Duluth restaurant co-owner plans mixed-use developmentThe co-owner of At Sara’s Table/Chester Creek Cafe is looking beyond the popular eatery she helped start a decade ago.
By: Candace Renalls , Duluth News Tribune
The co-owner of At Sara’s Table/Chester Creek Cafe is looking beyond the popular eatery she helped start a decade ago.
About 100 feet beyond it. Carla Blumberg plans to build a 12,000-square-foot, mixed-use building on the vacant northwest corner of East Eighth and 19th Avenue East, kitty- corner from the restaurant at 1902 E. Eighth St.
She wants to create a small hub of retail, office and residential space in a part two-story, part three-story building with a parking lot in back and a large garden along 19th Avenue East, where it will get good sun, and be showier and easier for the public to enjoy. All of it, she said, would be done with sensitivity to the environment and sustainable building practices.
But first, she needs the zoning on part of the property changed from R1 (residential-traditional) to MU-N (mixed-use neighborhood) that would allow the $2.1 million to $2.4 million project, based on construction costs of $180- to $200-per-square foot, to move forward.
City staff is for it. The Duluth Planning Commission recommends approval. The matter goes to the Duluth City Council May 14 for a vote after an opportunity for public comment.
So far, there’s been little opposition, though some have raised concerns about increased traffic and noise and more students in the area.
“All of the surrounding property owners were very supportive,” said Keith Hamre, the city’s planning manager, noting that the site was identified in the Higher Education Small Area Plan as a site for mixed-use neighborhood development.
Nearby property owner Wila Heger of Ramsey, Minn., however, opposed a three-story building on the site, noting that only small two-story homes and one two-story building were in the immediate area. She also was concerned about adding more rental properties to the neighborhood, according to her letter on file with the city.
But Blumberg said with the property’s slope, her proposed building would be two stories in the back where the grade is higher and three stories in the front where it’s lower, leaving the front just a few feet higher.
“I think it will fit in,” she said. “It won’t be overwhelming.”
At first she was thinking about offering small apartments for students. But with a developer’s plans to create student housing at nearby Woodland Middle School, she changed her mind. Now she’s looking at larger apartments for older, more stable adults.
“Not seniors, but people in the middle, empty nesters, maybe visiting professors or graduate students,” she said of the desired tenants.
The area is already a mix of single- and multi-family residences and commercial, including Blumberg’s restaurant and Vintage Italian Pizza across the street. Moreover, a small office building and two small houses previously were on the site.
Blumberg said her project will help fill the community need for more mixed-use buildings to serve residents and nearby college students.
“We need to be pedestrian-friendly, so people don’t need to drive to the mall or Hermantown,” she said. “It’s better to have things available in the neighborhood if they need to make small purchases.”
She envisions a couple of small retail shops on the street level facing Eighth Street, selling commonly needed items and services. She sees offices on the second floor, apartments on the third. A garden shed would be to the rear of the gardens, which would be large enough to supply Chester Creek Cafe with vegetables and herbs.
Even with the City Council’s approval of the zoning change, the site plan must later be approved by the Duluth Planning Commission.
But Blumberg faces another big hurdle.
After she purchased the site’s four lots several years ago and removed the two houses and office building, she discovered the ground was contaminated.
The office building, which housed an architectural firm, had been converted from a gas station, but the site never had been completely cleaned up.
Blumberg said she had been told no further action was needed.
“But to build anything on that lot, you have to deal with it,” she said. “Even though old gas tanks were removed, there was a slight smell of petroleum in some test holes done by engineers. Sure enough, it was contaminated by oil and gas and diesel.”
To help with the cleanup costs, Blumberg has the city’s help in seeking a grant of state cleanup funds that could cover 75 percent of the cleanup costs.
That cleanup will happen this year, Blumberg vows, after which she can finalize the project’s financing. As for the start of construction, she said, “I’m going to try my darnedest to make it happen this year.”