McFeely: Before Block 9, many had big ideas for big projects in downtown Fargo

The 1970s were ripe for grandiose plans to revitalized a fading downtown core, but none worked out

In 1974, Fargo tore up Broadway to change it from a straight to serpentine street. It created the Red River Mall downtown, which was meant to revitalize retail. The city changed Broadway back to a straight street in the mid-1980s.

The behemoth (by Fargo standards) Block 9 project is well underway and its scale is coming into focus. The 18-story building that will (by Fargo standards) tower over downtown on Broadway between Second and Third avenues north will dramatically change the look and feel of the city.

When it's completed in 2020, Block 9 will in some ways be the conclusion of a dream Fargo boosters have had for decades — a game-changing project for downtown. At the least, it's an exclamation point on downtown's remarkable transformation over the last 20 years from worn-out wasteland into an energy-fueled hot spot.

Detractors would call it taxpayer-funded gentrification that benefits wealthy developers, but those people are as much fun as a nail in your foot. Here's hoping downtown Fargo (and Moorhead) continue to grow and evolve, in part because Block 9 and all the other improvements are 50 years in the making. It's been a long road getting here.

Yes, 50 years. That's about how long ago West Acres mall was built, leading to the explosion of retail and restaurants on 13th Avenue South, leading to the decay of downtown. And there were more dreams, schemes and scams to improve downtown Fargo than there are strip malls on 13th Avenue.

Did you know, for example, there were some downtown Fargo leaders who advocated for an Interstate 94 interchange at 5th Street, the street that passes by Lindenwood Park and goes under the freeway? It's true. They envisioned a six-lane expressway from the freeway to downtown, easily moving cars to their businesses.


Didn't happen, obviously.

That idea was floated in the 1970s, the ripe time for plans to "save" downtown Fargo.


One idea the city followed through on, unfortunately, was the Red River Mall. Fargo spent $1.5 million in 1974 to turn Broadway from a straight street into a serpentine roadway with planters, trees and "mooring posts" from Main Avenue to 2nd Avenue North.
"I'm very optimistic at this stage," Robert B. Herbst, president of the Fargo Chamber of Commerce, told The Forum in May 1974 when construction was underway. "I think the mall can turn out to be the salvation of downtown Fargo."

He thought wrong. The city re-straightened Broadway in the mid-1980s.

Fargo cleared lots along Main Avenue east of what is now the Bank of the West tower after securing federal urban renewal funds. The grand plan was to build a major hotel-convention center there. There was also a plan for a hotel at the corner of Main and Broadway, to the point ground was broken, before financing fell apart.

Didn't happen.

The most grandiose proposal in the 1970s was something called Renaissance City. It was pushed by Michael Herbst of Herbst Department Store (a Fargo icon located in what is now the C.I. Sport building), W.R. Amundson of Dakota National Bank, John Whittlesey of what was then called Gate City Savings and Loan Association (now Gate City Bank) and Thomas Wold of Wold Investment Co. (developers who owned the Holiday Inn hotels in Fargo and Moorhead).


Among the boldest plans to revitalize downtown Fargo in the 1970s was a redevelopment named Renaissance City. It called for clearing of everything from Broadway east to the Red River between Main Ave. and 1st Ave. It was floated in 1977 but never came to fruition.

That group called for clearing the entire area east of Broadway to the Red River between Main Avenue and First Avenue North and redeveloping it into a new Herbst Department Store, Dakota National Bank, Gate City and a hotel owned by Wold. It was ambitious and believed to be astronomically expensive, although it never got to the point a price tag was attached.

"The promoters see the possibility of the city-owned parking lot east of City Hall being made into an elevated parking ramp over which apartments or condominium housing could be constructed," read a Forum article in July 1977. "They have also envisioned this two-block-long structure topped with a solar heat collector system that would provide the heat for all the buildings in the redevelopment area."

Renaissance City, referred to as a "pipe dream" in one article, was met with little enthusiasm by existing businesses in the redevelopment zone. Charles Moses, president of Interstate Seed and Grain on the north side of Main, told The Forum that workers were painting his buildings when he heard about the plan.

"We didn't quit painting," Moses quipped.

Good thing. Didn't happen.

A more reasonable plan, and one that had a realistic chance to reshape downtown for decades, was the Riverside Center. Touted with a front-page headline in the March, 27, 1979, Forum reading, "Big downtown Fargo development planned," Riverside Center was a $25 million development located roughly where Fargo's new city hall is today.


The Riverside Center was a development planned for downtown Fargo that was unveiled in 1979. It was to include two 12-story towers, one of which was going to be a Sheraton hotel, retail shopping, condominiums and a health club. The project, slated to be built roughly on the site of the Fargo's new city hall, never got off the ground because of soaring interest rates and lack of financing.

The plan called for two 12-story towers and a group of shops, clubs, apartments and condominiums. One of the towers was supposed to be a 200-room Sheraton hotel, which would have been at the north end of the property across the street from what was then the Town House motel.

"Running south from the hotel would be a galleria of stores, shops and an athletic club," the Forum's article said. "South of the galleria would be a 12-story tower for apartments and business offices.

"Across 1st Ave. to the south ... would be a tower of condominiums. The buildings would be connected by a series of skyways, including one leading from the hotel to the city auditorium.

"Central to the entire project is a five-story parking ramp and adjacent parking lots that would have stalls for 1,200 cars."

Architects said a flood wall would be built to protect the development.

Developers of the project were Vincent Crary, his son Joseph Crary and Charles Bernath. All were from Fargo. Bernath said the Riverside Center, when completed, would generate 700 jobs for Fargo.


Didn't happen.

A Forum headline from September 1980 pronounced the Riverside Center dead, the victim of soaring interest rates and lack of financing. The project had been scaled back to $18 million and the developers were going to construct it in phases, but it couldn't be saved.

More plans to save downtown Fargo surfaced in the 1980s and 1990s, including a hockey arena meant to house an NCAA Division I hockey program at North Dakota State. Pushed by then-NDSU president Joe Chapman and downtown boosters, including this newspaper, the arena failed badly when put to a vote of the public.

It wasn't until 1999 when the North Dakota Legislature -- when good reason was still a possibility in Bismarck -- passed a law authorizing Renaissance Zones and their associated funds. That propelled downtown Fargo development to the point Block 9 is currently taking shape.

Like the methods or not, even the dourest of downtown opponents can't argue with the results.

It took decades, but it happened.


Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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