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Arbor Park: 'Yes' vote preserves place of peace

On Tuesday, Grand Forks residents will vote to decide the future of Arbor Park. This is the case for why residents should vote "yes" on a proposal to preserve it, instead of building a new development on the site. You can find opposing arguments ...

Arbor Park in Grand Forks on Thursday June 15, 2017. (Joshua Komer / Grand Forks Herald)
Arbor Park in Grand Forks on Thursday June 15, 2017. (Joshua Komer / Grand Forks Herald)

On Tuesday, Grand Forks residents will vote to decide the future of Arbor Park. This is the case for why residents should vote “yes” on a proposal to preserve it, instead of building a new development on the site. You can find opposing arguments here .

Those leading the charge to preserve Arbor Park will be the first to tell you it’s a “work of art.”

Mary Weaver is one of those. The owner of Browning Arts, just a few steps down the sidewalk from the 15 S. Fourth St. park, she calls Arbor Park a place for meditation, an “oasis” in the middle of the downtown area and a beautifully designed memorial to the flood of 1997. She and her fellow park backers say they aren’t against development, but they’d like to see the proposed five-story, $7 million condo and commercial building placed somewhere else. She said her business moved into its current location 24 years ago this month, before Arbor Park even existed.

“I grew up with the building of this park. …  The trees were babies, and now they’re mature trees. And I’ve really grown to love this park, as have many people who come here every day to eat lunch or to relax, to listen to music, just to enjoy it,” she said earlier this month.

“People from out of town come here to show it off to visitors. People from in town whenever they come downtown, they want to stop and drink their coffee. They bring their children, with the daycare groups, they have their prom pictures taken here. Weddings are performed up here in the arbor several times a year. It’s a popular place.”

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That’s why they’re asking the public to vote “yes” Tuesday on a proposal to preserve the park. Doing so would put the park in the care of the Grand Forks Park District and stave off a development deal the city concluded in November -- one Weaver and her fellow organizers blocked with thousands of signatures in a petition that forced Tuesday’s special election.

The park was built on a plot of land left vacant after the flood of 1997 ravaged the downtown. And though the city claims the land was always slated for development -- park or not --  Arbor Park’s proponents disagree. Steve Schadler, a former Park District official who worked with young people to build it, said he never thought it would be temporary.

"Part of what really hurts my own personal feelings is that I was telling (the youths) when they were building it that they could bring back their children and grandchildren,” he said in October. “It would give them a sense of pride for decades. I personally feel like I let down these young people that helped build the park."

A better boost? Backers of construction insist that seeing construction through is important not just for local economy, but for the city’s reputation with future investors. But park proponents wonder why it has to be on Arbor Park, of all places. They led a walking tour of the downtown area earlier this month asking why it couldn’t be at a grassy field near South Fifth Street and Kittson Avenue, or the site of the soon-to-be-replaced downtown water treatment plant, among other places.

Park backer C.T. Marhula wondered how vehicle traffic and garbage service would fit in the alley behind a new building, and argued that the view from many of the units would be unsavory.

Bill Palmiscno, the Park District’s executive director, said the district has not taken a side on the issue. They just stand ready to fulfill voters’ wishes, either by assuming ownership of the park or by helping the city move the park’s artwork elsewhere.

But if they do become Arbor Park’s caretakers, Palmiscno said there’s work to be done. He imagines repairing the irrigation system in the park, thinning overgrown flowers, improving the lighting system and removing art that’s been added since construction.

“We would try to recreate what it was when it was built,” Palmiscno said. “It’s got maybe more art pieces added than it really can hold.”

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Grand Forks artist Adam Kemp takes a simpler approach: Why does the park have to be destroyed, he asks? What if the city promoted it better and marketed it as a focal point of the downtown? Asked about the benefits condo proponents say a new building would bring for the downtown economy, Kemp fired back by suggesting the building simply be built elsewhere -- echoing his allies. But he also suggested that the park, if managed correctly, could bring the boost in foot traffic to downtown business that many seek.

“There has to be a broader definition of what economic development really is,” he said. “To think it’s all about building is a mistake other communities have made and are now readdressing by building parks.”

Kemp also said the assumption that the new building will help downtown is just that -- an assumption that the building will be successful.

“That money could be generated by building elsewhere,” he said. “There’s other lots they can build. I don’t think the park needs to be destroyed to generate the money.”

And like everyone else in Grand Forks -- whether they’re for or against construction -- Kemp has his eye on Tuesday.

“It’s up to the people now.”

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