A four-story building meant to provide off-campus housing to Dickinson State University students is sitting empty this semester, and neighborhood residents are trying to keep it that way.
Blue Hawk Square, located two blocks south of the university on West Villard Street, became another casualty of the DSU Foundation’s dissolution in June when Dacotah Bank acquired the property from a deed in lieu of foreclosure.
Now, the bank is working with DSU and the city to get students back in the 44-unit apartment building as early as the spring semester.
However, residents of the neighborhood around Blue Hawk Square are urging city officials to deny the bank a variance that would allow students to live in the building and park on campus, thereby keeping it from obtaining a certificate of occupancy.
“That building ruined this neighborhood,” said Lloyd Lindbo, who lives across the street from the building on 10th Avenue West.
Lindbo and other neighborhood property owners passionately spoke out against the parking variance and the problems created by Blue Hawk Square for more than an hour at the city’s Board of Adjustment meeting on Aug. 8.
The board eventually denied Dacotah Bank Market President Jeff Moore’s parking variance request, but the matter will go before the Dickinson Planning and Zoning Commission at 7:30 a.m. Monday, Sept. 12.
Leonard Schwindt, Dickinson’s city building official, said no one can move into Blue Hawk Square or live there “until the parking is secured.”
Lindbo, standing in his yard and looking at the structure that towers over the residential neighborhood, said on Saturday morning that he and others won’t quit fighting to keep the building from ever being occupied by students again.
He said he constantly had problems with students blocking his driveway with their cars, or using that area to turn around. Others, he said, would walk through his property to get to other side streets or alleyways where they parked their cars. He pointed to bushes outside of Blue Hawk Square, where there’s trash and discarded letters from the building’s nearby mailbox.
He asked the Board of Adjustment to consider how and where the students parked when Blue Hawk Square was occupied during the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years.
“There should be residential parking only (on the street), and if they can’t walk across the street to a parking lot, what makes you think they’re going to walk to the college to park three blocks away?” Lindbo asked. “They’re not. If they can’t park right next to the building, they’re not going to use it (the parking lots).”
Parking and legal issues
Moore, speaking to the Board of Adjustment, called Blue Hawk Square “a good project for the university.” He said he doesn’t want to see residents parking on the neighborhood streets either, which is why he wants the city to allow those who live in Blue Hawk Square to park on DSU’s campus.
Shel Thompson owns both the Oasis Motel, which is attached to Blue Hawk Square, and the parking lot the DSU Foundation leased for the property across Villard Street to the south.
Moore told the Board of Adjustment the bank asked Thompson to renegotiate the deal he’d made with the foundation but the two parties couldn’t come to an agreement.
The foundation was paying Thompson $36,000 a year, but Moore said the foundation had not paid him for at least a year. Thompson said the bank wanted to pay him less than that, and he wasn’t going to make that deal.
Moore said the bank doesn’t want to use the parking lot at that price, because few students parked there when the building was occupied.
“The students didn’t care to park over there so much because of the security and because of crossing Villard,” Moore told The Press. “I’ve had parents tell me that they don’t want their children to live in that facility if they have to park there.”
Thompson said he had a 10-year contract in place with the DSU Foundation to lease a parking lot, with seven years remaining, and believes Dacotah Bank should fulfill that contract.
“We have an asphalt ocean with a whole lot of problems,” Thompson said. “It’s not good for the city.”
Thompson argues that students would have been forced to use the parking lot and not park on the streets had the foundation, as property owner, hired a full-time residential manager for Blue Hawk Square to enforce parking rules.
The foundation never did that, which also prevented them from obtaining a permanent certificate of occupancy.
Dickinson City Administrator Shawn Kessel said Blue Hawk Square always operated under a temporary certificate of occupancy. He said it was “always was an issue. Never could clear it.”
Building needs work
DSU President Thomas Mitzel, sitting mostly on the sidelines and waiting for the Blue Hawk Square issues to be resolved by the city, said he wants to see students back in the property as soon as possible — he called spring semester is an ideal time frame — and wants to see it run similar to on-campus residence halls.
“We’d have an RA in the building, they’d have to go under the same rules and regulations as a residence hall on campus,” Mitzel said. “For me, that keeps the students safe.”
But the parking lot isn’t the only problem with Blue Hawk Square.
The building was built as a modular construction outside of North Dakota
— “several states away,” Kessel said — and had “some unique design elements,” which he said contributed to the foundation never gaining a permanent certificate of occupancy.
“They’re required to get a third-party inspection once it’s being constructed,” Kessel said. “That wasn’t done. It made it very difficult for us as a city to issue a building permit. The walls were in. When it arrives, we can’t see the plumbing, electrical, what’s behind those walls.”
While Mitzel said Blue Hawk Square is a nice facility, “it needed a little work.”
While no one will go into specific detail about what aspects of the building need to be fixed, a work crew was at the site Saturday.
Moore said there’s nothing wrong with Blue Hawk Square structurally, but that certain aspects are being modified and remodeled, including relocating washers and dryer units, which were located near showers.
Dacotah Bank has hired Roers as its property manager for the facility, Moore said.
“We have a financial interest to get it fixed, because it has no marketability as it stands right now,” Moore told the Board of Adjustment. “We want to be a good neighbor. We don’t want those residents parking in the streets. It’s just a better piece of property with some better parking, and we’re working on getting that.”
‘Make it right’
Lindbo said neighborhood residents won’t stop fighting unless the university and the city can assure them no resident of Blue Hawk Square will be able to park on the city streets — an admittedly lofty request.
“You’ve got to make it right from day one, because it wasn’t done right to begin with,” he told the Board of Adjustment. “Do something for the community, for this neighborhood, so people want to live here.”
Moore told the board the bank is working to acquire lots with houses on the same block as Blue Hawk Square, which could eventually be used as on-site parking. But, with the building able to house 108 residents, Lindbo and others don’t believe that size of parking space would make much of a difference.
Moore said that if the bank can acquire on-campus parking for next semester, there’d likely be stipulations in residents’ lease agreements that state they couldn’t park on the street.
“If they continue to violate that, that could be grounds for termination,” he said.
Moore said the bank can only hold the property for five years, and it intends to sell it eventually.
Thompson said Moore has said in their conversations that the bank can’t guarantee it’ll always be student housing and he believes the city should force Dacotah Bank and potential future property owners to ensure Blue Hawk Square is only occupied by DSU students.
“If that building could go on record as being never anything but student housing, that’s one thing. But to the bank, it’s strictly a pawn, a chip they’ve got to get rid of it,” Thompson told the Board of Adjustment. “So they’ll get rid of it to anybody. That violates the entire development of that property. That violates all of our contracts. That violates all of the good faith we did.”
Thompson, who lives in California but spends summers in North Dakota, said the city needs to have as much involvement as possible in ensuring all of Blue Hawk Square’s issues
— including its potentially flawed construction — are resolved. He called the property hastily constructed, and said “it’s still not done.”
“We could bring this whole thing together to make a really good plan, but to do this temporary thing — just so they can get open, just so they can sell it — is a bad plan,” Thompson said. “You’re going to be right back here down the road on a lot of other issues. Let’s do it the smart way now, and let’s take into consideration all the other issues.”