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Helmut Schmidt, Published September 09 2012

Business owners oppose South University Drive widening project

FARGO - Small-business owners on South University Drive are setting out petitions opposing city plans to add another southbound lane between 13th and 18th avenues.

Dirt won’t be turned until at least 2015, but business owners in the Southside Center and South Plaza malls say the current plan will strip them of vital parking.

“It would force us to move, is what we’d have to do,” said Steve Schultz, owner of Duane’s House of Pizza. “What the city is proposing would pretty much cripple both shopping centers.”

“It sucks,” added his neighbor Trent Balvitsch, owner of Addictions Tattoo and Piercing.

“We’re going to lose out on a bunch of our parking,” and need to replace roadside signs, Balvitsch said. “Less parking. Less people.”

City Traffic Engineer Jeremy Gorden said South University Drive needs the extra southbound lane to ease traffic tie-ups at the intersection with 13th Avenue South.

South University is a busy arterial road.

A 2010 traffic count shows 31,745 cars used South University Drive at the intersection of 18th Avenue South, just north of Interstate 94, per day. Just south of the intersection with 13th Avenue South, it handles 24,600 cars per day.

Traffic can back up five blocks north of 13th Avenue South, reaching to Agassiz school, and several blocks to the east and west, Gorden said.

The reason? Vehicles heading south on South University use the right-hand lane to turn off on streets and to businesses, clogging traffic and leaving one true through lane on what Gorden calls “Fargo’s backbone.”

The University Drive Corridor Study started in 2009. It wasn’t until recently that officials learned parking lots for the strip malls encroached on state-owned right-of-way land and had done so for decades.

“It’s not a small encroachment. It’s like 20 feet,” Gorden said. “It’s like your neighbor putting down a fence 20 feet in your yard.”

The encroachment encompasses a full row of parking abutting South University.

But the city doesn’t need all the space, Gorden said.

It can build the extra traffic lane and put in a sidewalk, and still leave a row of diagonal parking for businesses next to the street, and a two-way driving aisle. Eighty percent of the current parking would be preserved, Gorden said.

In the meantime, the road would be made safer for pedestrians and re-landscaped, he said.

“We’re trying to come up with a win-win-win here,” Gorden said.

Construction of the extra lane likely wouldn’t start until 2015, Gorden said, adding that the $2 million project would be more likely to be slotted for 2016.

Despite the assurances, business owners are wary.

Doug Stavenger, owner of Doug’s Optical, said losing parking may not affect him much, but it will hurt Duane’s.

“Try to pick up a pizza on a Tuesday or Wednesday at 6 o’clock. It’s packed!’ Stavenger said.

Without parking, “they’re screwed,” he said.

A long construction season could also drive away customers. Stavenger said places like Great Harvest Bread, Luna Coffee and Ice Cream Plus could go belly up.

“They won’t make it. And who is that good for?” Stavenger asks.

At Great Harvest Bread, Andrew Bates, the son of the owners, said they’ve joined the petition drive.

“During the holidays, we have people standing in line to get bread,” Bates said. “It wouldn’t be good for us.

“We’re just trying to make enough noise with the petitions to make our voices heard,” he said.

Ice Cream Plus Manager Diane Harrington said the work “doesn’t even make sense,” because the city’s growth is in the 25th Street and 45th Street South corridors.

“We’re growing on THAT end of town,” she said.

But Gorden said University Drive south of 18th Avenue South to 24th Avenue South is also deteriorating.

Plans are to fully reconstruct that section and work on the ramps for Interstate 94, Gorden said. Because that project requires federal funds, the earliest it could be tackled is 2017, he said.

Sanford Health is one of the businesses concerned about the congestion on South University.

“We felt the work would really add to the safety of the traffic in that area,” said Don Marty, vice president of facilities and planning for the regional health giant.

He said Sanford’s concern is that patients, staff and families would be able to access the facility at 1720 South University Drive.

“We know it’s going to be disrupted. But they’re putting together a plan that should take care of us,” Marty said.

A spokeswoman for Gate City Bank said the South University Drive branch site at 15th Avenue is leased. She said the bank has no comment on the city’s plans.

The city will schedule a public meeting on the issue in late October at City Hall, Gorden said.

“I think they’ll have a pretty hot meeting,” Schultz predicted. “I told them I’d hate to see that stretch of University turn into what it looks like in downtown Moorhead.”

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583