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Erik Burgess, Published September 07 2013

Proposed $125M skyscraper for downtown Fargo would be North Dakota’s tallest building

FARGO - Doug Burgum hopes to fill a “gaping hole” in downtown here by constructing the state’s tallest building, a $125 million private project the prominent developer envisions dovetailing with up to three pending public projects that could tap tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer money.

Kilbourne Group, a firm owned by Burgum that has bought and renovated several downtown buildings in the past dozen years, has for years been open about wanting to build a multi-use tower on the US Bank Plaza on Broadway between Second and Third avenues north.

But Burgum recently told The Forum he’s an anchor tenant away from going ahead with the 23-story building with a working moniker of “Dakota Place.”

And Burgum said coordinating three public projects downtown – the proposed new City Hall, a possible convention center using Fargodome reserves, and a Second Street North floodwall – could accelerate development there.

“These things all come together and become an engine for downtown,” he said. “We can continue to crawl ahead with private developers doing cool projects and we’ll continue to make progress, but we have a chance to have this gigantic accelerant, and it’s all in the hands of the five city commissioners to decide on these three pots of money.”

City Administrator Pat Zavoral said creating a more developed civic quad on the downtown riverfront has been in the city’s long-term plans for at least 25 years and agreed “the time is right” to realize that dream. But he noted the city is also in talks with other private developers, not just Burgum.

“We just want to make sure that this is going to happen and we get it done right,” Zavoral said. “Once you put the concrete in the ground, then you can’t move things around.”

Thinking bigger

Burgum, who helped grow a local software company that was sold to Microsoft in 2001 for $1.1 billion, has a plan to achieve the city’s longtime goal of turning Second Avenue North into a corridor to the Red River.

Burgum said the “giant, gaping hole at the 50-yard line” of that corridor is the empty US Bank Plaza, much of the east side of the 200 block of Broadway, where Kilbourne Group has had a design option on the land since 2009.

Though plans are still in flux, he told The Forum the tower is designed to include a parking ramp, retail, office space, a hotel, high-end condos and, on its top floor, a restaurant and bar. The estimated cost of the tower is $125 million.

“If we could get a corporate tenant to say, ‘We’re going to put our corporate headquarters in this building,’ then we’d be ready to start saying ‘OK, we’re going to go,’” Burgum said. “We have hotel people that are interested. We have retail that is interested. The city is interested in doing a parking ramp.”

The building would have roughly 500,000 square feet of space. Planned to be 352 feet tall, it would easily surpass the height of the State Capitol in Bismarck, which at nearly 242 feet is North Dakota’s tallest building. It would also dwarf Fargo’s tallest building, the nearby 207-foot Radisson Hotel.

Burgum said he’s talked to US Bank about becoming the anchor tenant, but they have yet to commit.

“It could be appealing to somebody who’s a North Dakota-based corporation,” he said. “Why wouldn’t you want to have your name on the tallest building in the state?”

If the tower is at the 50-yard line of downtown, then the end zone is a riverside civic quad, where Burgum says the three public projects could all combine.

The first “pot of money,” as Burgum called it, is the $37 million Fargodome reserve fund, which he said could be used to upgrade or expand the Civic Center.

Under Burgum’s plan, the at-grade parking east of the current City Hall would remain, but a 2,000-seat performance hall to be shared by local colleges and metro musical groups would be built on stilts above the parking lot.

City officials also hope to build a new City Hall in the next two years, a project expected to cost from $8 million to $12 million. Burgum said the new City Hall could also be up on stilts above the parking lot east of the current City Hall and city library.

Burgum said using stilts to build on top of at-grade parking lots (like in downtown Chicago) would allow for development while addressing concerns about parking needs. It would also elevate the buildings above the floodwall, providing a scenic riverside view.

The third public project intertwined with Burgum‘s riverfront proposal is the floodwall. The project aims to prevent the need to put temporary dikes on Second Street during minor floods and would cost at least

$20 million. It’s considered part of the proposed metro diversion project and could be bid out by next fall.

A pedestrian overpass would cross over Second Street and over the planned floodwall, connecting the quad to the riverfront green space.

Like Burgum, the city recognizes that there is a “unique opportunity” at the riverfront, said City Engineer April Walker.

“There’s a lot of things that are kind of converging at once here,” she said. “Who knew when we started laying out the idea of a floodwall that there’d be talk of a new City Hall? And now that those things are sort of coming together, it makes sense to pull back, to think bigger.”

Some critical of vision

Not everyone is sold on Burgum’s vision, at least not yet.

The Fargo Dome Authority is awaiting results of a study of the city’s convention space needs.

In a presentation to the dome board earlier this summer, Burgum argued a convention center downtown – not attached to the Fargodome – would enhance the city’s core and be more attractive to those contemplating conventions because of the proximity to unique restaurants, bars and hotels.

Meeting with The Forum, Burgum pointed out the $37 million Fargodome reserve is public money and that the Dome Authority is only an advisory board to city commissioners.

“We’re three city commissioner votes away from that happening, no matter what the Fargodome might recommend,” he said.

Deb Mathern, president of the Dome Authority, said she doesn’t believe her board or the City Commission intends to spend the entire reserve on one project. And while Mathern called Burgum “a visionary,” she said her opinions about his proposal are “on hold” until she sees the results of the convention space study, due later this month.

“They’re going to bring us input from more than just the Kilbourne Group or just the city commissioners and a few named citizens,” she said.

Tony Gehrig, a former failed candidate for City Commission and a frequent critic of public spending, would rather that nothing new be built.

“The city is just flush with money, so they can go, ‘Oh, look at all this money we have. We can do all these beautiful things. We can make Fargo so beautiful,’” Gehrig said. “I would rather have my taxes lowered.”

After reading a Forum story about what Burgum told the Fargo Dome Authority, Greg Hodur, former North Dakota Democratic-NPL chairman, questioned Burgum’s intentions.

“A guy who owns half of downtown Fargo wants a public handout to build a facility that will make him more money,” Hodur wrote this summer in a letter to the editor published in The Forum.

In an interview last week, Hodur said after that letter was published, Burgum called him and invited him to have an in-person discussion about his vision. After a two-hour conversation, Hodur said he was persuaded.

But Hodur, who clarified that he was commenting as a private citizen, said he’s still “leery” that the taxpayers will be strapped with another “white elephant” like Scheels Arena, which last year emerged from several years of cash-flow shortages after getting help from private lenders and donors.

“But I’m less leery than I was before, after talking to him,” Hodur said. “I will give him credit for the fact that I do think he’s honest about his interest in serving the community.”

Wall is touchiest piece

The hardest part of the Kilbourne plan, in the city’s mind, is integrating a pedestrian overpass with the Second Street North floodwall.

Walker said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers does not like floodwalls to connect to other structures. The corps prefers 15 feet of clear space on either side of the wall as well as space above it, which makes maintenance easier.

“Does that mean it’s impossible to have Doug’s type of design and make it integral? No. It doesn’t mean it’s impossible,” Walker said. “It means that there’s a lot more process because it’s not standard for the corps, and you’d have to do a lot more analysis and do a lot more work to prove to them that it could be done (safely).”

Mike Allmendinger, general manger of Kilbourne Group, said the extra effort to “future proof” the site for further development is worth it instead of doing what is easier for the corps.

Walker said she created a floodwall option with the Kilbourne Group’s plan in mind that has more removable wall in front of City Hall to allow a pedestrian overpass. The difference is the overpass would be in front of the floodwall, rather than straddle the wall, Walker said.

Allmendinger said of the city’s four options, Kilbourne Group prefers the plan that abandons Second Street east of City Hall, allowing for uninhibited green space, but he noted that a traffic study would need to be done first. The city estimates 12,000 cars a day use Second Street.

Walker said the city isn’t just trying to accommodate Kilbourne Group and officials still want to hear from the public about what they want on the riverfront. A public comment period is open through Sept. 23.

“That’s why the public comment period is out there,” Walker said.

Gehrig said if Kilbourne Group alone wanted to develop the riverfront, he’d have no qualms, but a public-private partnership doesn’t help taxpayers.

“It’s beneficial for (Burgum) to do that because he doesn’t have to go ahead and get the investors,” Gehrig said. “He makes the public his investor at that point.”

But Zavoral argued that private development would not have the same effect as a public-private effort.

“The time is right,” Zavoral added. “There are opportunities. You gotta strike when the iron’s hot.”

Dakota Place vitals

• Would be tallest building in North Dakota

• Rough price tag of $125 million

• 23 stories tall, or about 352 feet

• Estimated 500,000 square feet total

• Space for retail, condos, offices and a hotel


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