Rumor meets reality for Woodland site retail optionsMICHAEL KOOI: Back when I was in grade school, few lectures induced more drool than the one about “hearing” versus “listening.” Recently, I found myself thinking of that distinction while listening to developer Mark Lambert present his plans for the Woodland School.
By: Michael Kooi, for the Budgeteer
Back when I was in grade school, few lectures induced more drool than the one about “hearing” versus “listening.” Recently, I found myself thinking of that distinction while listening to developer Mark Lambert present his plans for the Woodland School.
Mr. Lambert covered details large and small — from the location of tenant parking for the proposed apartment buildings to the number of white pines in a designated “green” preservation area on the site. But here’s what many of the people in the room heard that night (and subsequently read in the Duluth News Tribune): Trader Joe’s and Chipotle Mexican Grill might come to Duluth!
Dropping those names was a shrewd move. After all, is there a more popular pastime in Duluth — outside of youth hockey — than dishing about what national chains we’d like to see occupy which empty storefronts in town?
More importantly, new and high-quality retail is essentially the development’s only carrot for homeowners near the site. Otherwise, they’re looking at a steady diet of construction congestion and noise, more changes and roadwork along Woodland Ave., and ultimately less open public space.
If you were listening closely, however, you know that the retail aspect of the project offers no guarantees. In fact, one of the largest variables is whether or not UMD will build a “grand entrance” to its campus directly across from the Woodland development.
Mr. Lambert stated repeatedly that the placement of the entrance will affect the amount and quality of the retail he can attract to the site. Specifically, he suggested that the development would be a tough sell to retailers without it. In fact, his consultants have already advised him to build the living and retail spaces separately, enabling him to build as much — or perhaps more to the point, as little — retail space as demand requires.
None of this information had to be gleaned between the lines. Mr. Lambert said all of it out loud — sometimes directly to Susan Banovetz, UMD’s director of external affairs, who was in attendance. Ms. Banovetz refused to take the bait that night. Instead, she told Mr. Lambert that his preferred location would require paving over some heavily used athletic fields, and that the final placement of the entrance will be determined through a planning process scheduled to commence this spring. A couple of weeks later, she reiterated this hedge publicly to the city planning commission.
Indeed, Mr. Lambert’s preferred entrance location seems to make little sense for the university. Each of the college’s current entrances would still offer faster access to any given building or parking lot.
For this same reason, it’s hard to believe that the plan’s ersatz intersection would significantly increase car or foot traffic — two critical metrics used by national chains to evaluate potential sites — beyond what the addition of the housing units alone would already bring.
Perhaps Mr. Lambert is overstating the entrance’s impact to preserve his vision for the site. Perhaps he’s aggressively angling for every selling point he can get. Or, maybe he’s merely wagging a preemptive finger at UMD in the event that the retail options end up disappointing area residents.
There’s nothing nefarious about any of these strategies. Mr. Lambert has taken on a significant amount of risk with the Woodland project and he’s merely looking out for his own interests. The same goes for UMD.
But the prospect of those interests aligning to bring high-quality retailers like Trader Joe’s or Chipotle to Woodland Ave. sounds more like a long shot than a sure thing to me. Despite what you may have heard.
Michael Kooi is a freelance writer living in Duluth.