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Kenwood commercial development placed on hold by Duluth Planning Commission

Comissioners want more time to address traffic, screening concerns related to the construction of additional retail and restaurant space in the neighborhood.

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Shamrock Properties caused a stir when it began bulldozing trees on a large piece of propoerty next door to the Kenwood Shopping Center in Apri 2020. The developer is now being asked to replace many of those trees. Tyler Schank / File / Duluth News Tribune
Tyler Schank
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A developer's plans to construct a 12,000-square-foot commercial development will require further review before the Duluth Planning Commission is willing to put the project to a vote.

Commissioners voted to table action Tuesday night on a proposal to sign off on a development located northeast of the Kenwood Shopping Center off West Arrowhead Road. The new building would be called Arrowhead Center, and the developer, Shamrock Properties LLC, proposes that one-third of the structure would house a future restaurant with a drive-thru window, and the remaining 9,000 square feet would accommodate an also-yet-to-be-revealed retail store.

In moving to table the project, Commissioner Andrea Wedul asked that staff do more to assess and address any prospective traffic concerns related to the development on what is already a busy thoroughfare.

Commissioner Gary Eckenberg questioned the developer's decision to remove a large number of trees from the site without first consulting the city. He said the abrupt tree clearing in early 2020 "caused so much anxiety in the neighborhood and brought a lot of questions from this planning commission to staff."

Eckenberg noted that Tom O'Brien, Shamrock's managing partner, has proposed to replace fewer trees on the site than recommended by City Forester Clark Christensen, yet that plan has been deemed acceptable by city staff.

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"First of all, I'm just kind of blown away that there was any kind of pushback on the city regarding what it would require for replacement, given the disregard for any kind of city UDC (uniform development chapter) or discussions or early plan review, prior to removing a considerable number of trees in that area," he said.

Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

"In the back of my mind, I'm left wondering what chutzpah that required." Eckenberg said, asking what made staff come around to endorse O'Brien's proposal.

Adam Fulton, deputy director of Duluth's planning and economic development department, noted that the neighboring Kenwood Shopping Center property, which is also under O'Brien's management, was developed many years ago, "pre-UDC certainly, pre-modern day zoning standards. And so, when it was developed, there was controversy, because they were developing a shopping center next to a residential neighborhood."

At the time, certain covenants were put in place to address pedestrian access and landscaping, but Fulton noted those covenants have since expired.

"So, that confounds this issue," Fulton said. "And what further confounds it is this isn't a straightforward enforcement issue. We don't have perfect measurements of everything that was there beforehand. The applicant has stated, and I think we recognize it to be correct, that some of what was there before was scrub and was not necessarily in good condition. So, there is a lack of clarity about what was the number of dead trees that should have been removed and would not have been counted in a tree survey, versus what may have been living trees."

Eckenberg asked whether Shamrock had made good on its pledge to replace a certain number of trees by August of this year, saying: "I'm searching for some sort of good-faith effort on the part of this developer, and if that has happened as of Aug. 30, 2021, I would see that as a good-faith effort. Has that happened?"

"It has not happened," Fulton responded.

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But he said there are reasons for the developer's difficulties in fulfilling the city's expectations.

"It was hard to get trees this year. Because of the pandemic, nursery stock was not available for wholesale sale, because the nurseries were selling so many trees at the retail level," Fulton said.

Bill Scalzo, an architect for Shamrock, said dry weather and the prospect of high mortality rates also delayed the planting of additional trees over the summer.

Bill Burns, an attorney for Shamrock, said O'Brien acquired the property in question and the neighboring Kenwood Shopping Center from original owners.

"There was a lot of neighborhood talk at the outset — when Mr. O'Brien removed trees which were, as I saw them, largely dead or dying — that he was violating these covenants. And the covenants were agreed, I think by all legal experts, to have expired some time ago. So, I think the most important thing to do here is to look forward to what will be a substantial investment that will be a positive," Burns said.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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