A cluster of 25 new housing units is in the works for Duluth Heights, and developer Brad Johnson described his target market as "empty nesters."

Earlier this week, the Duluth Planning Commission voted 9-0 to support a zoning change from single-family residential to planned residential, a designation that would provide Johnson's firm, Lotus Realty, with the flexibility it needs to group single-family detached and duplex townhomes into a portion of the site, leaving 3.5 acres of green space for a neighborhood "pocket park," complete with a walking trail loop. The proposed zoning change still awaits approval by the Duluth City Council before it can take effect.

Lotus has proposed to construct nine single-family dwellings and 16 townhome units off Marble Street. The residential development, called Harbor Light, would be located below a new church the Duluth Gospel Tabernacle congregation is building south of Arrowhead Road.

The congregation bought 40 acres of land from Independent School District 709 in 2011 and has partnered with Chanhassen-based Lotus to develop it. In addition to a new church and the proposed residences, the site also will accommodate a new Kwik Trip, with construction expected to begin in May.

Lotus also aims to build a couple of commercial buildings, maybe clinics, on another adjacent parcel south of the Kwik Trip in the future.

Johnson said he has been working on the project for about three years now, and much of the property currently is being graded to prepare it for construction of the Kwik Trip and church.

By clustering the townhomes and houses, which Johnson called villas, he said Lotus should be able to reduce development costs.

"We think we can bring it in at a price that improves the affordability of this kind of product," said Johnson, adding that there's been a lot of demand for the type of housing he proposes. Residents would belong to a homeowners association that would take care of landscape care, maintenance and snow removal. Each unit would come with a two-vehicle garage.

Johnson said such developments have proven most popular with elderly households but also could appeal to busy young professionals who don't want to deal with some of the typical obligations of home ownership.

Adam Fulton, interim director of Duluth's planning and development division, said the city needs more housing across the spectrum, but Lotus' project could fill a largely unserved niche.

"Senior housing is one of our identified needs, and we've been working on the Harbor Light development for a number of years. So, we're excited to see further progress in their proposal," he said.

Johnson predicts mortgage payments for the units will compare favorably to the cost of other housing on the market in Duluth.

"The price point would be probably equal in payment to some of the crazy rents they're paying up there now, so people may find it attractive," he said.

While Lotus still needs to firm up its development costs, Johnson said the Harbor Light homes likely will sell for between $350,000 and $400,000.

But the Harbor Light housing development has stirred some concern that it could overload the neighborhood's sanitary sewer system. In a letter to the Duluth City Council, Dennis Jensen, a resident of the neighborhood, noted that there have been repeated backups in the area.

In response to those concerns, Fulton said: "We view this project as meeting the goals of the comprehensive plan for efficient use of public infrastructure. We have infrastructure systems in the vicinity of this development site. So, one of the things the comp plan asks us to do is more efficiently use public streets and other public utilities. "

"That being said, there were concerns raised by residents during the Planning Commission public hearing, and we're working with the city engineering department to make sure that there are adequate utilities available and that all utilities are functioning the way they're designed to," he said.

If the rezoning of the property for the proposed housing development goes through, Johnson expects to begin installing needed infrastructure in the spring, with homes likely ready for occupancy by 2021 and 2022.

Fulton said he believes the plan Lotus has brought forward "is something that will fit the character of this area."

"This portion of the site certainly would be more appropriate for housing than it would be for commercial development. We're also glad to see that the development will be avoiding wetlands and trying to cluster the houses on parts of the site that are in upland areas," Fulton said.

Johnson said the development also was designed to responsibly handle stormwater runoff.

"I think we're using maybe half the site, at the most," he said, noting that the proposed development would leave 13 acres of wetlands, plus another 6 to 7 acres of trees undisturbed.