Makeover on Superior Street: Officials address three seasons of construction to come
With three years of Superior Street reconstruction through downtown Duluth beginning in 2018, Mayor Emily Larson let it be known she's attuned to the ensuing disruption — in part because it's personal.
"My husband and I, we're business owners and he's got an architecture firm now on Superior Street," she said. "They just moved around the corner — they were on Lake (Avenue), they're now on Superior. He doesn't have a secondary entrance. We're now in it with everybody as it relates to what the impact is going to be."
Larson met with the News Tribune in late October as part of a group discussion about a project scheduled to take downtown Duluth on a ride through late 2020. Included in the discussion were city officials and Brad Scott, project engineer with the architecture firm LHB, which is consulting with the city on the redesign of what is a 150-year-old street.
Topics ranged from cost and financing to design and the project's three-phase timetable.
On Thursday, Larson and the others will present reconstruction plans and "start the next layer of conversation," she said, at a public open house — the last of more than a dozen public meetings leading up to the present design.
Doors at the Radisson Hotel's Great Hall in downtown Duluth open at 4:30 p.m., with the presentation starting at 5 p.m.
Attendees will see a makeover that replaces the street's cracked and heaving red bricks with a concrete roadway and a new aesthetic.
"The focus is going to move off of the street," said David Montgomery, the city's chief administrative officer, "and onto the sidewalks."
Worry and need
The reconstruction of Superior Street is both right on time and perhaps a bit overdue.
The red bricks have simply "reached the end of their useful life," said Jim Benning, the city's director of public works and utilities.
Installed in the 1980s during the Mayor John Fedo administration, the red brick street was a bold shot at creating a new Duluth icon — one that was soon to be superseded by a burgeoning tourism industry which found Duluth's existing natural amenities more to its liking.
Nostalgia for the bricks has yielded some diversity of opinion in public meetings, sources said. But costly ongoing repairs, the exorbitant price of putting down new bricks and safety concerns for pedestrians made a convincing argument for the bricks' replacement. There is no hue and cry for the bricks, Montgomery said, because the consensus has been a collective, "Yeah, we get it."
What lies beneath the bricks has been a more pressing concern. The installation of the bricks was essentially a street overlay, meaning systems underneath remained untouched — even if those systems dated as far back as the last quarter of the 1800s.
The Superior Street reconstruction will replace the water main and allow Minnesota Power, at its own cost, to upgrade its primary power feed to downtown by installing a new duct bank power system — six 6-inch PVC pipes buried together in concrete. Additionally, the city will be using the project to install its new state-funded closed-loop hot water system to heat downtown businesses. The conversion will replace steam heat first installed in the 1930s. Steam will remain in partial use for the hospitals, sources said.
The water main is the real bugaboo for the city. Joints throughout the system leak — to no one's surprise. The water main dates back to 1883, Benning said, and failures that mound the pavement and flood businesses, like the water main break at the corner of Superior Street and Lake Avenue on New Year's Day 2013, are a never-ending worry.
"There is a finite life of that water main," Benning said, "and we want to get to that before it does create catastrophic failures."
Of the thick, cast-iron water pipes that have served Duluth for more than a century, "We got our money's worth," Larson said. "The residents of Duluth received good value for 130 years."
The street work, hot-water conversion, electrical work, water main replacement and more will be put to bid in the spring prior to three consecutive May-through-October construction seasons.
Not including Minnesota Power's work or the separately funded $15 million hot-water conversion and steam plant upgrade, the estimated cost of the Superior Street reconstruction is somewhere between $30-35 million — depending on what spring's bidding process brings.
"It will all be bid at one time, under one project," said Duncan Schwensohn, senior engineer with the city of Duluth.
Bundling projects figures to save the collective work 40 percent of costs, sources said.
"It's an opportunity for the community," Montgomery said. "We are doing a lot of things with this project more efficiently, both public and private, by building it all as part of one project."
The city will reach into several different pots of money to make it happen. It is currently applying for a modest state grant, and will tap into the budgets of multiple city departments, said Wayne Parson, the city's chief financial officer. But more than anything, the project will rely on Superior Street's status as part of the Minnesota State Aid system of streets, roads and bridges.
Duluth receives $3.7 million in state aid funding annually from the Minnesota Department of Transportation. In addition to the $11.1 million of state aid money across three project years, the city will leverage three to four additional years of those funds by bonding against the revenue stream, Parson explained — meaning future state aid payments will be tied into the project and going toward the bond payment.
"We're dedicating multiple years of that funding stream to pay for the road — somewhere between $20 million and $25 million," Parson said. "It's the biggest piece."
When planners determined how to break up the work across three seasons in three sections, they were cognizant, they said, of the disruptions that would be caused by tearing up such a commercially important street.
"You have choices to make and this phased approach is the one that made the most sense," Scott said. "There were painful pros and cons to each (consideration)."
The timeline for Superior Street reconstruction works like so:
• 2018, Sixth Avenue West to Third Avenue West
• 2019, Fourth Avenue East back to Lake Avenue
• 2020, Lake Avenue to Third Avenue West
In each season, one of either Lake Avenue or Fifth Avenue West will remain open to provide downtown access to Interstate 35.
"One of those had to be open," Benning said.
Additionally, pedestrians are expected to have access to one side of the street or the other through construction zones. It's not going to be easy, sources admitted, given the fact that the project is not curb to curb, but building to building.
"It's going to be a dynamic situation," Scott said. "We're going to keep a pedestrian accessway on each block along at least one blockface — and pedestrian access across the avenues so people can get downtown."
In order to keep the public apprised, the city will support day-to-day signage and other wayfinding efforts with a website — superiorstreet.org — as part of an ongoing public awareness campaign. Additionally, more than a year ago, the city created a committee that includes private businesses and the Greater Downtown Council in an effort to receive the input of and stay in close touch with businesses and shopkeepers, said city spokeswoman Pakou Ly.
"You'll see on Nov. 16 when we roll it out that the city has developed a website with navigational information for folks who are residential or tourists," Ly said. "They'll be able to find information on how they can access downtown."
For Larson and the others, the phasing of construction will serve an added purpose. Since each phase will be autonomous — completed in the same construction season it began — the work will afford residents and visitors are glimpse at what's to come.
"You'll see the progress," Larson said. "That's going to be really gratifying for people."
The tearing up of Superior Street figures to yield any number of visits to the city's past — lines that used to fuel a city lit by gas lamps and other remnants which will be unearthed. There will even be a line item bid on the project for the removal of trolley tracks built on railroad ties underneath the bricks.
"Just standard old rail construction," Scott said. "Old school."
Despite every effort made by LHB to detail what awaits contractors with the street's first major upheaval in a century, mysteries will be uncovered.
"There's rarely a project we do where we don't find something that wasn't on the plan," Benning said, recalling the time workers uncovered a man-size stone-arch storm sewer through the Smithville neighborhood of Duluth.
Afterward, when the reconstruction is complete, residents and visitors will see a new downtown — a mystery revealed, so to speak, as the future of downtown Duluth comes into view across three summers.
Sidewalk colors inspired by the North Shore, bump-outs and benches will be used to distinguish gathering spaces — called "amenity zones," by Scott.
A 7 ½-foot pedestrian path next to buildings will feature a special finish, giving it a subtle sparkle. New trees, planters and lighting will spruce up the walkways.
"We've really engineered and designed it so that there's natural gathering spaces," Larson said. "We've tried to activate the sidewalks and walking areas downtown."
The reconstruction figures to carry downtown for the next 30-plus years above ground and another 100 years below it.
"It's a complete and total investment in our downtown that comes along once every 35 to 45 years," Montgomery said, "and we wanted to take advantage of that."
Near the end of the 45-minute roundtable discussion, Schwensohn was asked what he was looking forward to most — given he'll be entrenched in the work for three seasons as its project supervisor.
"How good it's going to look in the end," he said. "It's going to be a pretty awesome-looking downtown."
Superior Street Reconstruction public open house
Thursday at Radisson Hotel, Great Hall
505 W. Superior St.
Doors open at 4:30 p.m. / presentation at 5 p.m.