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Published December 11 2010

Two groups share top honors in U.S. Bank Plaza design contest

When David Witham and a team of co-workers set out to redesign downtown Fargo’s U.S. Bank Plaza, they found themselves up against a familiar North Dakota foe: the weather.

They wanted to create a public space usable in blistering summers and bitter cold, without forcing the whole thing indoors.

The result: a space designed to flourish through all four seasons, with grassy rooftop slopes that become sledding hills, a fountain that becomes a skating rink, and a mix of retail, office and residential buildings positioned to block the wind and soak up the sun.

The design, “Fargo 365,” was named one of two first-place winners Friday in a Kilbourne Group competition to fill the plaza with proposed development. It was the work of Witham, a North Dakota native and North Dakota State University graduate, plus fellow designers and architects Doug Meehan, Anna Ishii, and Hannah Mattheus-Kairys, all of Philadelphia’s Wallace Roberts & Todd design firm.

“It’s a challenge to have an outdoor space that’s a civic space year-round in Fargo,” Witham said. “A lot of our design forms came out of, ‘How do we deal with climate in a passive way?’ ”

Witham’s group shared the top prize with Nakjune Seong and Sarah Kuehn, a pair of graduate landscape architecture students at the University of Texas at Arlington. Seong and Kuehn designed “ebb and flow,” a complex that models the flow of pedestrians through downtown after the movement of the Red River (for good measure, the project includes a miniature river that snakes toward the central plaza).

“We wanted to have it so they could move through the space and move back out to Broadway,” Kuehn said.

There’s no guarantee the winning designs will make their way into the actual development of the plaza. There’s no current timetable for building on the plaza. The Kilbourne Group is about halfway through a three-year deal that gives it the option to purchase and develop the site, which currently houses the bank, a pedestrian mall, and a parking lot.

Doug Burgum, the group’s chairman and one of the judges, said the idea of the contest was to stir the public imagination regarding the space rather than pick a ready-to-build winner. But he said the winning designs “seem completely doable” under the right circumstances.

Burgum said he was thrilled at “both the breadth and the quality” of responses to the contest, which produced 160 entries from 23 different countries.

Indeed, the pool of contenders was deep enough that the judges couldn’t settle on one winner and had to get creative in doling out the prize money. Both of the first-place groups will receive cash prizes of $10,000. The top prize was originally set at $15,000; the Kilbourne Group combined that sum with the $5,000 earmarked for second place, split it between the two winners and added another $5,000 for second place.

Second place went to “Vertical Plain,” designed by the Helenske Design Group of Fargo.

Other prize winners from the contest include:

The entries will be on display on the second floor of the Loretta Building, 208 Broadway, until Dec. 19.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502