Duluth city councilor looks for compromise on Rockridge siteJennifer Julsrud is proposing a plan to strike a compromise between development of the site of the former elementary school and neighbors’ concerns.
By: Peter Passi, Duluth News Tribune
Despite more than two years of effort, the Duluth school district so far has been unable to find a suitable buyer for Rockridge Elementary School.
The now-abandoned school building and the 17-plus acres surrounding it were projected to fetch about $1.3 million in the district’s long-range facilities plan, but Kerry Leider, the district’s property manager, predicts the true value of the Lakeside parcel will be unlocked only if its zoning can be changed.
“With the zoning that we have now, there’s no way a buyer will pay us anywhere near what the property is really worth,” he said. Leider contends that any prospective buyer will want assurances that the property can be put to reasonable use.
Now 1st District Duluth City Councilor Jennifer Julsrud is proposing a plan to strike a compromise between development of the site and neighbors’ concerns.
The current R-1 Residential zoning of the property would allow for a maximum of six residential tenants inside the existing building, making inadequate use of a structure that boasts more than 30,000 square feet of space, Leider said.
But the school district encountered neighborhood opposition when it sought to have the zoning changed to R-2 Residential, allowing for higher-density development.
“Our concern was that R-2 zoning was more expansive than what we wanted,” said Mark Irving, who lives near the school on Ivanhoe Street.
He noted that anything of comparable size to the BlueStone Commons development at the site of Duluth’s former Woodland Middle School would be a poor fit for the Rockridge property.
While Irving said he could support the reuse of the existing one-story school building for something such as an assisted-living facility or apartments, he would hate to see a larger-profile development erected that could threaten overlooks from neighboring Skyline Parkway and Hawk Ridge.
To allay neighborhood concerns and accommodate reasonable development, Julsrud is calling for a change to the Duluth city code. She proposes an amendment to the city’s Uniform Development Chapter which would open the way for multifamily or assisted-living developments with the creation of a residential plan zoning district.
Keith Hamre, Duluth’s director of planning and construction services, said that such a designation would require a property owner to submit a binding concept plan that would be subject to review and approval by the Duluth Planning Commission and ultimately the city council, as well.
“That concept plan would have to set the maximum building height, the maximum density and the permitted uses,” he said. In essence, the district would be neither R-1 nor R-2, but instead its own zoning category governed by the concept plan.
“We’re hoping that this could be a good solution that sort of sets the table for reasonable development,” Hamre said.
Julsrud voiced her hope that a residential plan could provide the assurances needed to make neighbors comfortable with redeveloping the Rockridge site.
“What I’m excited about is that this could be a win-win for all of us, if it is done thoughtfully,” she said.
Julsrud said a properly crafted plan would protect green space, too, and pledged: “One of the things I’ll fight for is maintaining trail access to the back of the ridge.”
Tom Ryther, who lives on Oakley Street, asked that the city consider a requirement that any property owner or developer seeking a residential plan must call a community meeting and address any neighborhood concerns.
“We want the opportunity to have our voices heard,” he said.
Ryther said he’s not entirely sold on Julsrud’s proposal.
“I’d have to say I’m taking a wait-and-see approach to this,” he said. “I understand the objective, but I’m concerned about the details and the plans that will actually be submitted.”
Julsrud said the school district is considering a proposal that would designate the existing school building and about eight acres around it for a residential plan zoning district, subject to review and approval. She said the school district would then be allowed to develop the remaining nine acres into buildable residential lots, consistent with the existing R-1 zoning.
Leider said he is proceeding with cautious optimism.
“We’re looking forward to this process, but the outcome will determine how we ultimately feel about it,” he said.
Hamre said any change in city code that would allow a residential plan for the Rockridge property to be developed will require public hearings and votes at both the planning commission and city council levels.
As a result, it will be mid-March, at the earliest, before any meaningful change could come into play.
“There’s a lot of process that still has to happen,” Hamre said.