A Fargoan Perspective

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The Fargoan During Refitting.jpg
I've been inside the Fargoan. Not back in the day when dodgy residents paid for overpriced holes-in-the-wall: no, I was in the Fargoan towards the end of February, around the time the rehabilitization had removed nearly everything that had made the Fargoan what it was.

You may not know, but the center of the Fargoan was open to the sky: a large groove ran down the middle of the building, from the first floor up, around 4' wide and almost the whole length of the building, like a brick doughnut hole. Windows opened out into this area so that natural light could reach the interior of the building back before effective interior lighting, and I believe skylights at the bottom let sunlight into the first floor. This groove will no longer exist; from the current floorplans, it appears a hallway will run down the center where the skylight was so condos can occupy double the width of the original rooms. The lobby murals were still intact (as much as they were before the renovation, which wasn't that great); I didn't ask if they would be kept post-renovation, but I hope they will be kept. The front stairs, its grain stained almost black and worn from nearly a century of footfalls, looks like it will stay, too; it is about the only recognizeable interior part that shows up on the floorplan. The old, heavy hardwood doors, removed when the walls were ripped out, leaned against the walls of the lobby as best they could despite protruding doorknobs, their faded and peeling numbers identifying their original home. The rearrangement of hallways and rooms and filling in the old dirt-filled bathroom floors meant the original wood floors would be smoothed over with a modern layer to level them to current condobuyer standards.

When I visited the site they were working on rebuilding the support pilings. The building had been built with wooden pilings supporting everything from the first floor up, inadequate for such a large three-story building even by 1920s standards, so new steel and concrete pilings were being installed. The interior structure was mostly wood, so a fire on a lower floor would surely have resulted in collapse of the upper ones. The building had often been the home of Fargo's less-than-finest residents, many of whom had little interest in sustaining a historic building for the ages, so the restoration did need to happen now, before the building ended up gutted by fire like Stroh's other project, the Universal Building.

Around ten years ago, I had the opportunity to buy a building quite close to the Fargoan, now occupied by Mr. Money on Broadway. I lacked the funds at that time, but compared to today's cost to get a downtown building it was an absolute steal and I kick myself every time I drive down Broadway. The mid-1990s was at the early-edge of Fargo's downtown revitalization, and the plans I had for the building would have fit nicely into today's downtown. Unfortunately, there wasn't a push for revitalization at the time, no immediate returns on investing in a business and a building that required a lot of cosmetic and construction work. Those who compain about the changing of downtown don't remember the downtown of twenty years ago: malls and urban renewal didn't improve the declining downtown. Storefronts sat vacant, apartments weren't very nice to live in, and there wasn't much attraction to being downtown unless you worked there. Those who defend the Old Downtown have one or two big reasons they think change should be avoided, but keeping those few things wouldn't make downtown what it plans to be.

However, running off the coffee shops and performance venues doesn't show interest in downtown revitalization. Rebuilding a downtown takes responsibility, something in hindsight we realize the downtown revitalization of the 1970s lacked as well. Cement columns forced broadway into a curvy mess, removing parking and making it hard to bother visiting downtown businesses -- who already had plenty of incentive to move out to 13th Avenue -- and then large number of historical buildings with apartments and storefronts were torn down to put up high-rise office buildings, parking lots, and a movie theatre on stilts. Downtown was, in the matter of a decade, turned into a place people went to work and then left at five.

Today's downtown shows more promise than fantasies about an outdoor walking mall in the land of -40° winters - showing we can learn from mistakes. Hopefully, the new money filtering into downtown is using these mistakes to evaluate the commercial principles that they are using to excuse their actions.

TL Stroh is building condos -- little larger nor better outfitted than the $500/mo two-bedrooms around the south University K-Mart -- to sell for over $100,000 each...with a monthly condo fee to boot. Their pricing and purpose is to offset the cost of the renovation, and they believe the market can support it. Downtown condos seem to have quite a high market value: they wouldn't build them if they didn't think they would sell. However, their housing market isn't the one they should be able to look at. The commercial market of downtown as a whole is what the condo buyers are interested in purchasing. They could have the same thing for much less elsewhere, but they want to be able to look out their window and see what's playing at the Fargo, or eat within walking distance once in a while. The condo builders lack the foresight to realize that other business owners are under similar pressures: businesses are subject to what the market can bear.

A downtown is a living organism, like a terrarium: it exists in a balance that doesn't like sudden change. Urban Renewal #1 proved that. Our downtown couldn't sustain itself with such a sudden environmental change. It needed something more gradual, more organic, based on how it reacts to the changes. So far, it seems that there is enough Urban Renewal Responsiiblity to keep rampant greedy change in check. For example, a building on Roberts Street, formerly an antique mall, went from one storefront back to three, all now occupied (including a coffee shop and music venue), and was cleaned up enormously. The building was bought and renovated by the law offices next door partly as storage (at least that was the last story I heard), but shows enormous responsibility not to just take what they want without creating anything that benefits the downtown whole. Condos may have value, may be what the residential market can bear, but let's hope the renovators take some time and consider what the downtown environment can bear as a whole.

Urban Renewal #1 tilted downtown's atmosphere in one direction, and I hope that Urban Renewal Nouveaux doesn't do the same in condos and dollars spent on generating revenue without purpose. Increasing the cost of rent in downtown and reducing the number both of downtown residents and businesses will throw off the balance, making downtown a place people live then drive out to 13th Avenue or Easten for their shopping and entertainment. The downtown that people want to live is here, now, and change isn't necessarily the answer unless it is to improve upon what people want today. Clean up the shells of old downtown, but run your concrete pilings all the way to the top floor and leave the old wood and the classic architecture. Your construction should be shoring up what we already have downtown, rather than replacing it with something you think you can turn over to cover your costs. The reason that so many downtown buildings were empty or had fallen in to disrepair is because something happened to downtown to make them undesirable to the people with money. I hope that the current redevelopers show enough responsibility to the downtown that we have now, the one that has piqued the interest of the people with money, because the wrong moves could easily throw off the climate and make downtown undesirable again.

Originally published at AreaVoices.com, 4/27/2006

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