How much is 'enough'? Grand Forks grapples with new apartments
After more than a decade of playing professional hockey around the world, former UND star Brandon Bochenski moved back to Grand Forks, where he and his family built a sprawling home in one of the city's quietest neighborhoods.
At least, that's where they thought they were.
Bochenski lives along Kings View Drive, deep in the city's south end and next to King's Walk Golf Course. When their family settled on the plot, they thought they were moving to a sleepy, subdued part of the city — somewhere, Bochenski jokes, where you might walk across the street to borrow a cup of sugar.
But just one month after he's moved in, Bochenski is a leading figure to keep a new apartment complex from popping up across the street. Though developers haven't submitted plans, City Planner Brad Gengler said it could be something like six buildings with 24 apartment units each.
Bochenski described a recent public meeting where he was able to meet with developers, and he said it left the wrong impression.
"They said this is happening no matter what, you guys can't stop this," he said. "I've been playing professional hockey for 13 years and I moved home to this town and, all of a sudden, I'm getting bullied before I even move in...it was just not a time to get pushed."
Dan and Scott Stauss, local businessmen, are said to back the project. The Herald was unable to reach either for comment Thursday.
And so Bochenski, so new to the neighborhood that his lawn is still unplanted, now finds himself the de-facto head of a neighborhood group pressing back against what they see as overdevelopment. One of Bochenski's neighbors, Brian Weiss, even cites a real estate advertisement from years ago — listed by a real estate firm — that shows the area subdivided into single-home plots, with no room for apartment complexes.
"I think the apartments may take away from the neighborhood feel," he said. "I have nothing against apartments and people and such — it doesn't really fit the neighborhood. It's also opposite what I was led to believe would be built."
Bochenski, Weiss and the rest of the Kings View Drive neighborhood are part of a changing city. Vacancy rates, after a yearslong rise, were at about 8 percent for Grand Forks' private apartments during the first quarter — and at almost 13 percent across all apartments. John Colter, executive officer with the Greater Grand Forks Apartment Association, said that means landlords have to roll with some economic punches.
"When you have a vacancy, you have to absorb it and try your best to fill it. (When) 10 percent of your business is lying vacant ... it makes it tough to pay the bill on that. You can't sustain that forever," Colter said. "They're doing fine—they're just putting their dollars into different ways of advertising and trying to attract people to their units."
The city is coming off the tail end of an apartment boom that saw a building surge, with more than 1,500 apartment units granted building permits in 2013 and 2014, according to city records. That raises questions of whether Grand Forks has, after years of fretting, enough rental housing for its population. But, Colter said, he also knows there's plenty of unfilled jobs in Grand Forks County — more than 1,000, by one recent measure — and Colter sees room for development and investment.
Mark Schill is an analyst with Praxis Strategy Group, and he's worked with the city in recent years on issues like housing. He said the answer to that question — does Grand Forks have "enough" apartments — depends on who you ask. Where a landlord might see too many apartments, tenants might see lower rent, and others might see more disposable income spent in the community.
"Vacancy has come up, to be sure, and we're seeing more aggressive marketing of apartments," he said. "Does that mean with have 'enough'? Well, that's a different question."
Plans for the new development are expected to come before the city's Planning and Zoning Commission at its May 2 meeting. City Council President Dana Sand said he recognizes that if the local landowner wants to sell — and if the Stausses want to develop — that it's their right pursue the project. But he hopes they can find a different neighborhood.
"I believe that they're trying to be equitable and fair for the neighbors," he said. "It's just—I don't think there's anything that's truly going to be fair and equitable for the neighbors that has apartments in it, because the neighbors were told that it's all going to be single-family housing."