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Going with the grain

There’s a substantial new building in the Fargo CBD with a sad track record as investment property. Some of that may derive from management—style and/or unrealistic expectations—but some of the building’s problem was, I believe, a foregone conclusion. The urban design cards were simply stacked against it.

Aerial view of Court House which lies in the hub of this small town in which some 10,000 people flock to shop on Jefferson St. every Saturday night.  (Photo by Bernard Hoffman/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Aerial view of Court House which lies in the hub of this small town in which some 10,000 people flock to shop on Jefferson St. every Saturday night. (Photo by Bernard Hoffman/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Midwestern townsites laid out in the 19th century—like Agincourt and hundreds if not thousands of others—have an inherent grain that predisposes preferential treatment for some lots. The 300-by-300 foot standard city block, split by a twenty-foot alley right-of-way and divided into lots (twenty-four 25-foot wide commercial lots or twelve 50-foot wide commercial sites) establishes a texture, a grain that might be more easily discerned by touch than sight. The orientation of that grain, its texture as real estate, assures, for example, that some lots will be more desirable than others. The lots fronting on Fargo’s Broadway have enjoyed greater stability, I suspect, over those fronting on N.P. or First Avenue North, particularly those lots facing north.

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Lot orientation isn’t the sole criterion but it’s a biggie. Why, you ask? I think it’s as simple as solar access: south-facing lots receive continuous sun; east- or west-facing properties split the difference, getting their sun in either the morning or afternoon; while a northern orientation enjoys daylight on the Summer Solstice and little else. Some day (and it had better be soon, at my age) I’d like to do a study of Fargo’s CBD and test my theory that access to sun at least some part of the day is a factor in stable rental occupancy.

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There is also something worth noting about corner properties. Unless some deviant pattern is employed, the grain of a block will run east-west or north-south. That is, opposed sides will have either storefronts or store sides. In most cases, adjacent block fronts will be very different in their identities: A) glazed display windows, signage and public access on one and B) substantial masonry and closure on the other. Look at Metro Drug at the corner of Broadway and Second Avenue North or the Uptown Gallery a block south at First Avenue: glass on Broadway; not very much glass on the avenues. The consequences of ignoring this or not observing it in the first place can be seen in Moorhead’s urban renewal. The storefronts on North Fourth street have a solar advantage in facing east and west, but the “side” elevations on Main Avenue—despite their southern orientation—are essentially devoid of life and do little to create a warm and welcoming sense of place in a city center that actually once had a considerable amount of it.

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In Agincourt I’ve learned some of these “lessons” the hard way.


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