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Erik Burgess, Published July 24 2013

Opinions mixed on where new Fargo City Hall should be located

FARGO – One thing that’s clear about a proposed City Hall here is that not much is clear.

The city’s 13-member resident task force charged with picking a site for the building will meet for the second time Thursday morning, but if the first meeting last week is any indication, it’ll be a flurry of brainstorming with few things set in stone.

Some Fargo residents and local officials who aren’t on the task force already have strong opinions about where the new City Hall should be and what the building should look like.

Mayor Dennis Walaker would like it to be downtown.

Longtime Fargo resident Don Stieha disagrees.

“Everybody thinks downtown is – to use an ancient term – the cat’s meow, and it’s not,” said the 62-year-old Stieha, who responded to a recent Forum reader inquiry on the topic. “It’s difficult to get there (downtown). It’s difficult to get out of there. It’s difficult to find the places to park.”

Access and convenience should be the top priorities, he said, especially when residents are required to visit the building for a variety of city services.

Mark Sornsin, another Fargo resident, doesn’t think City Hall should move from downtown.

“Downtown to me is still the heart of the city, and it seems to me that’s where a city hall is traditionally located,” he said, adding that the infrastructure is already available downtown.

Maintaining tradition is a good a reason as any, Sornsin argued, and Don Faulkner would agree.

Faulkner has taught architecture and urban design at North Dakota State University for 25 years, and he said to put City Hall anywhere but downtown would sully the image of Fargo.

As an example, he offered Sandy, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City. Sandy built its City Hall near an interstate about a mile away from its old downtown, and it destroyed the town’s sense of character, Faulkner said.

“They have this big city office sitting in a giant parking lot,” he said. “I mean, there’s development around it and there’s some retail and stuff, but it’s awful. … There is no such thing as ‘Sandy,’ anymore.”

That means it’s “absolutely necessary” to keep the City Hall in downtown Fargo, Faulkner said.

“You’re sort of flying in the face of your own city if you move that seat of government away from the center of that city. And I don’t mean the geographic center, I mean the real city – its downtown,” he said.

No need to build new?

Some don’t see the need for a new City Hall.

Grant Kraft, a 19-year-old Fargo native and student at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, said Fargo should repurpose the space it already has and use the money it would have spent on a new City Hall for other, more important issues such as flood protection.

Renovating the adjoining Fargo Civic Center and Centennial Hall has been discussed by city officials.

“I think City Hall is already beautiful enough. You just have to look at it through the right perspective,” Kraft said. “It’s kind of like the old debate on our state Capitol, where a lot of people think it’s not beautiful, but it is. Simplicity in North Dakota is something to be praised.”

City halls across the state generally are very simple, said Connie Sprynczynatyk, executive director of the North Dakota League of Cities.

Sprynczynatyk recently went through old magazines published by the league, and many of them contained images of city halls across the state.

“What’s interesting is most of the structures were not very interesting,” she said with a laugh. “I don’t want to say that most city halls in the state are pedestrian and even plain, but some might be tempted to describe them that way.”

When Fargo built its current City Hall, it broke state and national architecture trends for city offices, Faulkner said.

The rectangular building, erected in the late 1950s, was a far cry from most government offices nationwide at the time, which were typically very classical with dressings such as stone pillars and Greek temple fronts, he said.

“Fargo broke the mold once and maybe they’re willing to break that mold again in looking for something that’s a little more up to date and sort of expressive of the future,” he said.

For Faulkner, that would mean the new City Hall would focus on green energy, use a lot of glass and perhaps use locally sourced materials.

For Fargo resident Matt Evans, 35, these are all “frivolous” expenditures in the city’s attempt to construct a “palace to glorify themselves.”

Evans, who lives in a home built in 1896, said he’s also “not real sympathetic” to the city’s complaints that City Hall is too old.

“I want my public offices to run cheaply and efficiently,” he said.

But Faulkner argued that a new building with better daylight and more space than the current City Hall – which officials say is about half the size it needs to be – could actually boost efficiency and morale.

“Great daylight. Great ambience. It sort of helps people do their work,” he said. “They don’t have to sort of fight the building.”

A downtown site would fit the state trend, Sprynczynatyk said.

She said she has visited all 357 incorporated cities in the state, and she couldn’t think of a city that doesn’t have its City Hall downtown.

That doesn’t mean it’s an absolute necessity, she said, and she praised Fargo for talking it out.

“The community should have a dialogue about it,” Sprynczynatyk said. “I think that’s the most important thing.”

‘Have a dialogue’

The resident task force, headed by Mayor Dennis Walaker and former Mayor Bruce Furness, is expected to make a definitive list of potential sites at its 8 a.m. meeting today.

By Oct. 3, the site will be picked and introduced to the public, according to the group’s timeline.

Officials want the new building to be 60,000 to 70,000 square feet, with a budget of roughly $8 million to $12 million. Some state aid is expected to help finance the project.

Commissioner Melissa Sobolik, who earlier agreed to take poll residents via social media, posted to her Facebook page Monday asking for ideas on where the new City Hall should be located. It had no responses as of Wednesday afternoon.

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