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Jason Schaefer: Downtown Grand Forks needs housing, not Arbor Park

GRAND FORKS—Creating great downtowns is both an art and a science. The debate over Arbor Park illustrates this. Arbor Park was created 20 years ago on a site that fell victim to the flood and fire of 1997. Instead of letting the lot sit vacant, the city made the wise decision of creating a temporary park.

Because it is such a well-executed public space, people have grown attached to it.

But those who want to keep that parcel a park instead of returning it to its original purpose as a building site are neglecting the science of creating great downtowns.

The reason Arbor worked so well as a park is that it created a great public space. That's the lesson. Great public spaces matter, and we should strive to create more top-notch public spaces throughout the community.

But the thing is, Arbor Park has done it's job. Downtown has seen a renaissance—a true rebirth from the flood of '97. Now it's time for the next phase—for downtown to move to the next level. And that means developing the lot and bringing more people, more businesses and more energy to downtown.

I'm not talking about growing downtown just for the sake of growth. If downtown stagnates, Grand Forks will not compete for talent successfully in the 21st century knowledge-based economy. While I was on the Downtown Development Association board, I remember a meeting with economic-development staff in which they noted that companies looking to bring high-paying, professional-level jobs into Grand Forks expressed concern about the lack of housing options downtown.

Today's young professionals want urban lofts and condos. Downtown is the only place in our market that can deliver that. Peer cities across the country and regional peers such as Bismarck, Fargo and Duluth are developing these units.

Grand Forks' lack of downtown housing is a major competitive disadvantage.

Experts agree that a range of housing options is essential for a downtown to reach its potential and for small businesses downtown to survive and thrive. Here's how it works: One block of typical Main Street retail requires 1,000 to 2000 units of housing within a 10-15 minute walk. And that's just for one block's worth.

Grand Forks has a long way to go, which is why developments such as the one proposed for the Arbor parcel are critical for downtown businesses' health.

Housing brings activity and additional spending by new residents. A vibrant downtown is good for everyone in the community. It's good for UND and Altru, when they're recruiting professors and doctors.

It's good for families—especially with events like the Hollydazzle Parade of Lights, Art Fest, Farmers Market and so on.

It's also a boon to taxpayers, as it costs $20,000 a year to maintain that parcel as a park. Developed, the parcel would generate tens of thousands of dollars a year in property tax revenue; plus sales taxes from the commercial tenants and spending by residents.

Also, because downtown development doesn't require costly new infrastructure on the edges of town, taxpayers reap more value per acre. The development at Arbor would be the most valuable building downtown (per acre), yielding well over $20 million per acre compared to about $1 million for a typical Big Box store on 32nd Avenue South.

Keeping the parcel as a park is simply not the best use of that space. Downtown is blessed with a great deal of park space. Even with the loss of Arbor Park, there still are two pocket parks nearby and an underused Town Square.

If this were a concrete jungle with a shortage of park space and no Greenway, there could be a case for saving the park. But that's not the case here. It's all about context. This is Grand Forks, not Newark.

Having a great downtown means balancing many needs and desires. Parks and art are important. But so are housing and shops. There's an abundance of parks and art downtown, while there's a shortage of housing and retail options.

Plus, the proposed development incorporates public art and a public walkway. Further, existing sculptures can be relocated to other areas.

This isn't a choice between public art and development. It's a choice between being vibrant or being stagnant.

Schaefer is a former board member of the Downtown Development Association.