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More Downtown Housing on the Way

Grand Forks Herald

July 17, 2011

By Ryan Schuster

Construction of a new four-story building has risen out of the rubble of the former Civic Auditorium on the western edge of downtown Grand Forks.

The $6.2 million, Northern Heights at Griggs Square is slated to open in August on the site of the former venerable events center. The building will feature 53 apartment units, a restaurant, commercial space and an underground parking structure.

Across the street, on what was formerly a parking lot next to the GuestHouse International hotel, foundation work is beginning for a second apartment complex. The more than $5.5 million, three-story 40-unit The Aurora at Griggs Square will include a fitness room, an outdoor deck overlooking a plaza and separate green space with an outdoor playground.

City leaders hope the two developments will serve as a catalyst for future commercial growth downtown. The projects also provide more downtown housing options.

“We believe that by creating this housing on what is kind of the fringe of downtown, we will be able to add people and help spur further retail and commercial development downtown,” said Greg Hoover, the city’s urban development director.

City officials also are mulling plans for a nearby rainwater and sculpture garden that would serve as a symbolic gateway to downtown just east of the DeMers Avenue railroad overpass. Future improvements to the surrounding neighborhood are expected as part of a strategic plan covering an area that extends between DeMers Avenue and University Avenue from east of the railroad tracks to the Red River.

“We want to contribute to the city’s vision for the redevelopment of the old Civic area by creating something that is exciting,” said Randall Schold, co-president of St. Paul-based MetroPlains LLC, the development firm behind the Aurora at Griggs Square project. “From the beginning of the idea stage, (the city) really made it clear that they wanted to create something unique and special — something that would be different than what’s available in other areas of town.”

Following in the footsteps of the successful Elite Brownstones condo project and The Current apartments — another MetroPlains project — the two complexes are already generating attention.

All but one of the 53 apartments in the Northern Heights at Griggs Square complex have already been rented.

“There was a need for more housing downtown,” said Kevin Ritterman, president of Grand Forks-based Dakota Commercial and Development, which developed the project. “We tried to help fill that void.”

Devils Lake-based MetroPlains Management, which is affiliated with the developer, will manage the Aurora at Griggs Square project, slated to open in January. The company has not started formally marketing the apartments, but it already has received inquiries.

Hoover said construction is also in the beginning stages on a new building in the 500 block of University Avenue, behind the Clear Channel office, that will include nine apartments for Prairie Harvest Mental Health clients, as well as space for providing mental health services.

Future Development
More residents are expected to lead to more downtown development.

The construction of the two complexes already has led to an unidentified restaurant signing a letter of intent to occupy space on the first floor of the Northern Heights building. Dakota Commercial and Development is also relocating its office from a commercial strip mall next to the Ralph Engelstad Arena to the ground floor of the building.

“This will create more traffic downtown,” Ritterman said. “It will get more people living downtown, shopping downtown.”

In addition to the new housing stimulating more commercial development, it could also be “the first steps in a plan that could offer even more housing in the future,” Schold said.

Developers and city officials will need to be creative to add more, high-density housing downtown, as there are few empty lots left. Existing buildings, such as the old YWCA — once marked for housing — could hold the key to adding more residents.

“Downtown is pretty well filled up,” Hoover said. “But there are some areas left for conversion.”

One, often-mentioned item on downtown residents’ wish list — a small grocery store — may have to wait.

Amazing Grains sells groceries, but some downtown residents would like to see more food shopping options downtown.

Hoover said he suspects the potential future addition of a scaled-back grocery store is a ways off.

Supermarket experts have said downtown would need to have significantly more residents to make such an enterprise cost effective.

“The missing piece is a grocery store,” Ritterman said. “But I don’t think it will ever happen. They need to have significant numbers to make it work.”

Parking Problem?
Parking was one concern addressed when city officials were considering what to do with the old Civic and the parking lot across the street, which was used by Central High students during the school year.

By early next year, both sites will house apartment and mixed-use apartment and commercial space.

Alternative arrangements have been made for students, including leasing 165 parking spots in the parking ramp across from the school. The city is working with school officials to identify other parking options during construction at the school, as well as long-term.

Both new buildings will have parking for residents.

The Northern Heights project will have 30 spots in an underground garage and another 55 spots in a lot near U.S. Bank.

Employees from Dakota Commercial and the future restaurant will park in the GuestHouse International’s lot through an arrangement with the hotel, Ritterman said.

A surface parking lot behind The Aurora complex will contain 57 spots.

Ritterman said adding 93 new apartment units and additional parking needed for new commercial development could make it tough to find a spot in the immediate area.

Still, finding a parking spot is much easier in downtown Grand Forks than in larger metropolitan areas with higher-density housing and more attractions.

If residents want more housing, shopping and dining options downtown, some level of parking inconvenience can be expected. Studies have repeatedly shown the area has enough parking for residents, businesses and shoppers if drivers use downtown parking ramps.

“There is sufficient parking downtown,” said Hoover of the city’s urban development department. “It just isn’t always right in front of someone’s place of business, which we have become accustomed to here. People may have to walk a block or two.”

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