Just months after the construction of Chester Gardens mixed-use development near UMD wrapped up, it is nearly fully occupied.

All seven apartments and all three offices in the complex on the northwest corner of Eighth Street and 19th Avenue East are leased. Two of the three street-level storefronts are filled. Benchmark Tattoo & Gallery opened June 2, and the Snooty Fox Tea Shop is planning to open next week.

That leaves just one vacant storefront to be filled.

“I’ve talked to several different people about the last one, but nobody’s signed up yet,” said Carla Blumberg, the project’s developer, along with Barbara Neubert.

While Blumberg initially wanted a service like a FedEx or Kinkos that would serve the neighborhood and the University of Minnesota Duluth area, most inquiries have involved retail. So a retail business is most likely, she says.

So how close did the resulting development come to Blumberg’s vision for a pedestrian-friendly commercial/residential hub that would fit well in the neighborhood and serve residents and nearby college students?

Let’s just say, mission accomplished.

Chester Gardens turned out exactly as she envisioned, says Blumberg who, along with Neubert, also own At Sara’s Table/Chester Creek Cafe across the street.

“It’s a beautiful building, and I hope it will last for a long time,” she said.

“Aesthetically, I like the way it looks, especially at night.”

City planners and officials also are pleased. The site in Duluth’s Chester Park neighborhood was targeted in the Higher Education Small Area Plan for mixed-use neighborhood development.

 “It’s a fine example of mixed-used development, with commercial and office and residential all in one building,” said Keith Hamre, the city’s director of planning and construction services. “It really has enhanced the neighborhood. The building’s architectural style seems to fit in very well with the community. And the gardens are an attractive piece that a lot of people comment on.

“And hopefully,” he continued, “it’s something we can replicate throughout the community in our mixed-use neighborhood areas.”

Despite the success, Blumberg has mixed feelings about the project.

“It really was too big of a project,” she said. “It shook me down, turned me upside down and shook all the nickels out of my pocket. It was an expensive project, and it will take me a while to get on top of it. I wouldn’t recommend it to just anybody.”

She had wanted the building to be four stories instead of three stories tall facing Eighth Street, which, she says, would have been more financially feasible. But city code prohibited it.

The final cost exceeded the expected $2.4 million price tag. How much more, Blumberg isn’t saying.

“I pretty much have no nickels left,” she said.

Urban cool From the beginning, the project created a buzz. The design was an inviting urban blend of residential and commercial. And the plan for gardens so big pedestrians could stroll through them was appealing.

There was little opposition, even though it meant the removal of two small houses on the site and a small office building that had once been a gas station. It also required a costly cleanup of contamination from oil, gas and diesel left by the former gas station.

With the city’s help, Blumberg and Neubert received a state grant that covered 75 percent of the cleanup cost. The project is a finalist for a Minnesota Brownfields ReScape Award to be announced Oct. 23 in St. Paul. The annual awards celebrate innovative projects that revitalize formerly contaminated land with outstanding results.

Today, the buzz around the project continues in the form of curiosity.

“Wow, what is that place?” asked Victoria Johnson as she waited for a bus outside the building on Thursday. “I love the architecture and how it’s set up. I love it.”

But what of its size - 11,000 square feet - in a mostly residential area?

Nearby resident Cherrie Jackson doesn’t mind. She says it’s a good addition to the neighborhood. Moreover, she’s looking forward to the tea shop opening there soon.

“It’s pretty nice,” she said, looking at the property. “It’s beautiful on the outside. The gardens are beautiful. I wouldn’t mind living there.”

The red brick building with decorative brickwork rises three stories on Eighth Street and appears to be two stories in the rear, where the property slopes up. Balconies overlook the complex’s gardens. Green awnings extend from the street level storefronts. Offices - including an acupuncturist, massage therapist and an electrolysis service - are housed on the second floor, along with apartments. The third floor is all apartments.

Someone described the building as looking like it was always there.

“I like that,” Blumberg said. “I like a nice combination of traditional and new.”

Garden success As was envisioned, an expansive, multitiered garden unfolds on the east side of the building, producing colorful vegetables for At Sara’s Table/Chester Creek Cafe.

“The woman doing the gardening - Rita Bergstedt - is an absolute genius,” Blumberg said.

With seedlings started in a greenhouse on-site, Bergstedt and her assistant have planted, grown and harvested an array of out-of-the-ordinary varieties of vegetables for the restaurant.

“It’s been fabulously successful,” Bergstedt said. “My idea was to do a lot of things that were unusual, hard-to-find anywhere else or are extremely expensive to buy. A lot of things were experiments.”

Numerous varieties of fennel, leeks, cauliflower, beets, Brussels sprouts, eggplant, Swiss chard, kale, spinach, potatoes and lots of greens for salads filled the garden plots its first season.

And the colorful foliage has caught the attention of passersby.

“People stop their cars and walk through the gardens,” she said. “So do people walking in the neighborhood. I’m never in the garden when people don’t stop by and ask questions. It’s a lot of fun.”

Happy tenants Construction of the project by Donald Holm Construction of Duluth began in June 2013 and was completed last May. It was designed by Emily Little of Austin, Texas, and Scalzo Architects of Duluth.

First to move in was Benchmark Tattoo & Gallery, which opened in one of the storefronts on June 2. Such combination tattoo parlor/art galleries is a trend in bigger cities, said Kyle Grover, who owns the business with twin brother, Dane.

“There’s a lot of really good tattoo artists who are fine artists,” said Kyle, a tattoo artist for 16 years who also does mixed-media art.

He had long wanted to open his own shop. And he loves it.

The shop features the works of a different artist every month, with opening receptions on the first Friday of the month. So far it’s been well-received.

“Business has been very steady,” he said. “Our art gallery openings have been slowly gaining steam. People are really floored when they come in, because it’s not what they expect for a tattoo parlor. It’s very clean, with lots of open space and artwork on the walls.”

Next to occupy the building was a doctor who moved into one of the apartments. Over the summer, tenants moved into the other six apartments. They include a nurse, a UMD coach and a city staffer. Rents for the studio, one- and two-bedroom units are $800 to $2,000 a month. The higher-end units have fireplaces, balconies and a cook’s kitchen designed by Blumberg, a former professional chef.

Jodie Cope, an acupuncturist, moved her business from the Hunter Building in downtown Duluth to Chester Gardens on June 1. She had been on the lookout for a new, bigger location that would be handicapped-accessible.

“When I saw this place going up, I called and was excited to find out they would have office space as well,” said Cope, who also lives in the neighborhood.

To say she’s pleased with her new office is an understatement.

“It’s spectacular,” she said. “It’s a beautiful part of town with the park nearby. Everybody in the building is wonderful. You can walk out in the gardens. And being across from the restaurant is so fine. It’s great to be part of such a healthy place.”