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Block 9 dreamers share inspiration for downtown Fargo’s future

ABOVE:”Fargo 365,” a first place entry in the 2010 Block 9 design contest.

Block 9 sits at the corner of Second Avenue North and Broadway in historic downtown Fargo. It became a surface lot after the block of mixed-use, multi-story buildings that once faced Broadway were leveled between 1968 and 1984. The block has captured imaginations of people around the world as we’ve set out to dream of possibilities for the property.

Held in 2010, Downtown Fargo: An Urban-Infill Competition garnered 160 design entries from 23 countries. Thousands of community members and visitors attended an open house gallery and voted for their favorite design. Anna Ishii and David Witham were members of the design team behind Fargo 365, the entry which tied for first place with Ebb & Flow and took home a $10,000 prize. Both first place designs included green space and notes to the Red River and the seasons in Fargo.

Nearly six years later, a strong partnership has formed to turn the dream into reality. A mixed-use mid-rise tower will be built at Block 9 and will include corporate headquarters for RDO Companies, an 88-key hotel, condos, office space, and ground floor retail and restaurants. A highlight of the project is a redesigned, year-round civic plaza.

Anna Ishii has found her way back to Fargo for another design project. This time, she is a designer with Interface Studio and a member of a consulting team tasked with creating a 20-year Downtown City Center Comprehensive Plan.

We caught up with Ishii and Witham to get their thoughts on their vision for downtown Fargo.

Anna Ishii

Anna Ishii

Tell us about yourselves and your careers.

Anna: I am a recent graduate of University of Pennsylvania with a dual masters in Architecture and City Planning. Before that I was working with David for 4 years at WRT which is a planning firm based in Philadelphia. And before that I was working towards a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art. I am currently a designer at Interface Studio.

David: I’m a licensed architect and certified urban planner, but the best description of what I do for a living is “Urban Designer.” I’ve recently moved back home to North Dakota, where I’m aiming to apply the urban design experience and expertise I acquired working for a leading planning firm in Philadelphia (WRT) to local ND projects.

What made you decide to submit a design to the contest?

Anna: I really enjoy getting with my fellow designer friends and churning out design ideas. It’s always great to work with a collaborative team and sharing ideas on trace paper. It makes the challenge that much more fun when you’re working with friends.

David Witham

David Witham

David: I was looking for an interesting design competition to both challenge myself to continue to grow as a professional, but also provide an opportunity to more freely express my design point of view. That Kilbourne Group’s competition had a significant prize (i.e. likely to attract international attention) and was based in a place near and dear to my heart… it was the obvious choice.

What was your inspiration for the space?

David: The primary design challenge we perceived was how to address the intersection of Broadway and 2nd. There is a good argument for keeping it as a public open space, but engaging that corner with a use that would activate that intersection and make it a “100% corner” was also desirable.

The design we developed was able to achieve both of those goals, in a unique and interesting way that we felt would become a signature public space for Fargo, with enough of a unique form to become widely recognized — regionally and nationally — as iconically “Fargo.” Furthermore, we felt that programming of that space as usable year round was essential, and so we made sure to depict both summer and winter uses of that space in our design visualizations.

Anna: David was very clear that Fargo’s winter is harsh. And sometimes people just hibernate when winter comes along. So a public space in downtown Fargo that could bring people together even during the winter months was one of the driving concepts. This block could be the focal point for downtown since it is bounded by very important streets. It’s a perfect spot for a civic space for all different types of uses.

For our design we tried to set the stage for what a visitor, student, and resident would experience in the downtown. We also incorporated a marketplace as a flexible vendor space. We included amphitheater spaces, movie screen, artist ice sculptures, exhibit space just providing ample space to people watch. Our design centers around creating a signature destination and providing a fun spot for residents and workers to gather, play, hangout and just have fun; simple as that.

What do you find unique about downtown Fargo?

David: In reference to other ND cities and towns…. Fargo is unique in the number and size of the older historic buildings that remain standing. That building stock has allowed Fargo to maintain and develop a residential component to its mix of land uses that you don’t really see in other ND cities.

In reference to similarly sized towns across the country… It’s probably the can-do attitude of the people and their excitement and willingness to put their time and energy into downtown that — while it’s not absent in other places — Fargo has it in abundance. It’s really growing at a tremendous pace right now, and only getting better.

Anna: I agree with David, the historic buildings are very interesting to me. After being there for 5 days, I was drawn by the signs and the boutique stores that Fargo has to offer. I enjoyed checking out some quirky stores up and down Main and Broadway. I also saw that the streets become the public space for people which is just fascinating. The food there has been exquisite too. Downtown has a walkable environment but could be better And I look forward to my next trip to Fargo.

How did you get involved in the downtown framework project?

Anna: I joined Interface Studio last year after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania. When Interface was hired to assist the City of Fargo in creating a downtown plan, I showed interested in being part of the process since I was part of the Block 9 competition. I look forward to working with the neighborhood and City of Fargo in the coming months.

What do you envision for the future of downtown Fargo?

David: Further growth and infill. A building up of the mix of residential, office, retail, and institutional to become the sort of walkable neighborhood that offers its residents everything it would need on a daily basis. When Fargo can legitimately give people the choice to live without a personal automobile (walking and biking as the primary mode of transportation; using car share and taxi services more sparsely, as-needed) that’s when it will really begin to become a 21st century city. It will get there, and maybe sooner than we expect!

Anna: Downtown Fargo has such a rich and lively history and I can only think of great things for Fargo’s future. It’s clear that Fargo is growing as a modern city. I foresee residents coming back to downtown to live, work, and make, while still carrying their small town manners. It’s good to see some development is taking root in some of the underutilized spaces and buildings in downtown.

What do you think is the most important aspect of downtown design?

David: Choice. Both mobility choices (as evidenced by the answer to my previous question), but also good mix of employment and housing choices. A good variety of choices will allow people of all income brackets to participate in the downtown economy and help it grow. I see downtown as a place for people with energy and ideas to come together and build a great place together. Great ideas and hard work come from all people, so all people must have the opportunity to participate.

Anna: Accessibility and affordability. If Fargo wants to get ready for a full immersion of people into downtown, having housing options and creating a downtown experience are a must. Offering options that would cater to a younger hip crowd as well as the families is important. In addition, when I met city officials and leaders of Fargo, we discussed how Fargo is a flood prone region. It’s quite shocking how the city manages and handles flood and rainfall throughout the years. So when it comes to making recommendations in the plan, the water issue will always be a challenge.

What are your thoughts on art in urban design?

Anna: I’m all for incorporating art in any way I can. It’s an important aspect of my life. After talking to some Fargoans there seems to be a lot of artists in the area. I am very interested to see how they can use downtown as the medium in which they can express themselves.

David: I would encourage a more informal approach to public art. There may be certain places where the commissioning and active curation of public art is appropriate, but overall I would advise creating a framework for people to put their own mark on a public space. Find ways to direct the creative energy of the community to appropriate locations, and then celebrate those contributions, and the evolution of the public art “canvas” over time.

On July 11, the City of Fargo kicked off the downtown master planning efforts with consultants Interface Studio, LLC out of Philadelphia. Their visit was exploratory and introductory in nature as they performed observation and interviews, and witnessed the transformation of Downtown Fargo for the 2016 Street Fair. In the fall, the team will begin broader conversations and engagement as they work with the entire Fargo community to envision and implement the future of Downtown. Through social media and public forums there will be several opportunities for feedback and participation!

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