a vision for the campus. He saw a mixed-use, mixed-income, walkable community with acres of parkland and historic buildings adapted to new uses. Ray convinced his son Raymond to join him in Traverse City. The Minervinis were committed to honor and preserve the historic features of the property, including the grounds. In 2002, father and son bought 63 acres, including Building 50, where these photos were taken, and a dozen other smaller outbuildings, and got to work on the largest historic redevelopment in the United States.

The cost to redevelop the old state hospital had more zeros than most of us will see in a lifetime. Nothing like this had ever been done and the market for commercial space and condominiums in an old mental institution was a complete unknown – so the risks were huge. In collaboration with Grand Traverse County and the state of Michigan, the Minervinis have used a one-bite-at-a-time approach to manage the ginormous historic preservation project.

Building 50 is 400,000 square feet and a quarter mile long from end to end. Four floors of wide hallways -- two miles total -- were lined with 8x11 foot patient rooms, each with foot-thick brick walls. Building 50's roof was the most immediate priority after the Minervinis bought the property. A new roof would cost $1.5 million and no bank would finance it until other funds were committed to the project. They would need to abate lead and asbestos before renovations could begin. Building 50 alone has 700,000 square feet of lead-painted walls to abate at a cost of $10 per square foot.

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) was the first investor in the Minervinis' vision. EGLE awarded Grand Traverse County a $1 million brownfield redevelopment grant in the early 2000s for demolition and environmental costs. EGLE's commitment secured the bank loan for the new roof. As the renovations progressed, people saw the Minervinis' vision and invested too. A young couple who wanted to open a farm-to-table restaurant was the first to buy commercial space. Their restaurant, Trattoria Stella, is still a popular destination. More businesses and new residents followed. As renovations moved forward and EGLE could see successful results from its first grant, EGLE awarded another $1 million grant and a $1 million loan for ongoing environmental costs.

Grand Traverse County and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) are other important partners. The County reimbursed $26.7 million from the Commons' state and local property taxes (also approved by EGLE and MEDC). The County approved reimbursement only on costs that benefit the public, such as infrastructure, public space, and environmental protection. The County also awarded $400,000 from a local site remediation fund for environmental costs.

The redevelopment has been a stunning success and received national attention from historic preservationists, travel publications, foodies, and mainstream media. Once blighted and abandoned, the Village at Grand Traverse Commons is now alive with residents, shoppers, a farmers' market, cafes and restaurants, live music, a winery, a bocce court, the Colantha Dairy Festival (named for a world-record-holding state hospital milk cow), and a huge park-like campus that is open to the public. Residences range from million-dollar condos to affordable housing. The original Building 50 chapel is a venue for concerts, the Traverse City Film Festival, weddings, and events. Businesses have created 500 new jobs and the taxable value of the property has increased from zero to $25 million. A vision, a one-bite-at-a-time approach, and public support worked together to save a piece of history.

If you want to learn more about the Village at Grand Traverse Commons, check out EGLE's Brownfield Flip video. For more about the state hospital's architecture and what makes it really special, check out this story about Kirkbride buildings.

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