There has been an interesting debate going on in my home town of Grand Forks, ND over the last few months. The city is looking to sell one of a small number of “pocket parks” in the downtown for development as a build a mixed-use condominium and office building. A rather rancorous debate ensued with a vocal group of community leaders calling for the park to be spared and another group calling for the park to be sold to accelerate development downtown. The park itself features work from local artists and stands as a nicely landscaped spot in the city with some disiecta membra from buildings destroyed by the 1997 flood and metal sculpture that evokes the history of the city and one of its founding fathers George Winship. While I’ve never found the park very compelling or interesting, apparently some folks in the community do. I’m much more interested in seeing the continued development of downtown Grand Forks, but I’m not entirely unsympathetic to people wanting to spare the park. You can get a sense for the debate here.
What is getting me interested and excited about this debate is that this is just the latest in a series of issues that have fueled community interest in how Grand Forks should develop the downtown. Residents are debating the location for a new library, adding bike lanes, managing surface parking, traffic calming measures at dangerous intersections, and the role of tax revenue in all these projects. The enthusiasm with which people engage these debates is incredibly encouraging.
Downtown Grand Forks is going through a bit of a transition lately with a few established businesses closing up shop, some new apartments and businesses moving in, and a growing interest in thinking about downtown in new and interesting ways. Events like the Blue Weber’s Alleys Alive – a music and arts festival set up in alleys and parking lots downtown – attract impressive crowds, and initiatives like Pete Haga’s food truck (which local restaurants can rent for events) drew long lines. My hope is that the energy from the Arbor Park debate will continue to fuel interest in downtown. This is all the more important as the North Dakota economy stalls and the legislature panicked imposing overly ambitious budget cuts which further impair the ability of communities (and individuals) to respond the opportunities for growth.
The exciting thing about a downtown in transition is that there are ample opportunities for what some have called “tactical urbanism.” These are small-scale projects like Alleys Alive or temporary parks or other short-term interventions that expose new ways to inject energy into downtown at a minimum risk and cost. In other words, the energy being put into preserving Arbor Park could also fuel myriad other projects across the community.
For example, I’m sort of interested in seeing the now-closed co-op Amazing Grains being turned into something new in the short term (although maybe the space has already been leased). Maybe a temporary coffee shop and library extension? Or a pop-up art gallery? Are there ways to use the evident passion for downtown to ensure that the pregnant pause of transition doesn’t slide into a kind of doldrums? I’m particularly interested in the potential for small-scale, short-term projects to bring new voices to downtown and reveal new opportunities for growth and change.
So no matter what happens with Arbor Park, I am optimistic that the energy evident in the debate (aside for some of the more divisive and rancorous comments that probably speak more to frustration than genuine anger) will contribute to the existing vitality of the downtown.
[As an aside, one of my great regrets this past year is that I’ve stopped walking home from campus and walking around downtown. Part of it is because I started running regularly either on a treadmill in the winter or outside in my neighbor in the summer. This made me less motivated to go out for a long walk in the evening or walk home from school in the winter. As a result, I feel like I’m a bit less connected to the downtown (which is only a few blocks from my house) and a bit less informed on the vibe of the community. I need to get out and walk more.]