by Rachel Laqua, Williston, North Dakota
Communities across the country have recognized a growing interest in their downtowns over the last several decades. Downtowns play a unique role in the social and economic life of the community, and the traditional nature of most downtowns provides an atmosphere that has become attractive to residents. The Canadian Urban Institute and Downtown Memphis Commission both have published reports which state that downtowns are significant economic drivers for cities. In Memphis, the 2013 Downtown Metrics Report found that a square mile of downtown creates more than double the county and city taxes as an average square mile in the rest of the city.
PHOTOS ABOVE AND BELOW- NEW PLANTERS. Photos courtesy of Williston Downtowners Association.
Downtown revitalization is also a trend that has reached at least three cities in North Dakota – Bismark, Fargo and Williston.
Bismark and Fargo
In Fargo, Doug Burgum and the Kilbourne Group have worked with North Dakota State University and others to reuse older buildings and build new infill development, creating an atmosphere in which downtown buildings are in demand. New businesses and infill of properties have created jobs, entertainment, shopping, and residences. Fargo also has a downtown organization called the Downtown Community Partnership, which works with all downtown businesses to promote downtown through events, marketing, and partnerships. In Bismarck, downtown businesses started a Downtown Association, which holds a yearly conference for downtown organizations across the state, focusing on ways to make each downtown a unique piece of the community. Sessions also focus heavily on business owners and cities working together to create an atmosphere which draws residents in for fun and business.
In Williston, as the boom began, officials started seeing requests for downtown infill development and reuse of vacant properties. Businesses formed a Downtowners Association to advocate for businesses downtown. However, Williston’s zoning ordinance is from 1983, and did not address the modern needs of a downtown – parking standards addressed suburban development, not infill; ground floor retail uses were not incentivized. In response to new infill and reuse requests, the city began to address the needs of downtown, using a variety of means. The City Commission determined that Downtown Williston was the heart of the city and that it was important to maintain it as a vibrant, livable, central business district for residents of Williston to enjoy.
In 2013, the city hired RDG, out of Omaha, Nebraska and Des Moines, Iowa, as consultants for the Downtown Plan and to conduct an update to the 1983 zoning ordinance, to be known as the Unified Development Code. The Williston Downtown Plan officially kicked off in May of 2013. In addition to completing thorough market research, the city and consultants held public input meetings, stakeholder meetings with property and business owners, studio sessions, and online town hall-style meetings. From those meetings came a variety of projects that residents wanted to see, including an outdoor farmer’s market area, bike racks, an art corridor, an updated Main Street aesthetic, and outdoor gathering spaces.
In addition, RDG used stakeholder and property information to designate “opportunity blocks.” These blocks contain areas where business owners indicated that they were considering moving out of the downtown for space reasons, areas that were blighted or utilized mainly for parking, or areas that were underutilized. Because the future development of Williston was so uncertain, RDG worked to provide a variety of development ideas for each “opportunity block.” For example, in order to provide vibrancy for the downtown, RDG recommended locating a hotel and civic center downtown and recommended three potential “opportunity blocks” in which those could be located. RDG also provided an implementation plan, with potential funding mechanisms for each project.
To compliment the work done by RDG, Williston initiated the reconstruction of Main Street. In 2011, the city completed a Main Street Streetscape Plan with KLJ, an engineering firm out of Bismarck, ND. The city’s underground infrastructure was over 100-years-old and needed to be replaced. Because Main Street is also the business route of ND Highway 2 and 85, the city worked with the NDDOT in 2014 and 2015 to rebuild Main Street. The city and NDDOT worked together to balance infrastructure, vehicle, pedestrian and aesthetic needs in order to create a Main Street that moved cars and pedestrians while providing vibrant, visual appeal. In addition to new water and sewer lines, the Main Street plan incorporated pedestrian bulb outs, planters which serve as benches, new pedestrian-scale aesthetically pleasing lighting, trees, and electrical outlets to serve downtown events. Though this project took two years to complete, business owners pulled together to run and market community events to support the entire downtown. Today, the Williston Downtowners Association uses the intersection of Main Street and Broadway to host “Summer Nights on Main,” an outdoor concert series and beer garden, on Thursday nights from June to August.
Parking downtown has been consistently discussed as an issue to be resolved to revitalize downtown. During the public planning process for the Williston Downtown Plan, and during public meetings relating to the Main Street Reconstruction project, consultants and staff heard many complaints that there was little to no downtown parking available. RDG recommended forming a Parking Committee made up of staff, commissioners, and several downtown stakeholders because the Parking Authority (which is a recognized recommending body formed through the North Dakota Century Code) was not seen as having the ability to be a driving force of change.
The Parking Committee hired a consultant, Rich & Associates, under the assumption that the city would need to build a parking garage. Rich and Associates worked through the summer of 2014, analyzing parking patterns downtown, and determined that the city needed to implement a system which better utilized the parking available downtown, rather than immediately build a costly garage. Rich and Associates also looked at ideal locations for a future parking garage and worked with the city to recommend tools with which to build savings and a plan for a future garage.
Rich and Associates recommended an overall system change from unregulated parking to timed parking, overnight parking permits, better pedestrian atmospheres, and hiring personnel to enforce new parking regulations. In an area of the country which has an extremely harsh winter for almost half the year, this has caused some major adjustments to how residents use the downtown. Rich and Associates suspected, based on their study, that many on-street spaces were being utilized by downtown employees. Implementation of the recommended parking regulations went into effect in December of 2015, and initial results indicated that suspicion was correct. Business owners have reported that customers seem to be able to find closer parking spaces.
From a planning perspective, planners often look at regulating parking and creating pedestrian environments as an inherently “good” action. However, Williston learned during this process that there are many factors to consider when moving to a regulated parking model and that balance is needed. For example, though the city placed timed parking on the streets, the public lots are untimed, meaning that residents who have a longer trip planned can still park about a block away from Main Street. In addition, Williston added additional untimed ADA spaces to Main Street in order to accommodate the needs of downtown employees and customers. Overall, there has been a large shift in the way Williston and its residents think about walking and parking downtown.
Williston has simultaneously realized new public and private investment in the downtown over the last three years. Some of this private investment has been linked to the city’s Economic Development Department, which has used Housing Incentive Funds through the North Dakota Housing Finance Agency, which provides gap financing products for the development of affordable housing in North Dakota. In addition, new developments and re-developments have used the city’s Renaissance Zone program, which provides a property tax abatement for five years. In this way, the city has seen almost $30 million in renovations and new building development in the downtown since 2010.
What have we learned that is useful to other Western/rural communities?
Revitalizing a downtown is a slow process.
There are many stakeholders: business owners, customers, residents of the downtown, citizens of the city, parking authorities, re-development boards, the city, the state, and in Williston’s case - Williams County. Each of these stakeholders has their own ideas and are a vital part of a vibrant downtown. Consensus building is key. Just prior to implementation, the city changed the Downtown Parking implementation plan in order to better accommodate businesses, in order to foster more buy-in from the community. This directly relates to the success of new programs.
We have winters! It gets cold, and icy, and uncomfortable to walk far distances in the winter. Planners may dismiss these concerns, but they are real, and can have a great effect on how your community utilizes a downtown. Creating a pedestrian friendly downtown requires a mindful realization that routes to and from parking need to be safe, well-lit, and interesting. In the winter, they also need to be shoveled.
Fit your community.
Our community is not fancy and is very practical. Williston does not have the staff to have a full-time Main Street gardener. Therefore, when planning the planters placed along Main Street, the city worked with the landscape architect to find perennial, low maintenance plants that would not require daily watering or weeding. In addition, the city has taken steps to create larger parking spaces in public lots and has not striped individual street spaces, in order to accommodate large trucks which are the norm. The city has also worked to create outdoor public spaces that can be enjoyed during summer when many residents treasure the warm weather.
Work with available financial incentives to help developers create game changers.
The Renaissance Zone, Housing Incentive Fund, and Economic Development Star Fund have all helped to bring “game changing” developments to the community. The Renaissance on Main is a four-story, multi-use building at the intersection of two of downtown’s busiest streets. It includes 30 apartments, 15 of which are “essential need” apartments to provide housing to police officers, teachers, and civic employees, a full floor of office space, multiple street level retail spaces, and a parking garage for residents. It used both Renaissance Zone tax incentives and HIF funding in order to make a $16 million investment in downtown Williston. It’s a “game changer,” providing much needed residential and retail space downtown. In a similar way, a building called the “Downtown Plaza” has always incorporated multiple businesses, but recently underwent a renovation using Renaissance Zone tax incentives to add luxury office space on the third floor, and several smaller retail areas which are used as business “incubators.” A third building downtown transformed underutilized ground floor office space into a vibrant Thai and sushi restaurant while adding additional residential units to the second and third floor, using Renaissance Zone tax incentives. These “game changers” bring value to the downtown, and would not be possible without financial incentives.
Downtowns are worth investing in because they provide a heart for a community. They are unique to each community, which is valuable when strip mall style retail looks the same in every town. It may take effort, planning, and collaboration with businesses and residents to provide the exact downtown formula your town needs. In the end, these efforts create a vibrant, livable space for your community.
Rachel Laqua is the Principal Planner for the City of Williston, North Dakota.
Published in the July/August 2016 issue of The Western Planner