DTA puts on developer's hat in effort to drive downtown ridership
By authorizing a new study on downtown development, the Duluth Transit Authority is supporting a vibrant downtown and its own future within it.
The service that drives its customers is now looking to drive economic development in downtown Duluth.
The Duluth Transit Authority is investigating what it will take to deliver new beginnings to a pair of blighted parking ramps, as well as its own now-redundant transit center on West Superior Street across from the Holiday Center.
Everything is on the table for the three locations — from child care centers to a grocery or workforce housing.
“There’s a higher, better use,” for the blighted parking ramps and the DTA’s redundant storefront on downtown Superior Street, DTA General Manager Phil Pumphrey said.
“We have the ability to help make some projects even more financially viable, meet community needs to redevelop the downtown area, and meet transit needs,” Pumphrey added. “Nobody likes to look at structures that are falling down in disrepair. The feasibility study will help us decide on some of those things and point us in the right direction.”
At its meeting in January, the DTA’s board of directors approved using parking revenues from the Duluth Transportation Center's filled ramp to fund a $100,000 feasibility study. The study will look to identify partners to help fuel development at the three identified places.
The blighted ramps are the Shoppers Auto parking ramp at 18 N. Second Ave. W., and the U.S. Bank ramp located one block due east on Michigan Street from the DTA’s main transit hub, the Duluth Transportation Center.
The News Tribune spoke to both the city of Duluth and Duluth Local Initiatives Support Corporation to better understand the DTA's motives, and what it means for a transit company to take the wheel on development.
Pam Kramer, executive director of Duluth LISC, called it an “exciting and creative role for the DTA to be playing.”
“They’re looking at the needs of downtown workers and residents in the Hillside neighborhood, and studying issues LISC is making sure we address in the community,” she said. “Things like affordable housing and child care needs.”
Adam Fulton, deputy director of Duluth's planning and economic development division, and Kris Liljeblad, its senior transportation planner, weighed in to say that the concept of Transit Oriented Development, while unique to Duluth, is a well-known concept in larger cities, where operators of major transit lines support development along those lines in order to drive the use of their service.
“It’s no surprise the DTA was heading this way when you look at the proximity of these parcels to their transit center,” Liljeblad said. “It makes a lot of sense.”
Fulton cited new housing developments in and around downtown such as CityView Flats, First Street Lofts and the new housing under construction in the Board of Trade building as creating more downtown living spaces, and more potential transit users.
“We’ve received and been aware of many housing proposals coming in that want to be downtown,” Fulton said.
He explained that the city of Duluth does not have a parking space requirement for new housing developments in its downtown, meaning developers can reduce costs by putting in minimal parking. Given the transit system pulsing through downtown, it creates an appealing environment for people from the millennial generation and others who want to live without an automobile.
In that regard, Duluth is reflective of a national trend which Fulton said he expects will continue of downtown housing creating city-dwellers without cars.
“It’s a great opportunity, where there is a high level of transit service already, to reduce the expense of having a car,” Fulton said. “People can rent space and not have to have a place to keep a car. It avoids an additional household or business expense of renting additional space to store vehicles.”
Pumphrey called an automobile a person’s “second biggest personal expenditure” after their housing. The ability to live downtown and tap into the transit system would reduce worry that comes with having an automobile.
Liljeblad is new to a new position at the city, starting as its transportation planner in August. He came from Akron, Ohio, where they were actively trying to reduce parking requirements, and said places such as Seattle already feature a high frequency of housing development sans parking spaces.
The two outdated parking ramps targeted for study by the DTA are privately owned. Depending on what comes of the study, “substantial additional processes,” will be needed, Fulton said, including purchasing those properties.
But that’s down the road.
“We’re excited about reinvestment in downtown broadly speaking,” Fulton said. “And it’s nice to see the DTA taking this kind of proactive approach.”
The DTA’s involvement won’t have to stop with a study alone, Pumphrey said, as it has access to Federal Transit Administration funds to provide financial assistance for development costs related to demolition, environmental clean-up, site preparation and foundation building.
The DTA opened its $30 million Duluth Transportation Center in 2016. Much of the parking at the now condemned U.S. Bank ramp has moved to the Transportation Center, Pumphrey said. Sources noted the irony of parking money being used to fund a study aimed an finding out how to create more public transit users.
"Exploring this feasibility study helps build on the investment they already made, and could be a positive for helping to support that investment as well as helping the community," Kramer said.
The DTA is currently soliciting firms to conduct the study, and it will take up to 90 days to complete it once it's under way, Pumphrey said.
“It can’t be just my opinion,” Pumphrey said. “It has to be somebody who can come in, examine the market, talk to private investors and look at all the potential uses.”
This story was updated at 8:47 a.m. Feb. 10 to clarify that the city of Duluth exempts parking requirements for housing developments in its downtown. There are parking requirements for developments outside of downtown. It was originally posted at 4:11 p.m. Feb. 8.