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Echola: Roers and city planners apparently learned nothing from Ponyland development

In 2016, Roers construction caused an uproar over development at Ponyland because they didn't bother to seek the input of the neighboring Northport community. Two years later, Roers hasn't learned a thing in Roosevelt with development at the Newm...

Zac Echola Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

In 2016, Roers construction caused an uproar over development at Ponyland because they didn't bother to seek the input of the neighboring Northport community. Two years later, Roers hasn't learned a thing in Roosevelt with development at the Newman Center. On Tuesday, the planning commission meeting was packed with folks protesting Roer's latest project.

It's no surprise that, again, proponents of a tasteless mega-complex try to pit "affordable" student housing against historic neighborhood preservation. That's a false choice.

There are ways to balance the needs of various populations in a neighborhood, such as through guaranteed public housing for all. If the public owns the apartment complex, its development, management and policies are ultimately controlled by voters instead of unnamed, unaccountable and untouchable pencil pushers in an office somewhere.

Or we could explore why the city of Fargo's vacancy rate is the highest it's ever been reported. There's plenty of apartment housing to go around, but our lousy, underfunded bus system doesn't run on Sundays or often enough to be of much use to busy working students. It can take over an hour by bus to get 15 minutes by a privately-owned car. That's ridiculous!

Or we could look into supporting cooperatively-owned housing, in which the tenants have a democratic say in their rents and maintenance. Or we could expand that concept using a community land trust, where a building's neighbors are also represented.

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The possibilities are nearly endless, so why is our city government so focused on doing the same thing over and over again, with the same frustrating results?

For example, the Woodrow Wilson building in Roosevelt. The owners rent out apartments at rates far higher than what they claimed when its developers asked the city for a tax deal. Who pays for these favorable arrangements with big landowners? Middle-class homeowners in the form of property taxes.

Public resources end up in sweetheart deals with rent seekers. Downtown is owned primarily by a couple of men who snatched up cheap property, then pulled strings to create the regulatory environment so nobody else could play. That's a miscarriage of our resources, designed to clog up parking in places like downtown, where these same developers bid on "public-private" contracts for-you guessed it-parking ramps.

So here we are again. Same thing, different project. The Fargo Planning Commission is in a another bind, only some of the names have changed. It has too few neighborhood advocates on its board. Its current composition is primarily construction, real estate and finance executives with MBAs instead of ordinary working people and renters. Its current makeup is far more interested in their bank accounts than in the livability of our core communities. This isn't their fault, of course, these people don't appoint themselves. They're appointed by the city commissioners and the mayor whose campaigns are funded by the same land developers they're supposed to regulate.

This mess doesn't stop with the city bosses! If North Dakota State University needs more housing for students, why isn't Sen. Jim Roers or Rep. Shannon Roers Jones fighting for funding in the legislature? Why hasn't Kristin Roers made it a campaign plank? It's plainly easy to see why the deck is stacked in their favor, isn't it?

A better world is possible! Renters and homeowners alike have a lot to lose, while a few businessmen and politicians have a lot to gain. I applaud the organizers in Roosevelt for taking some time out of their day to address the Planning Commission. They are right to be mad. It's time our city, county, state and federal governments work for all of us instead of bending to the will of a few wealthy families. These issues will only recur in another neighborhood sometime in the near future unless regular people band together to make it stop.

Echola, Fargo, is a former member of The Forum’s Readers Board.

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