Grand Forks' Renaissance Zones aim to spur development, density

Tax breaks give developers impetus to renovate apartments and invite prospective residents to vitality of downtown living

Jimmy Thomas, a recent resident of downtown Grand Forks, is a computer science student at UND enjoys the energy of life downtown. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Macklyn Hall describes himself as something like a “homeless snow bird.”

The 78-year-old said he works odd jobs in Texas and in Grand Forks, where he’s got an apartment above Urban Stampede coffee shop on Kittson Avenue near the Red River.

Hall said he moved to that downtown spot because it’s close to the coffee shop, bus service and Northlands Rescue Mission. While he previously lived in subsidized housing a few blocks away and at the mission before that, he pays for his current apartment entirely on his own.

Hall said he’s complained to the police about noise at nearby Sledster’s Food & Brew, but is generally tolerant of the ruckus that comes with the territory.

For Jimmy Thomas and Shane Saxon, that’s part of the appeal of living downtown. The two 20-somethings said they live downtown because it’s a change of pace from suburbia and they’re closer to bars and restaurants. Thomas, a computer science student who transferred to the University of North Dakota and moved into an apartment building on First Avenue and Third Street, said he’d be more likely to head toward a noisy commotion than be upset by it.


"I'm for the noise. Bring all the noise," Thomas said with a laugh before becoming briefly, jokingly, serious. "To an extent, you know?"

That type of development -- usually business-on-the-bottom, apartments-on-top -- that’s attracted Hall, Thomas and Saxon is becoming more common in Grand Forks. The city has a designated Renaissance Zone there, in which developers can expand or heavily renovate a site in exchange for a tax break. A new batch of condos -- Selkirk on 4th -- going up near the corner of Fourth and DeMers is taking advantage of that tax break, as is Epic Place, another Renaissance Zone project that’s set to turn the floor above Ely’s Ivy restaurant on Third Street into seven market-rate apartments as well as fix up the basement.

“Ren Zones” are a product of the 1999 North Dakota Legislature. Projects in a zone are eligible for state income tax breaks and local property tax breaks that treat a newly developed site as if it hadn’t been touched for as many as five years, even as its value increases due to the new work. The five-year timer starts once the construction or renovation project is complete.

The zones are designed to encourage “infill” and mixed-use development, City Administrator Todd Feland told the Herald.

“And to, essentially, provide more vibrant, densely populated communities,” Feland said. “And it started out in the downtown areas, trying to revitalize the downtown areas with private investment, and the incentive was a way to move that forward.”

Two doors down from the Selkirk condos, that same Renaissance Zone means a new mixed-use building is set to sprout up on the corner of Fourth and DeMers.

City council members on Monday OK'd Renaissance Zone Project GF-61, better known as The Argyle, a planned five-story, 31,000-square-foot building that, when finished, is set to feature a restaurant, bar or retail outlet on its first floor, offices on the second and market-rate apartments on the third through fifth floors.

Estimates supplied to city staff indicate that, by awarding the tax exemption, the state is giving up about $20,000 in business income tax revenue and the city -- plus other taxing authorities such as Grand Forks Public Schools -- will give up about $300,000 in property tax revenue. The Selkirk project means the city and state will give up an estimated $415,000 between them, and the Epic Place one means they'll give up an estimated $56,000. City staff said the zones encourage development that might not otherwise happen.


The newest project is named after the Argyle Block, which sat on that same space until it was destroyed by the city after the 1997 flood. The land on which the planned building would sit is owned by JLG Architects, staff from which filed for the tax break earlier this month.

Lonnie Laffen, the architecture firm’s president, told the Herald in January that the company wouldn’t submit any plans or tax incentive applications to the city until it finds a first-floor tenant, but he said Tuesday that it has yet to reach an agreement with one. About 20 businesses have shown an interest in the spot, according to Laffen, who added that all but two or three are still considering moving in.

Construction on The Argyle is optimistically scheduled to begin this fall and wrap up in fall 2020.

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
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