Rebirth of a downtown landmark: Mercantile project gets nod for mixed-use, parking ramp plan
FARGO — The Mercantile building once distributed wholesale groceries from its location on Broadway. But over the years the warehouse lost its luster, fell vacant, and succumbed to the wrecking ball in the 1960s.
Since then, the location at 401-403 Broadway served as the site of Schumacher Goodyear until it was abandoned after the Kilbourne Group acquired the property for redevelopment in 2016.
The City Commission voted 4-1 on Monday, April 8, to direct city staff to draft a development agreement and financing plan for a parking garage on the site, situated at the northeast corner of Broadway and Fourth Avenue North.
The lone dissenting vote was cast by Commissioner Tony Gehrig, who routinely opposes big projects involving city debt. He views the project as a "huge risk" for a payoff that is years into the future. "This will not make money for the city of Fargo for the foreseeable future," he said.
But Commissioner Dave Piepkorn said the project will help to spur the continued revitalization of downtown, and said Roberts Commons, a similar project combining a city-owned parking ramp with privately developed mixed residential and commercial uses, has been a resounding success.
Plans call for a downtown mixed-use development similar to Roberts Commons. The Mercantile redevelopment would have a 370-stall city parking ramp and a private building with commercial space on the main floor and about 100 residential units upstairs.
Earlier, the city's Parking Commission gave its approval for city staff members to keep working with the Kilbourne Group on the project. The parking ramp, which has an estimated cost of $11 million, would be largely hidden by the building, which would wrap around the ramp, similar to Roberts Commons.
As envisioned initially, the building could rise six or seven stories tall. The project will be paid for by tax-increment financing and parking revenues. Construction could start as early as this summer or fall, city officials have said.
The project would take away the space where the city's farmers market, known as the Red River Market, has been held in recent years. The market would likely move to the new half-acre community plaza that will be just south of the Block 9 tower, city officials have said.
The Fargo Mercantile Co. was a wholesale grocery distributor established in 1895, a little more than two decades after Fargo was established after the Northern Pacific Railway crossed the Red River on its way from the Great Lakes in Minnesota to the Pacific.
After the grocery warehouse outgrew two earlier locations in downtown Fargo, a new four-story brick building was built in 1909 for exclusive use by the Fargo Mercantile Co., according to records from the North Dakota State University Archives.
Company offices were on the first floor. The second floor was dedicated to packaging cigars, with the rest of the building serving as storage space. A railroad spur from the nearby Great Northern Railway gave direct access to rail shipping.
In the early 1950s, as consolidation continued to play out in the grocery business, Fargo Mercantile became a branch of a firm called Griggs, Cooper & Co., based in St. Paul, which later changed to M.J. Sullivan Food Distributors.
By 1960, according to the Fargo city directory, the building was listed as Philco Distributors, an affiliation that would prove short-lived. By the following year, 401-403 Broadway was vacant and remained empty until it was razed in 1966, according to information from NDSU Archives.
"I'm sure they considered it a blighted building," said John Hallberg, archives associate at NDSU Archives. "There was a big push for parking downtown. There was also the urban renewal push."
Redeveloping the site to include commercial uses would restore the abandoned site to something like the days it served as the Mercantile building, he said.
"It's good to see it revitalized," Hallberg said.