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OUR OPINION: Bike lanes first, ‘noise zone’ second at UND

Here’s a suggestion for people who’d like to establish a university district or an arts-and-entertainment zone in Grand Forks:

First things first.

And among those “first things” are many that are either minimally controversial or not controversial at all. So, get the bike lanes, public transportation and student-apartment complexes and shopping areas established first, and then turn to the touchier problems such as relaxing noise ordinances.

If the city and university establish a track record of success — a track record that adds to Grand Forks’ “college town amenities” and quality of life — they’ll build up the trust among neighborhood residents that they’ll need.

In the best case, those residents then would agree to the easing of some ordinances. But even in the worst case if residents should disagree, Grand Forks still would have its new infrastructure — and half or three-quarters of a college-town loaf is way better than none.

This go-slow approach to the creation of a university district that encompasses entire neighborhoods is based on a few factors.

The first is UND’s clear reluctance to support the idea. “University administrators are not eagerly embracing the idea of a university district at UND,” Herald Staff Writer Anna Burleson reported recently.

Said Susan Walton, UND’s vice president for university and public affairs, “I think there needs to be more conversations (with area families) before we would go down that kind of road.” And “UND spokesman Peter Johnson said the university has to carefully consider every option before acting,” Burleson reported.

The second is the obvious reason behind UND’s reluctance, which is American society’s deeply mixed feelings about the issue at the core of the controversy: drinking. True, UND would be more attractive to young people if it boasted a zone where students could “have fun.” But binge drinking already makes for sobering headlines and has prompted the formation of a Grand Forks task force.

Neither UND, city leaders, Grand Forks residents nor North Dakota and Minnesota parents are likely to sign on without assurances that student parties will be kept under control.

That’s not an impossible task. If advocates look for the right and balanced approach, there’s a good chance they can find it, especially if they can point to positive examples from other college towns.

But this swaying of public opinion is sure to take time.

Meanwhile, Grand Forks should pursue the literally quieter elements of successful college towns, including the bike trails and other amenities mentioned above.

As a graphic accompanying Burleson’s story expressed, Grand Forks and university officials are exploring multiple ways of transitioning “from a town with a college to a college town.” These include building outdoor gathering spaces, opening grocery stores and Dinkytown-like boutiques near campus and running a trolley from UND to downtown.

They should grab for those first as the low-hanging fruit, before reaching for the apple that dangles a lot higher up in the tree.