Tuesday, April 10, 2007

A bigger and better downtown

With all of the new housing construction taking place downtown and with the increased number of restaurants, bars, and retail establishments opening in the city’s center, I’ve started thinking about the future of downtown Grand Forks. Slowly, empty properties and parking lots downtown are starting to be redeveloped (Flood Memorial Park turned into “Elite Brownstones” development, North Third Street parking lot turned into “The Current” apartments) and empty buildings are being filled. I’m crossing my fingers that this is a trend which will continue.

With new construction and more people coming downtown, we are going to start to run out of room for new developments. Maybe not this year, maybe not five years from now, but eventually we will run out of room, in my opinion. In the few blocks that currently constitute the existing downtown core, there are increasingly fewer and fewer empty areas that can be developed. So, if downtown continues to grow and if developers continue to show an interest in developing new properties in the city center, things are going to have to change downtown. In my opinion, we are going to have to redefine the geographic area we think of as downtown. To put it simply, downtown is going to have to get bigger in size.

My proposal...
I would like to see an effort made to redevelop several city blocks which sit west of the immediate downtown area. The area I’m referring to is bounded on the east by the downtown commercial area, on the north by University Avenue, on the west by North Washington Street, and on the south by the rail yards. I think that this area is a long-term solution for the fact that downtown, as it currently exists, may be too small for the Grand Forks of the future.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not proposing that every property in this area be bought out and demolished. That would be akin to the urban renewal of the 1960s and 70s and that is not what I have in mind here. Instead, I would like to see an entity (be it the city of Grand Forks or private investors/developers) buy properties in this area as they become available. Then I would like to see the properties thoughtfully redeveloped into new uses which will compliment and add to what we already have downtown.

Think about the possibilities that such an area could hold for downtown. These city blocks could be redeveloped with apartment buildings, office buildings, mixed-use developments, and retail/entertainment ventures. This area currently houses a small amount of commercial property, some light industrial uses, and a couple of blocks of older housing. In my opinion, this area is filled with low density developments which could potentially be replaced with higher density developments. With proper planning, we could essentially double the area that we think of as the immediate downtown area and downtown could stretch from the Red River to North Washington Street.

A gradual redevelopment like the one I’m proposing would have to be done very thoughtfully and great attention would have to be paid to detail. Clearly, there are several properties in the area (Warehouse and Freight House Apartments, etc.) which already add to the historic downtown area and I would never want to see buildings like those demolished. Also, the proper density would have to be achieved in this area. I wouldn’t want to see any one-story buildings here. They should be a minimum of two stories and, ideally, I would also like to see a few taller buildings. Another important aspect of any such redevelopment that comes to mind is that the new developments would have to be built to closely match the style of downtown. Buildings should come right up to the sidewalk...that should be enough of a setback and would help the new area blend in with the old part of downtown. Also, obviously the architecture of new developments should compliment what we already have downtown.

Let's think about it, ok?
So there it is…my proposal for a future downtown twice the size of the existing one. This area could hold huge potential for more downtown residents, more downtown employers, and more downtown retail and entertainment opportunities. If we really want to grow into a great “destination city” we need an active, growing downtown and I think this is the most logical way to take downtown Grand Forks to the next level. You’re probably bored after reading this, but I really wish that you - as well as those people in places of power - would at least think over my ideas. I think this could work and I think it would be a phenomenal addition to downtown and the city of Grand Forks.

29 comments:

vcsuvike said...

I would like to see Central High School finally get their own football field. Wouldn't it be great to watch them play downtown? Someone could develop the old civic auditorium into an ethnic foods market.

GrandForksGuy said...

I've always thought some sort of grocery store would be a great fit in the civic auditorium. As far as a football field, great idea. I think this was actually mentioned in one of the post-flood plans for downtown (as well as a new baseball park), but nothing came of it. A downtown football field would also be a great venue for other community events. It could work great for outdoor concerts.

Matthew said...

As long as that football field is inside a track, I'm all for it.

Anonymous said...

Applauding your ideas, but a couple of points:

If downtown is going to grow, the two most attractive ways are "up" -meaning buildings with more than 4 stories - or along the Greenway/Red River. People want a view and they want green space. A downtown expanding west toward North Washington makes sense to a city planner but it doesn't necessarily appeal to condo buyers or as office space. Seemingly, they'd choose the Ralph area or SW.

Two areas that always seemed prime for urban development are around the water plant / post office (especially after the water plant is rebuilt in the industrial park) and the area around St. Anne's home / Simonson's lumber yard (good road access combined with Greenway access, and some architectural identity with St. Anne's). Both of these, if combined with residential, office, retail, could be mini-neighborhoods in and of themselves, offer views and access to the greenway, and offer alternate access routes rather than Demers.

dale said...

I agree with anon -- I'd rather see downtown (or what passes for downtown) stretch north-south along the river, with taller buildings. I'd rather look out of my office or condo window and see the Greenway than look at the train yard.

On that last item, that would be the one thing I'd change in the city if "blinking your eyes" was an option -- move the train yard out of town and have a north or south rail bypass.

Matthew said...

Anything to move the trains out of town is A-1 in my book...although I would miss taking photos of the graffiti.

I agree with most of what Dale and Anonymous said.

mattfacingsouth said...

Dale,

North Bypass, please :-)

I think it'd work better logistically, anyway. In fact, wasn't there a rail line across the northern end years ago?

Anonymous said...

As I seem to recall about a north end rail line, it ran about 1/2 block north of Highway 2 to close to the Kennedy bridge, then crossed Hwy 2 and followed sort of along the river, the Chamber of Commerce(??) was a small depot and then crossed the river in EGF.

You'd want something more north than that I think.

Otherwise, along the river/Greenway would be the best way to expand downtown. That's where a lot of the major development in downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul is oriented.

GJB

webmasterzero said...

My friend Jason (Schaefer) had a great talk about the situation DWNTN GF is in last time here visited me.

His ideas are similar to what you have stated already, but not at such a large scale.

A growing city doesn't always have to center at a downtown, but we've already invested so much money in the city after the flood, doing small beautification projects, that it makes absolutely no sense to let the area "go to waste".

His proposal was to extend the downtown area west (as you have stated), and utilize existing housing to create a sort of Warehouse District, along the north side of DeMers. In this situation, you have adequate space to build new, but also have exisiting space to redevelop properties to fit with the neighborhood plan. Since there are already "warehouse" style buildings with occupants, it just makes sense to develop commercial and much more residential around this area.

Another proposal was to extend downtown south along the riverfront by building 3-4 story condos. Parking would all be located on the lowest floor of the building, and the remaining floors would encompass living space. This way, it would be much easier to sell units to prospective buyers because of location, and also nice views. Balconies included, overlooking the EGF skyline (heh, skyline).

Any growth north of the city will be difficult to come by, although I can't imagine developers just dismissing the potential on face value. The north side of GF has a ton of possibility, but has already been developed primarily as industrial with some residential. It would have to be far enough north of Grand Forks to really get away from the industrial feel, for any developers to get interested, and all that is farmland now.

I'm disappointed by all the growth in a south direction in GF. It's such a waste of space to not go west, but then again, we're facing the same situation that the northside is facing. Too close to industrial, and not close enough to good, stable retail.

Anyway, my two ½

webmasterzero said...

Also, I think it makes sense to develop toward the west because of all the possibilites along DeMers, and that corridor.

Let's say if it was redeveloped, the existing parking lots and businesses were surrounded by 3+ story buildings with retail on the first floor. The remaining floors would be residential. The increase in density would be an incredible boom for the businesses downtown, regardless of their location (in my opinion), because you would be within walking distance to everything (except a huge grocery store). Any sort of entertainment could be found within a few blocks.

This has always been the downfall of downtown. Not enough living space followed up by stable retail to support it.

GrandForksGuy said...

I can understand why some people think it would be better for downtown to expand north and south instead of west, but I think expanding west would be easier and connecting downtown directly to Washington has some great possibilities. The city blocks north and south of downtown are filled with historic homes, many on the national register. Most of the developments west of downtown (in the area I'm talking about) are small houses and blighted light industrial and limited commercial. I really think it would be easier to convince people to expand downtown to the west.

If I had a billion dollars, I would reroute the rail yards north of town. That would open up a huge swath of land that cuts through the city. The western part of the old rail yards could be developed by the currently land-locked UND, the eastern part could be part of my proposal for an expanded downtown, and the area in the middle could be a mixed-use neighborhood that would directly connect the expanded UND to the expanded downtown. One big downtown/university neighborhood streching from the Red River to I-29. Now THAT would be cool. If I had a billion dollars...

Matthew said...

I'd agree with the Uni/Downtown connection, if you had a billion dollars to implement that. It would make life a lot more exciting.




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www.dakotaroar.com

Anonymous said...

You would have to get rid of the coal power plant at UND first.

mattfacingsouth said...

That'd relieve a lot of N-S traffic issues as well.

Anonymous said...

"One big downtown/university neighborhood streching from the Red River to I-29..."

Isn't that kind of what University Avenue is/can be?

Anonymous said...

Part of the consistent problem is the thinking "east/west" or "north/south" expansion. Why do we need to always expand out?!

We are chewing up some of the greatest farmland in the world by expanding outward, when we don't need to. We can build up! What would be nice is something that goes beyond the 3 or 4 floor building, too. There is nothing illegal about building higher - why not actually build some structures that would be even more noticable on the flat prairie drive-in to the town. I'm not talking skyscraper heights, but I am suggesting something beyond 10 floors. The most notable building in Grand Forks, as you drive in from the south I-29, is the Columbia Heights condos.

Grand Forks planning - out do the Columbia Heights and go with tall, modern, technologically updated infrastructure buildings in the downtown. Visitors will be curious and might even come downtown to see what's going on.

vcsuvike said...

I have to agree abut the tall buildings. I recently visited Rochester, MN, and the tall buildings downtown make the city seem alive and very large. A couple taller buildings would be awesome.

GrandForksGuy said...

I would love to see Grand Forks grown up and not just out. Still, I think we have to come to the conclusion that, even if we can convince developers to build taller buildings, there is always (at least for the forseeable future) going to be a desire to spread outwards as well. I see downtown Grand Forks spreading outwards AND going upwards. Over time, I think we will see more and more tall buildings in town, but I think it will take time.

I would love to see a few tall "signature" buildings downtown. Remember that tall buildings also have to have a decent sized piece of land. I don't think the current downtown area is suited for too many tall buildings. I don't want to see any more historic buildings town down and I also think it would look kind of silly to see a 10-20 story building sitting amongst 2-5 story buildings. I think the most logical space for tall buildings near the city's center is on the western fringes of downtown. We already have the US Bank (Metropolitan) building in that area and there is plenty of available land there to build even taller buildings. It seems like the perfect place for at least a couple of ten story buildings.

think, over time, we will see developments like this come to pass. Maybe sooner than we think.

Matthew said...

As much as I would love to see some interesting 'tall' architecture here in GF, you might also want to consider that we're sitting on 400-800 feet of dirt before you hit rock. With the problems they are having with the UND parking garage going up, I'd be a little worried about setting out to build a 10 story building that might just decide to fall over.

ben said...

matthew,
there are several buildings in town that are actually quite higher than 10 stories...the new canad, columbia towers, the state mill, and both the alerus and engelstad are approx. 10 stories from top to bottom. (and the county office building is 7 or 8 if I am not mistaken) I would think that architects must have come up with a solution, especially since Winnipeg's soil would be very much the same. As you know, they have lots of buildings much higher than 10 stories.
Unfortunately, I don't see those types of buildings coming to GF anytime soon. There is still open space in the existing buildings downtown and some open spaces on the edges of downtown. The 10+ story buildings are VERY expensive, and most likely cost prohibitive for most developers. That being said, I was very dissapointed that the Elite Brownstones were only two stories. Since they all sold prior to costruction even beginning, one would think they could have doubled the units to a four or five story building...

Matthew said...

I believe Winnipeg is sitting on Ordovician rocks, but I get your point.

I was really surprised when I first saw those new apartments going up--why would they stop at two stories?

Anonymous said...

GFG, has it occured to you that before there's "high rises", there needs to be demand for them?

ec99 said...

"GFG, has it occured to you that before there's "high rises", there needs to be demand for them?"

Looking at the map, it seems the demand will come from all the people living there who apparently will pushed out by the project.

Anonymous said...

Downtown would be great if it were larger, it just seems too small for the city. Also, it would be nice to see some more foot traffic goin on! But all this dreaming and no talkin needs to come to an end. I think someone should go to the city council and talk to someone about this!

Anonymous said...

We need to go through with this plan and make it happen It would be nice to see some taller building but the city council cares more about the growth of 32nd ave. Sure the Brownstones will bring some residency and foot traffic, but the dang thing is two stories high for heavens sake! Also, The Brownstones and "The Current" Apartments are are a nice addition but there's no parking for the tenants for crying out loud. Where the heck are they going to park?

Anonymous said...

Someone please respond to the above comment, I want to know your opinions as well.

Matthew said...

Woonerf.

http://seedmagazine.com/news/2006/12/where_the_sidewalk_ends.php

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/22/international/europe/22monderman.html?pagewanted=1&ei=5090&en=df658c80f6f9ed20&ex=1264136400&partner=rssuserland

http://dir.salon.com/story/tech/feature/2004/05/20/traffic_design/index.html?pn=2

This is how I would like to see downtown.

Yes, I know snow removal would be a problem.

Anonymous said...

well dag nabbit you yella bellyd nincompoops dezurve 2 hav dawntawn barned

Anonymous said...

yep, why not raise the taxes some more.