Environment Picture

Ken Smith: Growing smart in TC

When a massive shopping mall proposal threatened to undermine Traverse City’s small town feel in the mid-1980s, Ken Smith showed up at an activists’ meeting to help fight it.

He wore a blazer, and arrived to find “a bunch of hippies sitting around a table” wearing jeans. “I immediately loved these guys,” Smith recalls. They helped kill the mall.

In the quarter-century since that introduction, the relationship between the erstwhile hippies and Smith has blossomed into a powerful force for sustainable growth in one of Michigan’s most iconic regions.

Smith has been the linchpin of efforts to establish a framework for smart transportation and land-use planning in the Grand Traverse region—successfully fending off short-sighted proposals from deep-pocketed developers, scoring victories for the region’s storied heritage of outdoor recreation and helping steer a visionary long-term planning effort that involved 15,000 citizens and public officials.

He is the recipient of the Michigan Environmental Council’s (MEC) 2011 Petoskey Prize for Environmental Leadership, given annually to a grassroots activist nominated by an MEC member organization whose commitment, creativity and courage have inspired others to safeguard Michigan’s air, land and water for future generations. Smith was nominated by the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council (NMEAC), where he has served as a volunteer, board member and president during the course of several decades.

 “He’s passionate, but he’s not a fist-waving environmentalist. He thinks things through, and says ‘let’s find a solution,’” said Greg Reisig, chairman of the NMEAC Board of Directors. “He doesn’t just say ‘no,’ he comes up with alternatives.”

A Flint native with degrees in engineering and a PhD in urban and regional planning, Smith worked for 11 years at the General Motors Tech Center in Warren before moving to Washington, DC, in the 1970s to do research and development work with a national legal aid program for indigent persons.

A gem of a city
When he and his wife Kay decided to return to Michigan, they chose Traverse City—“a gem of a small city” with a thriving arts community, vibrant and growing downtown, and unparalleled outdoor recreation. He quickly realized that short-sighted decisions being made by the “good old boy” network of local officials threatened to bury that atmosphere under a slew of sloppy commercial developments, intrusive road projects and scattershot land-use planning.

“It was bad planning and bad growth,” Smith said. “In short, it was just bad local government.”

Smith—who lives on the Boardman River where he fly fishes and loves to walk and bike on the region’s outstanding trail systems—felt he had an obligation to protect the assets that lured him to Traverse.

So he started writing letters to the editor to the Traverse City Record Eagle. The leaders of the fledgling volunteer group NMEAC took notice, and invited him to their meeting. His blazer did not faze them—and soon enough they would learn the secret message Smith sported underneath that jacket (more on that later).

The troubling mall project—which would have separated Grand Traverse Bay’s scenic vista from the Boardman River that is the centerpiece of downtown—was priority number one. They got it on the ballot, and citizens shot it down.

Taking charge
The all-volunteer NMEAC, with Smith slowly becoming its standard bearer, successfully fought off other ill-conceived roads and development as Traverse City struggled to manage growth without losing its identity. NMEAC’s volunteers—and those from the loosely knit alliances of other organizations—gravitated to Smith for steady guidance and leadership.

“NMEAC’s office became, really, wherever Ken Smith happened to be,” said Reisig.

Under Smith, NMEAC joined with the Michigan Land Use Institute and dozens of other allies to scuttle a proposed highway bypass and bridge that would have destroyed wetlands and water quality and strangled downtown businesses as rampant, sprawling growth followed the highway south of town. The battle lasted from the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s.

It was textbook poor planning—sacrificing Traverse City’s vibrant downtown to create a new highway that would generate strip malls and subdivisions in farm fields and woodlands. That sprawl would require massive influxes of taxpayer money to support sewers, roads and municipal services—while infrastructure and the tax base in the city’s downtown withered.

Local elected officials “commissioned a study for the best place to put a bypass and bridge, without first considering whether a bypass or bridge was necessary or even a good option,” said Smith.

It mystified him, and launched him into action.

 Smith was invited to the official advisory committee where he “objected every step of the way,” and was “a real thorn in their side.”

But he also led the charge to create viable alternatives to grow the region without turning it into a piecemeal wreck of strip malls and pavement.

‘No’ not enough
 The bridge plan was finally killed in the mid-2000s after a ten-year battle. But Smith and others realized that just saying ‘no’ wasn’t enough. They needed a vision of the Grand Traverse region’s future that would sustain future generations without destroying the essence of the community.

The Grand Vision—the product of input from more than 15,000 citizens and community leaders—was forged in the aftermath of the bridge/bypass defeat. Smith, to no one’s surprise, was one of the driving forces behind the Grand Vision, which provides detailed road maps to land use decisions and transportation solutions for decades down the road.

“It was a contentious and controversial process” that challenged some conventional views of development, said Smith. But it is—at long last—a community-based road map that can be the framework in which future decisions are judged.

No longer will local planning boards, road commissions and city councils make piecemeal decisions in a vacuum. And no longer will environmental activists start from ground zero when judging the pros and cons of individual proposals.

Ken Smith surely was not the only vital force involved in protecting the Traverse-area’s quality of life during the past several decades. But his colleagues say he has been the most consistent and forceful advocate.

“Well, I’ve been there from the beginning of many of these things, and maybe the most persistent one,” Smith chuckled. “Maybe I was a catalyst, a strategist. You know, they say 90 percent of success is just showing up. And I’ve shown up.”

Oh, and one other thing. Remember that blazer he wore to that first activist meeting? Underneath it was a t-shirt that read: “Why mall the environment?"
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