Duluth Planning Commission delays decision on Central siteThe Duluth school district got what it wanted from the city Planning Commission during its regular meeting Tuesday night — a reprieve on any comprehensive plan being attached to the former Central High School site.
By: Mike Creger, Duluth News Tribune
The Duluth school district got what it wanted from the city Planning Commission during its regular meeting Tuesday night — a reprieve on any comprehensive plan being attached to the former Central High School site.
The Planning Commission voted 5-3 to table any decision to recommend to the City Council a change in the plan map at the site. It had just closed what was to be the final public hearing on the issue.
The vote comes after the School Board voted unanimously Monday that it did not support the land use mapped out by city planners after two years of public hearings and suggestions from the community. Had the commission approved the change from “institutional” use, it would have been up to the City Council to vote the changes into the comprehensive plan.
As it stands, the only use allowed on the site is institutional. City planners suggested a mixed use of allowances including light industrial, office, retail, housing and recreation.
Kerry Leider spoke for the district Tuesday and urged the commission to table its decision based on the resolution passed by the School Board. He’s the property and risk manager for the district.
The board hit on three points in opposing the city’s plan:
“We feel we should have a chair at the table,” Leider said to the commission. He said city planners should have worked more with the district on what will be allowed at the site.
Now, given a chance for “face-to-face” meetings with planners, Leider thinks something can be worked out. “It can happen easily in a month,” he said.
When asked by commission member John Vigen exactly how the district would draw up the site, Leider wasn’t specific.
“Yes, I would envision something different,” Leider said.
A map of the site from the school district shows 66 of the 77 acres under “mixed use” development compared to 39 suggested by city planners. The district map does not define what would be included in the developed area.
While city planners included 34 acres of green space, mostly as a buffer to neighboring developments, the school district map shows 13 acres for green space, basically a strip about 100-feet wide around the Central site.
Senior city planner Steven Robertson said that despite the district’s protest, his office remained comfortable with the commission approving the changes.
“This isn’t all of a sudden,” he said. “There’s no sense to wait for a proposed use” from the district.
Robertson also said any consideration of changes to the comprehensive plan does not include land values. “Never are our decisions based on the most value for the properties,” he said.
Planning commission president Drew Digby said the district sounded a bit like Red Plan critics who said they hadn’t been allowed a voice in the process to revamp the school district despite many meetings before decisions being made.
“We’ve had a lengthy formal process,” Digby said, urging the commission to pass the recommendation on for a City Council vote. “We need to balance interests here.”
Digby was given a smattering of applause after saying that while the commission needed to respect a unanimous decision by another public body, it also had to respect the process and public input.
Leider said later that the hearing process and public input has its place but the district might have better ideas.
“They are not experts in property development,” Leider said of residents who expressed what they would like to see at Central. “We have those types of experts.”
The district has been actively showing the property, Leider said, and some of the thoughts about the allowed uses the district would like to see stem from discussions with potential buyers.
Nobody believes the school’s intent is to clear the entire property and “build on every square inch,” Digby said.
“Absolutely not,” Leider said. “Even a developer would be concerned about mixed use, green space and preserving vistas.”
Planning office manager Cindy Petkac reminded those in the City Council chambers that a comprehensive plan isn’t set in stone. Any development would still have to go through the zoning process when specific projects arise, she said.
“This is the vision piece,” she said.
Later, Petkac said she understood the district’s urge to get a “maximum return” on the Central site. But that isn’t the mission of comprehensive planning, she said.
“It’s our job to think of what’s appropriate for the area as a whole.”
Commission members Digby, Henry Banks and Terry Guggenbuehl voted against tabling discussion of changes to the plan map at Central.