When the Need to Develop Trumps Public Art

Jason Schaefer is a Strong Towns member who currently lives in southern Utah but is originally from Grand Forks, ND. This guest article is published as part of Public Art Week.

Public art can play a crucial role in revitalizing a neighborhood or community. There’s a small art park in my hometown of Grand Forks, ND that perfectly illustrates this. In fact, the park did such a good job of helping to revitalize the downtown that there is now a proposal for an $8 million mixed-use condo development on that space. Quite impressive for a college town of 60,000 people.

While I am a big believer in the importance of public art and green space, I support the idea of developing the parcel. Before I explain why I think development is the best approach, let me tell you about Arbor Park and the key role it has played in revitalizing downtown Grand Forks.

The Red River Flood

We need to go back to the spring of 1997. Twenty years ago, the Red River flooded the cities of Grand Forks (ND) and East Grand Forks (MN). Downtown buildings were inundated with 5 feet of water.

The Sorlie Bridge between Grand Forks, North Dakota, and East Grand Forks, Minnesota, during the 1997 Red River flood. (Source:  Wikimedia )

The Sorlie Bridge between Grand Forks, North Dakota, and East Grand Forks, Minnesota, during the 1997 Red River flood. (Source: Wikimedia)

Over 50,000 people were evacuated in what was the largest civilian evacuation of an American city since the Civil War (up until Hurricane Katrina). In the midst of the flooding and evacuation, a fire broke out downtown. Ultimately, eleven buildings in Downtown Grand Forks suffered damage. Many had to be demolished.

Source:  FEMA

Source: FEMA

After the flood, downtown had a post-apocalyptic look to it.

Source:  UND

Source: UND

The city suffered significant population loss and the downtown was in need of a massive cleanup. It was so bad, in fact, that some leaders in the community literally suggested abandoning the downtown and moving the center of the city to the south end of town (the mall and big box district). Fortunately, this suggestion was not heeded. 

Instead, visionary community leaders, with the help of federal disaster recovery funds, began the long process of bringing downtown back to life. One of the biggest challenges was the loss of businesses. It took time to rehab buildings and remove debris from the flood. Even when buildings were brought back up to par, they often sat empty waiting for tenants as businesses had either relocated to other parts of town or simply closed up for good (bear in mind that many small business owners not only saw their businesses flooded, but also their homes).

Arbor Park

The large vacant lots left over from buildings that had burnt down in the fire presented another challenge. It was decided (rightly so) that some of these vacant lots should become pocket parks as there was not a market at the time for more commercial units due to the high vacancy rate.

One of those pocket parks was Arbor Park. Arbor is generally considered to be the best and most iconic of the pocket parks. It truly is a well-executed public space. Not only is there contoured green space perfect for laying in the grass and reading a book, but there are a bunch of cool sculptures including the iconic namesake Arbor sculpture in the center of the park.

And since it’s a well designed public space, people have embraced it wholeheartedly. Weddings, senior pictures, hanging out on the lawn, coffee with friends at one of the tables, enjoying the sculptures, grabbing a book from the little free library, taking snaps... you name it. People love this park and have grown very attached to it.

How attached? Well, when it was announced that the city was accepting proposals to develop the parcel, supporters organized a petition drive and collected over 4,000 signatures to save the park. The development will now be up for a public vote.

It makes sense that people have a deep emotional attachment to the place. They’ve been married there; they’ve had their first kiss there; they’ve had their art showcased there. It has deep and profound meaning for people. That’s the magic of great public spaces and public art.

The case for developing Arbor Park

If you would have asked me a few years ago, I would have said, leave Arbor Park as it is. However, as I’ve learned more about downtown development and had a chance to serve on the board of our Downtown Development Association, I've gained a greater appreciation for the importance of people downtown.

The reason the traditional development pattern is superior to and more enduring than the suburban experiment is that it is designed around people.

The reason the traditional development pattern is superior to and more enduring than the suburban experiment is that it is designed around people. Now, you may be asking yourself, ‘isn’t a public space like Arbor park designed around people?’

Of course it is. But there’s a hierarchy of needs and a local context to factor in. While it is important to design for people and have places where they can linger and gather, it is also important to have people there in the first place—particularly people living and working in the neighborhood.

That’s the issue in Grand Forks. Downtown Grand Forks has an abundance of public spaces. There are two other pocket parks connected to Arbor Park. Within a block, there is also a Town Square that hosts events like the Farmers Market and a blues concert series. And less than a block from that is the Community Green - a gorgeous riverfront park space that is connected to the enormous 2,200 acre Greenway (twice the size of Central Park in New York). There are numerous other public art installations and pocket parks scattered about downtown. Suffice it to say, Grand Forks has plenty of green space downtown. It is far from a concrete jungle.

Arbor is the most conducive to development out of all the pocket parks in Grand Forks. It is the largest of the pocket parcels and directly across the street from a public parking ramp. Furthermore, there are no egresses or windows facing the park from the adjacent buildings, so developing it wouldn't affect the other properties. That’s not the case with the other parks.

Source: City of Grand Forks

Source: City of Grand Forks

Looking at downtown Grand Forks from a people-centered perspective, the biggest unmet need is a critical mass of people living and working downtown. A wide-range of housing options is essential for a downtown to reach its potential and for small businesses downtown to survive and thrive. One block of typical Main Street retail requires 1,000 to 2,000 units of housing within a 10-15 minute walk.

And that's just for one block's worth. Grand Forks barely has the 1-2,000 units to support a block of retail, much less the entire downtown, which is why developments such as the one proposed for the Arbor parcel are of critical importance for downtown businesses.

In addition, downtown plays an important and strategic role for economic development. If downtown stagnates, Grand Forks will not compete for talent successfully in the 21st century knowledge-based economy. While I was on the Downtown Development Association board, I remember a meeting with economic development staff in which they noted that companies looking to bring high-paying, professional-level jobs into Grand Forks expressed concern about the lack of housing options downtown. That’s because today's young professionals prefer urban living.

Then there is the fiscal argument which Strong Towns readers are very familiar with. Developing the Arbor parcel would be a boon to taxpayers, as it costs $20,000 a year to maintain that parcel as a park. The proposed development, on the other hand, would generate tens of thousands of dollars a year in property tax revenue, plus sales taxes from the commercial tenants and spending by residents.

Also, because downtown development doesn't require costly new infrastructure on the edges of town, taxpayers reap more value per acre. The development at Arbor would be the most valuable building downtown (per acre), yielding well over $20 million per acre compared to about $1 million for a typical Big Box store.

Arbor Park has done its job. Downtown Grand Forks has seen a renaissance—a true rebirth from the flood of '97. Now it's time for the next phase. And that means developing the lot to bring more people, more businesses and more energy to downtown.

That being said, considering how much Arbor Park means to people, it is important that the development is done well. The winning proposal is excellent and gets many things right. It includes condos - the most unmet sector of housing downtown. More importantly, it features a walkway that would include art and maintain the public connection from the sidewalk on 4th St to the Alley of Love and adjacent pocket parks. The development's website includes an excellent video highlighting the proposal.

Local context matters

Please don’t construe any of what I've written above to mean that I don’t respect or appreciate the role of public art and green space, nor that I believe development always trumps public art or green space. Far from it. This is all about context. In the case of my hometown, there is an overabundance of park space and a shortage of housing options - particularly for professionals.

That may not be the case in your community. You may have a situation where an art park like Arbor would be incredibly useful in addressing a lack of green space or a lack of public art. In the case of a neighborhood that is densely developed and has a neglected public realm, a nice green space with public art could change it from a sterile place, foreboding to people, into one that is inviting and dynamic.

Public art is absolutely vital. But its role and placement may change and evolve along with our communities.

Just like our neighborhoods and communities, public art needs to be adaptable. As Strong Towns founder, Chuck Marohn, often notes, a key part of being a strong and resilient city or neighborhood is the ability to adapt and change. The traditional development pattern (unlike the suburban style) is easily adaptable. Perhaps we need to consider that same concept when looking at public art. Public art is absolutely vital. But its role and placement may change and evolve along with our communities.

Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves what the purpose of a public art project is. And, we have to consider that a town’s needs change over time. In the case of Arbor Park, it was a brilliantly executed public art space that created a sense of place and beauty in a downtown devastated by a natural disaster. It laid the groundwork for a dramatic and successful recovery. Now the space can return to its original mixed-use purpose and the art pieces can be strategically placed in other parts of the community for continued enjoyment, leading the way to further growth and revitalization for downtown.

Not only can Arbor Park claim a legacy of helping a community rebirth itself, but, it can leave an enduring legacy by reminding us that public art and public spaces — especially when done well — create real meaning and deep connection. It has forever raised the bar for improvements to the public realm in Grand Forks.

(Top photo of Grand Forks farmers market. Source: Randy Stern)

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About the author

Jason Schaefer is a proud Strong Towns member and former staff person. His passions center on themes of innovation, community, and sustainability. He brings a great deal of enthusiasm coupled with Midwestern pragmatism. He has served on many community boards, including the Grand Forks Downtown Development Association and helped organize urban events like Alley Alive. Jason has always had a strong interest in cities and had the chance to live in some great ones, including Almuñécar, Spain; Missoula, MT; Boston, MA; Washington, DC; Fargo, ND; and, of course, Grand Forks, ND. He was awarded a McCloy Fellowship to study urban sustainability initiatives while visiting Amsterdam and seven cities across Germany.