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David Witham, of Denizen Partners, speaks to the One Million Cups gathering recently in downtown Bismarck. Witham and partners are working on a potential development near the Radisson Hotel in downtown.

The approach to development, especially in downtown Bismarck, seems to be shifting. With the apparent demise of the FiveSouth project, developers are planning on a smaller scale. They are looking at infill projects that will be attractive to certain demographics and moving away from the big homerun ideas.

Infill development is the process of developing vacant or under-used parcels within existing urban areas that are already largely developed.

Reporter Jessica Holdman, in a two-part series last week, looked at how development is being approached in Bismarck.

David Witham, a member of Denizen Partners, says his group wants to develop the empty lot south of the Radisson hotel that’s owned by the city. They have given a proposal to the city. Witham believes the project would draw people who want to live downtown and have the ability to walk to work and to shops and restaurants.

The Denizen Partners have a location in mind, but for other developers it may be difficult to find land. Concentrating on smaller-scale projects may provide more options. A large project like FiveSouth requires a commitment by the city to make infrastructure changes. Some streets would have been changed and a strip mall removed. Infill projects are less disruptive and costly for the city.

The business community and developers are using different events to discuss strategies and the merits of projects. These talks at the weekly 1 Million Cups event and newly created Urban Xchange can, in theory, help drive projects that make sense and head off bad ideas or turn bad ideas into something workable. Urban Xchange will host brainstorming discussions, open to the public, where a panel of experts critique early-stage proposals.

The Tribune Editorial Board believes this approach makes sense. It’s a way to gather feedback, gauge interest in a project and possibly tweak a proposal. It’s also a way to give community members an early understanding of what a project entails. Too often projects are unveiled in steps with some surprises coming late.

There’s no doubt a lot of room for discussion on development. Some are attracted to a self-sufficient downtown where you can walk to work and play. Younger singles or couples without children aren’t looking for a home in the suburbs. There are older people who like the idea of living downtown and being close to medical facilities.

Many families want the experience of owning a home and having a back yard for their children. Others want more space for a garden or a pasture. Serving all those needs can be a challenge.

Gov. Doug Burgum’s Main Street Initiative stresses the economic importance of infill projects and developing the core of cities. He points out the additional costs placed on cities when they expand outward. It stretches street maintenance services, law enforcement and fire departments.

That said, many North Dakotans prefer the open spaces and will always want to expand the boundaries of cities. If developers can find a balance with infill projects that draw more people to the core of the city that may slow the sprawl of our communities. The more people involved in the discussions the more interest there will be in projects.

There’s no doubt Bismarck will continue to grow to the north. The new St. Mary’s high school will increase the interest in moving to the area. Other businesses will relocate there. Bismarck and other cities need to find a balance between developing the core and expanding outward. If so, everyone will benefit.

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