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Lengthy path ahead for Lakewalk

Although a plan to address what's been called the Lakewalk's "missing link" has been adopted, it likely will be at least another year before it can be built.

Duluth aims to embark on a new Lakewalk mini-master plan, likely in the latter half of this year, and given the scope of that plan, Lindsay Dean, manager of the city's parks and recreation division, said she anticipates it will take at least six months to complete. That document will play a critical role in helping the city pursue state and federal support for trail improvements, she explained.

Another complicating factor involves a piece of property that the city would need to obtain an easement to cross. That land belongs to Paul and Cindy Hayden, owners of Lake Superior Magazine, and the couple currently has the property listed for sale.

Easement uncertainty

Cindy Hayden said she and her husband are in discussions with a prospective developer who is interested in the property, but if the city wants to make a bid for the property, they would certainly entertain the offer.

"There are four different properties involved — two houses and two additional lots. Where we're at is that if the city wants to work with those, they need to purchase them as a group. It loses all it's value if you start breaking it up," she said.

Due to the cost involved, however, the city is not in a position to purchase the property, said Jim Filby Williams, Duluth's director of public administration. Nevertheless, he said the city remains interested in crossing those parcels.

"If the property should sell, the city will reach out to the new owner to discuss the possibility of a trail easement that is necessary to fulfill the city council-approved plan for closing the Lakewalk gap. Until and unless the property sells, we are appropriately in a waiting game," he said.

Filby Williams said he remains confident the city will be able to make a strong case for granting an easement, however.

"The potential sale of the property is a private matter between the Haydens and their prospective buyer. But when the time comes, we're eager to have a conversation, and at that time we will likely cite not only the considerable public benefits of providing an easement but also the voluminous scientific research showing that the value of real estate increases considerably with the addition of adjacent high-quality trails that provide access to large, clean bodies of water. We feel it is both in the public interest and in the private financial interest of the future owner to provide that easement on terms to be decided in the future," he said.

Lakewalk plan

The city of Duluth completed a study in 2016 that confirmed the feasibility of a plan to build a pedestrian-only trail, hugging the shoreline behind Beacon Pointe Resort and hooking into a modest waterfront path already in place behind The Ledges condominium development. Initial plans had called for a full-width, multi-use extension of the Lakewalk through that corridor, but the buildings were constructed so close to the shore, there was not room for such a path.

Alternatively, a task force has proposed a narrower pedestrian path that would provide the public access to the waterfront, while directing bicycle traffic along an inland path to be constructed this summer along the upper side of Water Street.

Dean said the pending Lakewalk plan will address many components in addition to the missing Lakewalk link. She ticked through a list that included an evaluation of the Lakewalk's present condition, possible upgrades and the need for ongoing repairs and maintenance.

She said the plan will also explore problems that have arisen.

"We've been getting more and more complaints about congestion and incompatible uses. So the Lakewalk master plan will look at those user conflicts in more detail," said Dean, noting that new rules and policies may be considered to make the Lakewalk "a pleasant experience for everyone."

Dean said the city also is laying plans to extend the Lakewalk through Brighton Beach, linking it to Scenic Highway 61

With all the work to be done, City Council president Joel Sipress said the recommended pedestrian path is at least a year away from being built.

"Presuming that we obtain an easement, presuming that the mini-master planning process goes forward on schedule and incorporates the recommendations from the feasibility study, we're looking at funding in 2018 at the earliest," said Sipress, who helped assemble the Lakewalk task force.

While Sipress said he's eager to see the Lakewalk's missing link become reality, he cautioned against impatience.

"From my point of view, given the complexity of the project, given the other priorities the city has, given the potential expense of the project and the need to make sure that we're doing it in a way that's protective of taxpayers, it's not something we can rush. It's something that needs to unfold at the proper pace. As long as we have a city administration and a council that are working to make it happen, then I think we're on the right path," he said.