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Fargo should stop getting bigger, start getting denser

Doug Burgum, Chairman and Founder of the Kilbourne Group on top of the Loretta Building on Friday, Oct. 30, 2015, in downtown Fargo. Dave Wallis / The Forum

By Tu-Uyen Tran, The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, November 18, 2016

FARGO- Admitting that he was being “provocative,” downtown developer Doug Burgum told city officials Wednesday that they ought to stop annexing more land in order to discourage sprawl.

“Our city has an ability to grow and grow smarter than other cities by growing more densely as opposed to growing horizontally,” he told the Planning Commission. “The 52 square miles is enough to hold us for a long time.”

Related: Doug Burgum’s vision for downtown Fargo

An outspoken proponent of higher-density urban-style growth, Burgum was invited by commission Chairwoman Jan Ulferts Stewart to share a few lessons he’s learned as a software entrepreneur turned developer. The thrust of those lessons was that sprawl is inefficient and costly to taxpayers, and, increasingly, a vestige of the past.

Tony Gehrig, one of a few city commissioners at the meeting, asked why the city couldn’t let the free market decide. If there is a demand for higher density growth, such as downtown, why not remove all subsidies such as the Renaissance Zone tax credits, he asked.

Burgum said he would prefer that all subsidies end, and that includes roads built by the city in sparsely populated areas at the edge of the city. He clarified later in a Forum interview that he’s frustrated with how the city might study the return-on-investment of a downtown parking ramp surrounded by buildings, while new roads to empty lots get no such scrutiny.

Go 2030

While the way Burgum said it may have been meant to stir discussion, much of the ground he covered Wednesday was covered three years ago when the city developed the Go 2030 plan with input from thousands of residents. The plan said the city’s No. 2 priority should be to “promote infill,” meaning construction of new buildings on lots already in city limits instead of on newly annexed lots. The No. 1 priority was permanent flood protection.

According to Burgum, the problem with sprawl is twofold.

Small buildings on big lots aren’t worth as much as big buildings on small lots, which means they generate fewer tax dollars to pay for the same roads and sewers and the same level of police, fire and street service, he said.

The city has 3.7 residents per acre, a far cry from the 10.7 in 1950 when it followed a traditional growth pattern that preceded suburbanization.

The kind of suburban development where people need to drive everywhere is becoming less popular nationally, Burgum said. A 2013 survey by Realtors found that 55 percent of American adults would prefer a house within walking distance of stores, restaurants and schools to a house with a big yard, he said.

Planning Commissioner John Gunkelman asked Burgum if he had it to do over again, could he really build the campus of his firm, Great Plains Software now part of Microsoft, in the middle of downtown? The campus is south of 44th Avenue South on the west side of Interstate 94, quite a way from downtown.

Burgum said that’s the direction many tech firms are going these days. Twitter, LinkedIn and Uber have all moved to San Francisco and away from the sprawl of Silicon Valley, he said, because that’s where their workers prefer to be. And it’s good because density encourages people to interact and interaction encourages innovation, he said.

Zoning code overhaul

Besides not annexing any more land, Burgum suggested the city overhaul its zoning code to encourage more neighborhoods with mixed-use buildings, meaning a building that might have a store on the ground floor and apartments or condos above. That’s the ultimate in walkability and it means the land is being used efficiently with the businesses busy in the day and the homes occupied at night.

Current city codes encourage the segregation of residential, commercial and industrial buildings outside of the downtown district, according to Planning Administrator Nicole Crutchfield. A developer who wishes to build homes on the second floors of businesses would have to get special permission from the city. If that developer wishes to build a corner store in a neighborhood, a zoning change might need to be requested.

While none of the city officials present endorsed the idea of stopping all annexations, the emphasis on mixed-use buildings had a more positive reception.

“I wonder if the moral of the story today is mixed-use infill,” Ulferts Stewart said. “We just need to hear that over and over again.”

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