Developer's plan for parking lot in historic Comstock neighborhood has homeowners up in arms
MOORHEAD — Carrie Wintersteen remembers being livid when she and her husband David learned that a developer plans to build a parking lot across the street from their home in the historic Comstock neighborhood.
"My husband and I really felt like we had been failed, and we were just shocked," she said Tuesday, March 6.
The lot across the street at 603 9th St. S. has been vacant since 2013 when another developer tore the house down after allowing it to deteriorate while trying to buy up enough properties for an apartment building. The new owner has been cited by the city numerous times for letting the lawn grow wild and failing to remove snow from the sidewalks.
But the parking lot really felt like a betrayal because, Wintersteen said, city law allows these lots to be built in neighborhoods without public notification. Though, a city leader did let her know to attend a meeting, and no one at the meeting told her it was possible for neighbors to appeal, she said.
Wintersteen has since filed that appeal and will learn, along with her neighbors whether the Planning Commission will allow it at the group's meeting at 5 p.m. Wednesday, March 7. She said she's also feeling more hopeful now that developers have agreed to talk with her and her husband.
Matt Baasch, one of the developers, said he's not sure yet what compromises are possible. "As with most things in life, if you work towards something together, it'll be better than working to oppose each other."
For Wintersteen and many Comstock homeowners, this is just the next battle in a long war to keep at bay powerful commercial forces drawn to the neighborhood by its location between two universities and just south of downtown.
Mayor Del Rae Williams said she's supportive of the neighborhood's goals. She's told staff that if the city needs to change development rules, it must come from residents to staff, she said.
Big land owner
The block that's now the new battleground is bounded by Eighth and Ninth Street South and Sixth and Seventh Avenue. Close to 70 percent is owned by a company called T&M Graham Management. Michael J. Graham, who's also president of Magnum Electric in West Fargo, is the CEO, according to Minnesota business records.
T&M is best known among the Comstock homeowners as developers of the Red Door Townhome apartments, 808 7th Ave. S., which many residents dislike partly because the developer didn't design it to blend in with the rest of the neighborhood and partly because they think it wasn't well kept.
Deb White, who lives next door to the Wintersteens, said T&M didn't remove overgrown weeds and allowed too many people to live there. Early last summer, she said, after telephone books were delivered they were allowed to sit on front doors until they rotted and began to blow in the wind, causing residents to have to gather the pages.
The other properties owned by T&M are either empty lots where deteriorating homes had been demolished or lots with homes that are deteriorating.
County property records show all seven properties, including Red Door, have multiple complaints for building code violations from weeds or tall grass, to failure to remove snow, to lack of maintenance. In some cases, the complaints began within months of T&M's purchase and were made repeatedly.
A call to Graham Tuesday was returned by Baasch, who said he wasn't involved with the Red Door.
He said the homes had been in bad shape before they were bought by the present owner and they'll be replaced by something "great for the neighborhood." The plan, he said, is to build a mixed-use building with apartments and a coffee shop.
Baasch suggested the lack of snow removal was caused by miscommunication with snow-removal contractors but didn't know why the lawn wasn't mowed.
He would only identify himself as a member of the development team, but FiveStone Development in West Fargo lists a Matt Baasch as president. That firm developed the Hilton DoubleTree hotel in West Fargo and Bristol Place in downtown Fargo.
Wintersteen, who runs the Theatre B nonprofit group, said she used to live farther north in the Comstock neighborhood until a fast-food restaurant bought land behind the house across the street for a drive-thru and she ended up staring at a dumpster.
But they liked the historic neighborhood filled with homes built before postwar suburbanization, she said, and were determined to stay. So they put out postcards asking anyone wishing to sell to call them, she said, which is how they ended up at their current home nearly 15 years ago.
The house was built in 1936.
This stretch of Ninth Street, Wintersteen said, is one of the few areas in the Comstock neighborhood that doesn't have parking lots on every other block.
There is so much pressure on the neighborhood asserted by the colleges with students looking for low-cost housing and places to park their cars, she said. Eighth Street, which runs along the western edge of the neighborhood, has become more of a commercial corridor also, she said.
Last November, 617 9th St. S., one of the homes near the would-be parking lot sold for $150,000, according to county records. That appears to be the norm on that block when someone buys a home to live in it. T&M paid $350,000 for a lot of similar size that didn't have a house on it but faced Eighth Street. Other than the property with Red Door on it, the firm paid an average of $326,000 for the other six properties.
Frustration boils over
"What's frustrating is none of us are opposed to development," said White, who's lived in her home since 2000 and has fought other negligent property owners. "We want to see development on Eighth Street, and we want a strong corridor. But we just want this to be something that isn't harming the neighborhood. We want people that are responsible property owners. We don't think that's too much to ask."
She said residents spoke this past fall with city leaders, who agreed to try to set up a meeting with T&M but were rebuffed. "They're just from West Fargo. It's not an out-of-town group."
Wintersteen said she feels like city officials worry they'll be labeled as anti-development if they don't do what developers ask. But she said the city needs to balance that with the needs of existing homeowners.
"At the moment, it seems as though some of these (planning) codes are really set up to make the burden of proof be on neighbors from the neighborhood," she said. "It's up to me to argue that it's going to damage my neighborhood as opposed to the burden of proof being on the developers that it wouldn't. I think that ought to shift."
Now much of the neighborhood appears to be up in arms. A petition on Change.org asking the city to rescind the permit for the parking lot, among other things, had 198 signatures as of 7 p.m.