Russ Soyring

Russ Soyring Shares Thoughts From a Career Guiding TC Planning

December 8, 2021 |

ABOVE Russ Soyring retired a year ago from his 35-year career as Traverse City Planner. We walked with Russ around town and asked him to reflect on, among other things, the joy (and resilience value) of a good sidewalk. Photo by Jeff Smith.

Russ Soyring guided the evolution of Traverse City for 35 years as city planner—a time when TC rose to become one of the most acclaimed small towns in the nation. During his tenure, the downtown surged with inventive restaurants, innovative shops and even a gorgeously renovated movie house. The neighborhoods thrived—keeping and improving upon their walkable/bikeable spirit. The beachfront parks expanded (and even jettisoned a defunct coal plant). The Grand Traverse Commons began its amazing restoration story. After he retired at the end of 2020, Russ agreed to join the Groundwork advisory council, because community design has been a centerpiece of Groundwork for 25 years. So on a warm day when summer was on the verge of tipping into autumn, we met Russ near Cass Street and the Chamber of Commerce building and took a walk around TC, asking him to share the ideas that lighted his city planning journey.
Let’s start with something current. What’s keeping you busy these days?
I’m on the planning commission for the Grand Traverse Commons. I really care about that project—in fact I’m going to a meeting there after this interview. It kind of encapsulates everything I care about in this town. It has mixed use—retail, service, residential—but also mixed income. Plus it’s restoring a historical building and reusing a historical resource. They even developed the attic spaces and basement. It’s the complete opposite of urban sprawl.
Yes, Ray Minervini proved to be a mighty visionary with that project.
Ray is like a disciple. I did a presentation in Powerpoint once about GT Commons, and I put Ray in the clouds like he was from heaven—he is a developer from heaven. He wanted to give back to this community.
You were city planner for 35 years. Tell us something that floats to the top from the early days.
Ok, well, this will be from before my time here, but in the early 1960s, the downtown development agency authorized a downtown plan that was completed about 1966. I found it one day not long after I started my job here. The idea was to eliminate the river between Front Street and the bay because the river was a nuisance. Redirect the river, fill in the bed and replace it with a paved parking lot. The plan also called for new skins on all the downtown buildings, modernizing and erasing all the history. There was also to be an 8-lane road encircling downtown … it’s a good thing we didn’t do that plan.
That sounds horrifying. Thank goodness cooler heads prevailed. 
I always wanted to know if there were protests back then, or how the public reacted to this idea.