By Barry Amundson
Dec. 9, 2019 | Original Article

FARGO — An out-of-state consulting team has been hired to examine and help develop plans for Fargo’s aging core neighborhoods.

As part of Fargo’s Core Neighborhoods Plan, the Alexandria, Va., team will examine nine neighborhoods encircling downtown and make suggestions on how to solve any problems.

The study area boundaries will be 19th Avenue on the north side, the Red River on the east, Interstate 94 on the south side and 25th Street on the west.

The neighborhoods to be studied include Horace Mann, Roosevelt-NDSU, Washington, Jefferson-Carl Ben, Hawthorne, South High, Lewis and Clark, Clara Barton and Madison-Unicorn Park, the only neighborhood that lies outside the boundary.

Members of the Fargo Planning Commission and the city’s Community Development Committee met with city planners to discuss advancing a Core Neighborhood Plan on Wednesday, May 15, in the Fargo City Hall. (Barry Amundson / The Forum)

City Planning Director Nicole Crutchfield told the Fargo city commissioners, who approved hiring the firm at a cost of $288,000 on Dec. 2, that the plan will have a “strong housing focus” as the city looks to preserve the older neighborhood homes and find more affordable housing options for residents and newcomers to the city.

The consulting firm, called czb, made its winning pitch to a team of five city officials that selected the company from among 13 applicants and three finalists.

The planning director for another city that used the firm in 2015 for its comprehensive citywide plan said the consultants did a “great job.”

“I think they are the only consultants that we have hired that didn’t have any complaints from any department,” said Ashland, Wis., Planning Director Megan McBride.

She said some of the successes were suggestions czb made on property maintenance in Ashland’s older housing stock and developing a new enforcement policy.

McBride said they ranked each home in the city on a 1 to 5 scale, which helped target homes that needed improvements. She also said the consultants made recommendations for improving the housing market in the city of 8,500 on the shore of Lake Superior.

The firm has similar plans for Fargo, as they noted in their presentation to the city. The consultants said neighborhood concerns they could help address are the need for increased property maintenance, new regulations to manage development and finding opportunities to increase affordable housing as real estate and rent prices have climbed dramatically.

To help in the one-year study, the firm suggested setting up four committees, which will need 50 to 60 volunteers total.

Overseeing the plan and making sure results can be realized will be a 12-member steering committee. Then there will be three subcommittees that will be divided into the south side, north side and midtown neighborhoods.

Crutchfield said the plan is intended to build upon work recently completed on the Downtown InFocus Plan.

It’s hoped that city officials, residents, developers, builders and others can work together on the effort in the neighborhoods surrounding the downtown core.

The consultants, after working closely with the committees, will write a plan later next year with details for each of the nine neighborhoods.

Before that, the first phase of the project will involve volunteers and the consultants doing a visual survey of all residential properties in the neighborhoods.

The consultants said they regularly use “all kinds of partners” to help with property surveys, from college students to committee members to senior citizens groups. If enough volunteers can’t be found, czb said they will hire North Dakota State University students for the survey.

City planner Aaron Nelson said the visual survey will include “all residences” in the city.

“It’s the only part of the study that will extend outside of the boundaries,” he said.

The goal is to get an inventory of residences to help in future planning and serve as the baseline for the core neighborhoods.

An online survey is planned, as well as public open houses throughout the process.

Once the look at the neighborhoods is complete, the consultants said they will begin to ask the question “OK, now what do we do about it?” They said they will meet with officials and committees on that question and set goals.

The final phase will be the actual writing of the plan, with input from city residents for feedback and possible revisions.

“We’re super excited about the project,” Nelson said.

The study comes after residents raised concerns in the past few years about what could be done to preserve the aging neighborhoods in the core of the city.

One of the most recent flash points was the demolishing of several homes in the Roosevelt-NDSU neighborhood north of downtown to make room for an apartment building attached to the Catholic Church’s construction of a new chapel and student gathering spot across from the campus.

Affordable housing has been a major concern of the Fargo City Commission, led by Commissioner John Strand, who often brings it up at meetings.