Developer Sandy Hoff said he listened to neighbors' concerns over the initial design of a housing project he brought forward last month and took the criticism to heart.
"The biggest concern we heard was the access coming off of Hastings," he said.
Hoff had proposed a new 18-lot residential development with access from Hastings Drive, but neighbors questioned the layout, which would force traffic into a circuitous route down a series of narrow streets without sidewalks.
"What we heard last week was that was probably not a smart decision. We heard that the option to come off of Northfield Street was a far more direct route. It would be a shorter response time for emergency vehicles. And while both Northfield and Hastings and the surrounding streets — none of them have sidewalks — the case was made that at least Northfield has a wider roadway and could accommodate traffic better than the narrower streets of Marshall, Hastings and Ewing," Hoff said.
Accordingly, Hoff offered a revamped design when he appeared before the Duluth Planning Commission Tuesday.
Even so, the 12-acre development continued to draw fire, with the city receiving more than 70 comments critical of the project.
Susan Cutshall, who lives on Northfield Street, presented commissioners with a petition signed by 25 fellow residents opposing access to the development from Northfield and requesting that it be via Anoka Street instead.
"At first glance on a map, I believe Northfield Street may look like the most logical route to choose as the access point for the upcoming addition, but it is not. I don't believe it was engineered for the kind of traffic we are currently experiencing, let alone adding more to it. This would be an unsafe choice," she warned.
Melissa Sjolund, another resident of Northfield Street, said: "Ours is one of many families with small children in the neighborhood, and I worry about any increase of traffic in an area where my children and I walk and ride our bikes. I imagine that houses in this new development will be constructed over a period of years, resulting a regular stream of construction traffic and large equipment. Any long-range increase in traffic without any efforts to curtail speed will limit my family's ability to safely enjoy our neighborhood."
City Planner John Kelley said neighbors also expressed concerns about maintaining access through the area to neighboring Hartley Park. But he said plans include easements for paths running through the development to ensure neighbors should still be able to readily reach the park.
A Facebook post by Rhett Bonner referred to the currently undeveloped area as a well-used corridor into Hartley and described a grassroots effort to make a counteroffer to buy the property from its current owner, the Duluth School District, if the project could be stopped. He wrote: "I am in the process of working with a few neighbors and friends to buy the parcel, with the intent of then gifting it to the city of Duluth, so that it would then be made permanently part of Hartley Park."
But the Planning Commission voted 6-0 Tuesday, in keeping with staff recommendations, to approve a preliminary plat for the development.
Hoff said he and his development partner, Luke Sydow, spent "eight months and 10s of thousands of dollars" to put together the plan presented to the Planning Commission Monday night.
Sydow said future buyers of lots in the new housing addition would be required to conduct tree inventories and develop tree replacement plans.
Hoff also offered assurances that a proper stormwater management system would be put in place to protect neighboring Tischer Creek, which is a designated trout stream.
In recent years, Hoff said he has been approached repeatedly by business and community leaders encouraging him to undertake more residential development to meet the city's housing needs.
"We have a critical shortage, not only for affordable housing, but in all levels of housing to attract new people to this community," he said.
Hoff also noted that the city had identified the parcel in question as an excellent candidate for infill development that could make ready connections to existing streets and infrastructure, potentially easing the forces of urban sprawl.
Hoff said he has already received strong indications the project will be well-received.
"It is in an area that is desirable to people. And in fact, I can tell you that while there are a lot of people who are not supporting this project, we have had tremendous response from people calling us saying they'd like to reserve a lot. These are cross-country skiers. They're mountain bikers. There are families who want to be living in this area," he said.