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Arbor Park: The 'No' vote helps city grow

On Tuesday, Grand Forks residents will vote to decide the future of Arbor Park. This is the case for why residents should vote "no" on a proposal to preserve it, instead of building a new development on the site. You can find opposing arguments here.

A rendering of the new building from a proposal submitted by Dakota Commercial earlier this year. JLG Architects and Community Contractors are partners on the project. The immediate inclusion of a skywalk has begun to look less likely since this rendering was first published.
A rendering of the building that could be built on Arbor Park, 15 S. Fourth St., as seen in a development proposal submitted to the city last year. The skywalk seen at right is contingent on the placement of business space on the second floor of the structure. (Courtesy)

On Tuesday, Grand Forks residents will vote to decide the future of Arbor Park. This is the case for why residents should vote “no” on a proposal to preserve it, instead of building a new development on the site. You can find opposing arguments here .

Backers of construction at Grand Forks’ Arbor Park condense their position down to a simple slogan: “Vote No to Grow.”

They argue that Arbor Park, 15 S. Fourth St., has been marked for development since it was created after the flood of 1997, always waiting for the right development opportunity. Now that the city has found a project for the site they’re urging a Tuesday vote against preserving the park instead.

That would mean backing a city-approved development deal that’s been ready to snap into place since November. The only thing that’s held it up has been park proponents, who used a petition drive to force Tuesday’s election.

Supporters of the building deal imagine a soaring, five-story, $7 million condo building downtown, with its residents dotting the streets, eating at restaurants and keeping local businesses open. And that’s key to keeping the city on track, they said. Not only will a multimillion dollar investment offer a boost to local property taxes, but the added residents and new business would be a shot in the arm for a downtown that recently saw the closing of the Amazing Grains food co-op.

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“(Downtown is) the living room of our community,” said Sarah Prout, executive director of the Grand Forks Downtown Development Association. “It’s so important not just for today and tomorrow, but for the future of our community, as we continue to grow and look at potential development.”

Construction has been publicly endorsed by the DDA, the local Chamber, and the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp. The Empire Arts Center joined them earlier this month , arguing that arts groups need a strong, vibrant downtown.

Once built, developers -- who would spend the money to build the structure -- say the project would include retail or restaurant space on the first floor and 18-25 one- and two-bedroom condos, depending on whether a business tenant moves in on the second floor. That last variable will also decide whether the building has a skywalk built connecting the second floor to the parking garage across the street. Kevin Ritterman, president of project developer Dakota Commercial, pegs the project at $7.5 million already, and he said the skywalk could add $500,000 more.

Condo prices themselves are expected to range from $225,000 to as much as $350,000, though Ritterman said details are still developing.

Flood aftermath The project has drawn comparisons to the brownstones finished in 2007 on the block of North Third Street destroyed by fire during the 1997 flood. Bill Schoen, the architect for the project, said the project was a successful business venture that also was built on space left vacant after the flood. He sees big potential in the development at Arbor Park.

“We have a tremendous green space just blocks away,” Schoen said, referring to the Greenway. “I’ve seen the (building) design -- it’s very attractive, it’s very appealing. I’m sure the units will sell very quickly, and it will be a significant financial return to the city.”

Rough math touted by supporters of construction suggest a more than $10 million boost to local property tax rolls over the next 40 years if the park is developed -- though that is based on assumptions for property values, future tax levels and inflation rates. The city could also save $20,000 in annual upkeep costs for the lot.

On the other hand, those same estimates suggest that ownership costs to the Park District -- the caretaker for Arbor Park, should it be preserved -- would climb to a seven-figure total over the same time period, assuming steady inflation and the same upkeep costs as the city.

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And advocates of development worry how long it might take to reverse a decision to keep the park. Ballot language suggests keeping the park preserved “in perpetuity.” The Vote No to Grow campaign recently began asking if residents are ready for a “99-year commitment,” a figure they say they’ve drawn from a section of North Dakota Century Code that caps certain land agreements at a 99-year duration -- though defenders of the park, citing the city’s charter, claim the decision can be revisited sooner.

City Attorney Howard Swanson was unable to be reached for comment on Friday.

If the vote is for construction, City Administrator Todd Feland said the city will work to preserve “as much as possible” in the park, incorporating artwork in the new development or moving it elsewhere downtown.

Though all the details of such a plan aren’t settled yet, Feland said cost estimates are about $90,000, and he said the city is already working on a broader plan about art downtown. Grand Forks has also “been a primary funder of the downtown art landscape,” he said.

City officials argue the  building deal offers developers no special advantages or “sweetheart deals” for construction. It would transfer the land for $6 per square foot, with a final price -- once public walkways and dumpster space are carved out -- would likely come to $70,000 to $80,000, which the city estimates is market value, based on similar sales. The expected tax incentives on the project are the same as any other downtown developer would receive, city leaders say.

“All we’re trying to do is improve Grand Forks. We love Grand Forks, we want to make it better. I grew up here. I’ve been here for 48 years,” Ritterman said. “I just think everybody wants the dang thing to be done. I’m at that point too.”

Related Topics: TODD FELAND
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