Saturday, February 14, 2009

More on that railyard redevelopment...

 A few months ago, I introduced my idea (pipedream?) of redeveloping the BNSF railyards in the center of Grand Forks. I really do see this as sort of Grand Forks' manifest destiny.  If we could somehow reroute the railroad outside of the present city limits, we would have a vast swath of land located directly between UND and the downtown area.  Think of just how Grand Forks could be transformed if we could develop a new mixed-use neighborhood right in the heart if the city.


Incredibly ambitious?  For sure.  A project of such a scale that much larger cities would cringe at the costs and work involved?  Probably.  Impossible?  Never.  The nation's economy may have soured and the local economy - a bright spot in the country - may not be what it was a year or two ago, but times will eventually change.  Why not start planning now for an ambitious future that could be on our doorstep.  For that matter, I'm not entirely sure that the current economic conditions would be entirely prohibitive for a project like this.  Money will soon be flowing out of Washington for projects not so different than this.  Could this current stimulus bill or a future outlay of federal funds play a role in a railyard redevelopment project for Grand Forks?  You never know.

After all, a project like I'm talking about would put many people to work for many, many years.  Of course there are almost insurmountable obstacles in the way of such a total redevelopment of the railyards.  Rerouting the rails would probably cost tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars.  Then there would be many properties that would need to be acquired.  Also, an extensive network of streets and utilities would have to be put in place.  Look at the possible street network that I've come up with...


A street system like that (three or four miles in total) would cost a small fortune.  In all, I think my previous "$100 million dollar" talk was a little short-sighted.  We're probably talking several times that.  Of course, not all of this would have to be done in one big swoop of construction.  The railyards would have to be rerouted and the existing rails would have to be removed before new construction could take place, but the street system could be built gradually over time.

Also, we're not talking about one entity hear.  I'm talking about a group of parties including the city, the county, the state, UND, BNSF, the federal government, local developers, banks, private investors, and who knows who else.  In fact, the biggest obstacle probably wouldn't be the cost...I think it would be the years of work it could take to bring all of the parties together and get them to work for the same outcome.

In a future post, I'll show you just how I would divide up all that land.  Let me know what you think about my ideas (and the realities) of how Grand Forks might go about redeveloping the BNSF railyards.

10 comments:

Doc said...

Has anyone ever had a conversation with BNSF? I don't think so because if someone had, they would realize that BNSF holds most of the cards and they aren't folding. I don't want to sound negative, and I know people are going to say that we can at least have this conversation. Well, what is the point?

Nancy Devine said...

I love considering all the possibilities. How do we make them happen?

JWGreen said...

BNSF holds the cards, but if they didn't have to worry about slowing down for the city limits, maintaining all of the crossings including one overpass, and had their aging red river bridge replaced for them, I'm sure they'd fold.

GrandForksGuy said...

I think the major costs involved here would be rerouting the BNSF tracks and tearing up the old tracks. The other costs (streets, utilities, the buildings that would make up the redevelopment) could be built slowly over time and could be funded by many different parties. Does anyone have ANY idea what it would cost to reroute the railyards and tear up the old?

Just some of the questions that this idea brings up: Even if they relocated the railyards, would BNSF still need to run at least one set of tracks through town? If the tracks were removed entirely, how would the State Mill access the railroad? What would become of the old railroad bridge? Would the tracks be rerouted north of town? Would it be ok to build railyards that weren't inside of the city's dike system? Would there be environmental concerns about building structures on top of former railyards? If the railroad was entirely removed from within the city, what would be the purpose of keeping the Columbia Road Overpass or the DeMers Avenue Skyway as elevated roadways? If the railyards were removed, would UND be willing to play a key role in redeveloping the land?

So much potential here, but so many unanswered questions.

JWGreen said...

We would need tracks to the UND steam plant, but that could come from the west and end right at the steam plant. Tracks to the mill could come in from the north.

dale said...

BNSF holds the cards, but if they didn't have to worry about slowing down for the city limits, maintaining all of the crossings including one overpass, and had their aging red river bridge replaced for them, I'm sure they'd fold.

Only as regards trains that come through Grand Forks and go directly on, without stopping for any reason. I don't spend a lot of time downtown, so I don't know how often trains are going across the river, and it's probably impossible to determine whether any of them just go straight through the train yards without stopping to pick up or drop off crew and/or cars, but I suspect that the number is pretty low.

One of the biggest challenges would be finding all of the land to replace the existing yards, as well as the existing routes. The city certainly doesn't own it, and I'm not sure whether you could use eminent domain to acquire land to replace something that doesn't really need replacing. Even if it was possible to find appropriate property for sale, the cost would most likely be prohibitive.

The University could more economically expand by buying up all the residential space between the Coulee and Columbia, north of University Avenue (if they needed to, and they don't really seem to need to,) and there doesn't seem to be much demand for building space on Demers Avenue.

Even if Grand Forks was a booming city running up against some physical limitations (like a mountain,) this would probably be impractical. As an incrementally growing community with nothing but space to the south, west and north, while it may seem an eyesore that would be better served somewhere else, there's no way you could justify the outlandish expense it would easily require.

Matthew said...

I still like this idea, and I would love to see it come together, but I'm not a big fan of adding all those cross-streets in and filling them with buildings.

Ideally, I think there should be more NS streets than exist now (easy to do), but that center area (and including the RR bridge over S. Washington) should be devoted to greenspace, making it essentially a long string of parks that are connected by underpasses below the NS cross streets. This would enable the sort of movement that is available on the Greenway at present, but EW through the city, from Downtown to UND and back.

Giving this sort of greenspace to the city promotes alternative transportation (walking, or cycling to work or school) and gives those existing neighborhoods access to the whole length of the new area (where I think we've discussed extending downtown commercial areas as well as upper-story housing) as well as the existing DeMers corridor, which could grow to be less industrial and more integrated commercial/residential space.

The more I think about this idea, the more I like it. Just don't be so quick to fill in the new space with streets and houses!

GrandForksGuy said...

"Ideally, I think there should be more NS streets than exist now (easy to do), but that center area (and including the RR bridge over S. Washington) should be devoted to greenspace, making it essentially a long string of parks that are connected by underpasses below the NS cross streets. This would enable the sort of movement that is available on the Greenway at present, but EW through the city, from Downtown to UND and back."

I agree that greenspace would be an important element of any railyard redevelopment, but the project wouldn't have ANY chance of becoming a reality if the only thing that replaced the railyards was greenspace. The city, UND, developers, etc would have to put a lot of money and effort into trying to move the railyards and their reward would be a huge swath of land that could become a new "city center" of sorts (not replacing downtown...adding to it) that would be filled with apartment buildings, stores, restaurants, UND buildings, etc. These entities aren't going to put all the money and effort into getting the land simply to put in a big park.

Still, I would totally agree that a system of vehicle-free trails connecting the new neighborhood with the campus and downtown would be a very important part of the plan...but they can't be the totality of the plan. I too would like to see a long park running east-west...possibly along the old (current) train track route. The reason why I would like to see a grid system put into place here would be to make the new neighborhood mesh in with downtown and the rest of the traditional city-core area. A classic grid system would make the neighborhood seem urban and dense and it would also lessen traffic on Columbia and Washington Street. Perhaps we could do something along the lines of removing every other north-south street so we would be left with rectangular blocks instead of square blocks...that would eliminate quite a few pedestrian crossings and make the area a bit safer for those walking or bicycling.

I would think that the current rail overpass at Washington would be a PERFECT pedestrian/bicycle bridge connecting downtown with the new neighborhood/UND. I don't think that bridge is wide enough for a two-way street so a non-vehicular bridge would be perfect there. Course, this path we're talking about could run right by Smiley...but then again Smiley won't live to see any of this happen. ::getting a little teary eyed::

Matthew said...

I agree with most of your comments. I think that every other street crossing the long park would work out fine, but I still think that an even better approach would be to design ramped pedestrian underpasses into the path system, to avoid pedestrian traffic on those streets altogether.

What really separates a good park from a strip of grass is the lack of cars, and I think it could be done. Grand Forks could show that it IS possible to have a decent park/trail/greenway system within a downtown area. Judging by the way things seem to sprawl in cities, I think it's a good idea to get these quality of life aspects in place at the very beginning.

Basement Chard said...

GFGuy, this has been a pipe dream of mine as well. You may know that an architect by the name of Scott Meland proposed this back in the late 90's. There are of course a ton of questions and it really is a pipe dream, no doubt about it. But, it would be a great way to connect campus and downtown, make the city more compact and livable and reduce sprawl.

However, why does it have to be so complicated. Couple things to consider:

Do we have to remove all the tracks? Seems to me that if we just moved the railyard to the industrial park (city just purchased more land out there), one track could still be kept to serve UND and the sugar beet plant.

I think one track, fenced off to keep people away from it would work. Next to the fenced off track could be a BRT line. BRT is Bus Rapid Transit. It would be a line that could run really fast w/o interference from traffic between downtown, campus, Altru and the Alerus. Next to the BRT road, there would be a thin stretch of green space with a multi-use pedestrian trail. The rest would be open to private mixed use development.

The feds are focused on energy and efficiency at the moment. I think within the next ten years the focus will move to land use. Less subsidy of sprawl and more federal funds available for infill development and brownfield rehabilitation (which this site would qualify for).