A mixed-use residential and retail building pitched for downtown Bismarck could be the first to prove whether there's a growing desire for denser living and area in-fill.
David Witham knows downtown apartment living isn’t for everyone, but he thinks there is some demand for it in Bismarck that is not being addressed by other developments.
Witham says there are others, like himself, who want to walk to work and enjoy taking part in the street life that makes up a neighborhood. He and other members of Denizen Partners have asked for the opportunity to serve that market, responding to the city's request for a development proposal for the empty, city-owned lot south of the Radisson hotel.
“I know this very well,” said Justin Walsh, of downtown-based Co-Schedule during a weekly 1 Million Cups event. “I hear it all the time — that walk factor.”
Walsh told a story about a Co-Schedule employee who made it a goal to live within three city blocks. By doing his grocery shopping at White Drug, the man was able to make it work.
"It didn't really feel like I was trapped," he told Walsh, who said he saw it as a sign of a cultural change happening nationwide.
Others aren’t as sure the need is there anymore in Bismarck.
Chad Moldenhauer, of K & L Homes, was an investor in the proposed FiveSouth project that would have brought 250 apartments, a convention hotel, restaurants and retail to South Fifth Street. When that project was proposed, he believed there was a demand and appetite for investment. But with the subsequent slowdown in oil, the market changed and Moldenhauer isn’t convinced it’s back.
“If there were enough people asking for it, we would be building it,” Moldenhauer said. “You can’t create a market.”
Though, admittedly, Moldenhauer specializes in higher-end homes and his clientele aren’t typically first-time homebuyers. What property he has downtown is commercial office space.
“If there was a successful project, others would follow suit,” Moldenhauer said. “But up to this point, we haven’t seen a successful project.”
Denizen Partners hopes there's could be it.
Jeff Ubl, a member of Denizen Partners, agreed there has to be a market in place. Land is difficult to find downtown, making the empty, city-owned lot an opportunity. Should the proposal garner approval by the city commission, Witham said his company aims to overcome issues previous projects have had by building on a smaller scale, with 40 units.
One of the obstacles to the FiveSouth project was its size did not provide infrastructure cost-saving benefits associated with in-fill because it required new roads and pipe to support it, Moldenhauer said.
A smaller project can use existing infrastructure and parking, according to Whitham, who said incremental smaller development also leaves room in the market for other people to build if the demand is there, something he sees as a benefit for bringing in a "richer mix of housing types."
Denizen Partners is conducting market research on the project now. Even if a purchase agreement on the 630 E. Main Ave. property is not granted, Witham said the company is interested in doing a project downtown and the market research will be of use.
"We think there's value downtown whether the site works or not because there isn't a lot of downtown residences," he said.
Denizen has a different target market — the nurse or the coder at Co-Schedule — than the current populations served. The downtown core has 342 housing units, the majority of which are occupied.
Patterson Place Apartments has 117 units for low-income elderly and disabled residents. Metro Plains has 30 units, all occupied, at 100 W. Main Ave. for seniors. The former Prince Hotel has 60 units and largely serves as a homeless shelter. Pride Inc.'s Heritage Apartments have 30 low-income units. Steve Pine, owner of Broadway Centre, said he has five units left of the 17 high-end $500,000 condos he built in the mixed-use building and one unit is listed with a Realtor by tenants who are moving out of town. Pine also has 18,600 feet of available commercial space.
Other options include the Mason Apartment Building with 38 units and the Norma Building with 19 units, operated by Goldmark Property Management, as well as 10 units in the former Tribune building.