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Erik Burgess, Published October 23 2012

City, business owners spar over widening South University Drive

FARGO – If certain businesses along South University Drive here don’t sacrifice parking spaces, the city can’t ever receive future federal funding to improve that corridor, city officials said Tuesday.

Parking spaces in front of the South Plaza and Southside Center strip malls, it was discovered after a recently completed corridor study, are actually built on state-owned right-of-way.

If the city needs federal dollars to reconstruct the road at the end of its life span – official say in about 10 to 12 years – business owners at the two strip malls will need to vacate the encroached-upon land.

“If we do not cure the encroachment issue, we are not eligible for federal funds, ever,” City Engineer Mark Bittner told a public forum of business owners and residents on Tuesday.

Business owners and residents have voiced strong opposition to the loss of parking, and that continued at the forum.

“This is not going to help us,” said Nikki Berglund, whose family runs Bernie’s Wines and Liquors. “None of us are happy about it.”

Traffic engineer Jeremy Gorden said business owners have tentatively agreed to a city plan to cut out 22 total parking spaces from the area, which would keep around 5 feet of encroached land. That land would need to be vacated if federal dollars were ever used to renovate the road in the future, said Wade Kline, executive director of FM MetroCOG.

Following the corridor study, the city has also proposed adding an additional southbound lane to alleviate traffic congestion.

Officials said one southbound lane could be added from Interstate 94 to either 13th Avenue South or 16th Avenue South. Construction would begin in 2016.

Some residents questioned the need for another southbound lane. “More speedy traffic on these streets is not needed,” David Meiers said. “Kids have to get across University.”

Not constructing anything is still an option, but Kline said business owners still have to enter into an agreement with the city and state recognizing that their parking lots are on state-owned land.

That acknowledgement has somehow escaped documentation, despite the fact that the state has owned the land since the ’70s, Kline said. On Tuesday, business owners still expressed confusion at the details of the decades-old situation.

Harvey Lane said when he invested his life savings into the South Plaza in 1975, he didn’t know about the encroachment. Now, he’s worried the loss of parking will result in a loss of business.

“You’re OK as long as your renters will rent from you,” Lane said. “But it’s kind of tough to be notified 37 years later and the hammer drops on you.”

The City Commission will choose a plan within a month.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518