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Viewpoint: Two strong visions on Arbor Park

On Tuesday, June 20, the people of Grand Forks will vote on whether to preserve Arbor Park or develop the lot for condos and retail space. You can vote at the Alerus Center on the 20th or get an absentee ballot during business hours at the Grand ...

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On Tuesday, June 20, the people of Grand Forks will vote on whether to preserve Arbor Park or develop the lot for condos and retail space. You can vote at the Alerus Center on the 20th or get an absentee ballot during business hours at the Grand Forks County Courthouse and vote there.

The conflict is between two strong visions of the best use of the lot at 115 S. 4th Street.

The development position holds that big-box retail is losing market share to internet sales. If Grand Forks doesn't diversify its investments, our economy will stagnate. On the other hand, the vision of those in favor of the park is that it should be preserved as a symbol of recovery from the flood. They believe the park itself is a work of art and a sacred ground that needs to be preserved and cherished.

USAGE: There is some skepticism about how much the park is actually used. However, some observers report significant usage.

People use the park for weddings and receptions, professional photoshoots and high school graduation photos. The Red Sand Project and Agassiz Reading Council held well attended events there last year. Daycare groups utilize the park frequently. In addition to scheduled events, people enjoy its ambiance eating their lunch, reading, using the little free library or taking work breaks. It's also a destination to show visitors from out of town.

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FINANCIAL MATTERS: The developers argue that the new building will generate more than $100,000 in property taxes annually once the initial five-year tax abatement period has ended. That would amount to a tax savings of $5.70 for anyone owning a home worth $200,000.

DENSITY: One of the arguments for development is that a vibrant downtown needs more people to live and work there. None of the people who want to save Arbor Park disagree with that goal. The disagreement is about location and whether it is worthwhile to sacrifice a historic asset for a new asset.

WHAT IS GAINED? The pro-development side makes three arguments. First, Grand Forks would get a five-story building designed by one of the most talented architecture firms in the Midwest. It would have three floors of condos, a fourth floor of either housing or office space, a main floor for commercial retail and parking in a sub-level. There would be about 16 one-bedrooms (about $300,000 each), six two-bedrooms (about $400,000 each) and one penthouse (more than $500,000).

Second, this building would mark an important contribution to urban living and a vibrant downtown. The pro-development people see themselves as pro-growth and this building as an important statement about the future of Grand Forks.

Third, the high end of young professionals the developers want to attract will certainly fill up the bars and restaurants downtown. They will also swell the ranks of interesting downtown events (Alley Alive, Art and Wine Walk). But they will not do much to expand retail sales. Thirty well-to-do people will not make downtown a shopping destination. But, the developers argue, if this development is successful, more development will follow.

WHAT IS LOST? Those who want to save the park also make three claims. One, that the park itself is a work of art which will be destroyed by the construction of a building. The park was laid out by a Park District horticulturist. The walkways represent the Red and the Red Lake Rivers which flow around the central tree sculpture. That sculpture has four metal trees cast from the trees outside the Twin Cities residence of George Winship, original publisher of the Grand Forks Herald. The trees entwine at the top, giving a chapel-like effect, which has attracted many couples to be married under its branches.

Second, they argue that it's a flood memorial, almost sacred ground. There are huge blocks hand carved by stonemasons in 1900 buried along the walkway that were recovered from burned-down buildings. Some of the artwork is made from the materials taken from flooded homes that had to be torn down. The park symbolizes the death and rebirth of Grand Forks.

And the third reason to save the park is that so many people love it. The Save the Park petitioners got well over 4,600 signatures to force this public vote.

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IF DEVELOPMENT WINS: The City says it will move quickly to bring those interested to the table with an eye toward establishing a permanent flood memorial park.

IF ARBOR WINS: The city should immediately meet with developers to determine what incentives would be useful to encourage development on other city owned or private lots or redevelopment of privately owned buildings. And the Park District should install signage which tells the full story of the park, which many users do not know.

It is 19 days before the vote. Question, argue, debate. Both sides stand ready to talk with you one-on-one or make presentations to your group. By the evening of the 20th, city leaders will have their instructions.

Eliot Glassheim is a former state lawmaker from Grand Forks. He writes a regular column for the Herald.

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