Bartram bets big on downtown Moorhead

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

Architect and developer Kevin Bartram is betting big on downtown Moorhead.

As momentum builds in the long-languishing central business district, the Fargo-based visionary has invested $30 to $40 million primarily in housing between Main Avenue and First Avenue North. Starting cautiously at the first intersection east of the Main Avenue Bridge in 2004, he has so far completed 266 apartments and condominiums in a little more than 15 years.

When he’s done with construction on his two latest acquisitions this summer – the Fairmont Creamery complex formerly owned by Eventide Senior Living, and the United Sugars property adjoining the Moorhead Center Mall – he will have added nearly 500 living units in the zone targeted by the Downtown Business Association for its revival.

“Downtowns don’t come alive without people living in them. It’s critical,” he observes. Recounting a motorcycle trip this summer to the West Coast, he says he and his wife visited the business districts of every city between Bismarck and Seattle. “They may have rebuilt them, but there’s very little housing. When the 8-to-5 crowd goes home, they really empty out. Fargo is very unique, busy from early in the morning to late at night. That’s going to be reflected in Moorhead, too.”

Bartram has been involved in designing and building Fargo-Moorhead landmarks since graduating from North Dakota State University’s program in 1982. A native of Surrey, North Dakota, he joined the architectural firm he now heads in 1980, becoming a partner in 1987. He and the late Bob Mutchler built an architecture and engineering firm that pioneered as well in construction management.

The firm had done projects in Moorhead during the 1980s and 1990s, including several for Eventide and Concordia College. Among its credits: the Olson Forum and the Olson Skyway traversing Eighth Street South. But it was an opportunity that didn’t reach fruition that first piqued his interest in downtown Moorhead.

“We were involved in plans for the Moorhead Convention Center in 1993,” he explains. “Our renovation of the old American Legion building into what became the Red Bear was part of that. The convention center itself would have been built in Davy Park, and the Fairmont would have become the hotel.” But the pieces never came together, he notes, including a lack of investors and opposition to developing the park. Along the way, Mutchler Bartram Architects tentatively shook hands on an agreement to buy the Fairmont; that dissolved along with the rest of the dream. But Bartram got to know the Moorhead economic development staff – a connection that would prove significant.

Ten years later, MBA was on much firmer ground when the company purchased aging structures on three corners of Main and Fourth directly east of Memorial Bridge. Already experienced by then with turning what’s old into something new from similar projects in downtown Fargo, they still had lingering doubts of the viability of the projects east of the river.

“We went about it cautiously. There were a lot of questions – some of them ours,” Bartram says now. “We wanted to prove there was demand. We’d do one, fill it, and then move on to the next.” They renovated the Kassenborg Block (site of Kirby’s), tore down less salvageable structures including Ralph’s Bar, and constructed the rest of what eventually became half a dozen apartment and condominium buildings, several with retail spaces on the ground floors.

Today, residents occupy the 119 apartments and nine condominiums that stand on those corners, most overlooking Memorial Bridge and the river, along with Rustica and several other retail and office establishments. They cluster around the Douglas House; built in 1872, the city’s oldest house is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

One lesson the development taught him and his colleagues, Bartram notes, is that those who moved into the new and refurbished units were not quite who everyone expected: “People predicted it would be mostly college students, with the two campuses so close,” he remembers. “Instead, it’s a far more diverse mix – graduates, empty nesters, professional couples, families. A lot of people would rather rent than own.” Students today make up fewer than 10% of their tenants, he says, a proportion that has held steady as MBA introduces other multi-family buildings to the market.

Two sparkling new buildings farther east are now welcoming tenants. On the former site of the Knights of Columbus,the four-story 9Thirteen Lofts houses 45 one-, two- and three-bedroom units. Just to the south, residents began moving into the just-completed three-story, 28-unit Block 37 Flats three weeks ago.

A block northward, the 65-unit Simon Warehouse Lofts occupy a century-old potato warehouse transformed into 65 living units with 35 creative floor plans among them. It was something of a challenge, Bartram admits, after standing empty or being used for storage for several decades. “We looked hard when we bought it. It had short floors – ceilings too low for offices and commercial, but it worked well for apartments. It was in bad shape, but we knew we could repair the brick and structural issues.” It also qualified for state and federal historic tax credits, as did the even older armory next door that’s opening soon as the Armory Events Center.

“Working with old buildings has become our ‘thing,’” he reflects. “We stumbled into remodeling these older structures back when everyone else was looking at building new.” He cites the possibilities in their concrete or exposed wood floors, masonry walls, high ceilings and big windows. “A lot of people are seeing what’s possible now. We didn’t do anything earth-shaking. You’re seeing the same trend all over – Minneapolis, Fargo-Moorhead and beyond.”

Bartram made news this summer twice – first with the acquisition of the empty United Sugars office property on Center Avenue at the east end of the soon-to-be-redeveloped Center Mall, and then with his agreement to purchase the Fairmont assisted living complex on First Avenue North, closing the circle begun with a handshake nearly 30 years before. Eventide decided to sell the historic creamery and the newer building rather than repair a catastrophic water leak last winter.

MBA has big plans for both sites. The United Sugars lot will make way for new construction of a five-story building housing 110 apartments and condominiums, with commercial space on the ground floor. At the Fairmont, the company will remodel the historic creamery into 36 two- and three-bedrom apartments. The 1987 facility next door will be be torn down and replaced with 63 one- and two-bedroom units.

“We would already be working full-bore on United Sugars if we hadn’t bought the Fairmont,” he confides. “It doesn’t do these old buildings any good at all to sit empty. They start to fall apart.”

When those two projects are completed over the next several years, Bartram and his companies will be responsible for 475 living units in the heart of downtown Moorhead – very close to the city’s development goal of “500 in 5 years.” But is that the end of the story?

“Nothing else is on the table right today,” he says. “But there are always discussions going on. Who knows? There’s nothing I can share right now.”

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