Moorhead neighborhood may start push to protect historic homes after latest is razed for parking lot
MOORHEAD — The house next door to Brad Benton's just south of downtown here was built nearly nine decades ago with exposed rafters and brackets that showed off its Craftsman influence.
"It's just a charming little bungalow. Great architecture," Benton gushed. "It's just a cute little house —
or it was."
On Tuesday morning, Nov. 28, heavy construction equipment arrived at 412 7th St. S. and by the following afternoon the house was gone.
George Korsmo, co-owner of Korsmo Funeral Service just behind the house, said he plans to expand his parking lot into the now-vacant parcel. He grew up in the neighborhood and that house had been his twin grandsons' first home, so he cares about what happens here, he said, but seniors who come for funeral services complain there isn't enough parking within easy walking distance for them.
"The grinch in me had to overcome the sentimental me," he said.
But this isn't a story about two neighbors in conflict.
What Korsmo did upset many in the neighborhood. They resent the intrusion of a commercial business on the residential street, the way zoning allows parking lots to be built in residential areas with little say from neighbors, and the loss of a little piece of history.
"It's really like the front tooth — one of the front teeth in our neighborhood, on our block, got kicked out. The fact you can tear down a perfectly good home and build a parking lot in its space, to me it's wrong," said Matthew Dahmen, who lives on the other side of the street and a few houses down. "Why? Why in our neighborhood can we do that? Why in any neighborhood can we do that?"
Mayor Del Rae Williams, who's spoken with Dahmen and other neighbors, said she too is saddened by the loss of an old home. She said she's encouraged neighbors are now in discussions to find a way to prevent more homes from being torn down in the same way.
Parking lots for all
In Fargo and West Fargo, commercial parking lots are not allowed in residential zones, officials there said.
But not so in Moorhead, where city codes allow for parking lots to be built in all zones, even residential zones, according to City Planner Kristie Leshovsky. In residential zones, however, the lots must be set far back from the street, have landscaping and fencing using material subject to city approval.
For some homeowners along Seventh Street South, that's alarming because the zoning along Eighth Street South, one block over, allows for apartments and businesses, among them Korsmo's. Should other businesses follow Korsmo's example, that would mean more parking lots on Seventh.
"Essentially, they're taking a residential property, turning it into a commercial property, and there's no say by neighbors," Benton said.
Besides the impact a parking lot would have on the appeal of the neighborhood, neighbors are especially concerned about the driveway into the lot from Seventh Street because there are many young children in the neighborhood.
Korsmo said city codes require him to put an outlet there, but he expects traffic to be light because the funeral home only sees about three services a week.
He said he does plan on going beyond city requirements with higher fencing and lighting aimed away from Benton's house.
Built in 1928, the house that had been next door to Benton's was close to the average age for homes on that block, which is about 87 years. The newest is an apartment built in 1954 and the oldest is a big American Foursquare-style home built in 1905.
"That's why we live in the neighborhood is because of the unique architecture, the historic value," Dahmen said.
He moved here in 1998. Benton moved here six years ago and said he bought his home in part because of the neighborhood's charm.
According to Benton, many homes were built at about the same time as the homes in Fargo's historic Hawthorne Neighborhood, much of which is on the National Register of Historic Places and protected by special zoning. Moorhead does not have such zoning and only a few properties here — 412 7th St. S. isn't one of them — are on the register, much less whole neighborhoods.
Korsmo said he, too, cares about the neighborhood that he called home from the fifth grade until after his graduation from Concordia College down the street; he now lives in south Moorhead. "I probably have been a resident of this neighborhood longer than anybody else."
Korsmo Funeral Home was built in 1963 and his family moved in that year. He said this was common at the time because the business requires a funeral director be present almost 24/7.
Korsmo and his wife Ruth, the funeral home's other owner, bought the home at 412 7th St. S. a decade ago knowing one day they'd turn it into a parking lot. At one point, his son and daughter-in-law moved in after they rushed home from a mission in Peru so she could give birth to the premature twins, Korsmo said. The house was his grandbabies' first home after spending three months in the hospital, he said.
"I don't take lightly that we're changing a neighborhood," he said. "We've owned this house for a long time and have put this off as long as we can."
The funeral home has 15 parking stalls in its current lot, five more out front and another 10 that the credit union next door was willing to share, he said. There's an overflow lot across Fourth Avenue South with maybe 20 stalls, he said, but it's not very practical. "We deal with elderly people — a lot of elderly people — and our overflow parking is just too far away for many elderly people to make a trek, and especially trek across a street. It might be one thing if you're 30 but something else if you're 80."
The new lot would add a dozen spaces.
The question for Benton, Dahmen and the other neighbors is what can prevent a new parking lot from coming to their neighborhood.
Leshovsky said the City Council would have to change zoning codes to prohibit parking lots in residential zones.
Mayor Williams said the city has to be careful not to change zoning just to stop a developer because that would set a bad precedent. When someone buys a property to develop it as zoning allows and then they start doing it the city can't make them stop just because neighbors don't like it, she said.
For those concerned about the historic charm of the neighborhood, there is special zoning called "historic overlay districts" used in Fargo to discourage renovations that detract from the historic external appearance of homes.
Williams said Moorhead homeowners she's spoken with have hesitated to adopt such zoning because they fear it might tie their hands too much with their own renovations, though she suggested a lot of concerns have to do with interior renovations.
Leshovsky said she's consulting with Fargo planners to see how Moorhead might implement such zoning. She said in Fargo historic overlays are always initiated by residents who do much of the research, including taking inventory of the historic homes.
Benton said the historic preservation movement in Fargo got started because homeowners in the Hawthorne neighborhood were upset with the destruction of historic homes. "We should be more organized over in Moorhead. But maybe this is the beginning of that."