Walking toward Duluth's lakeshore Monday evening, Jason Roberts barely could contain his enthusiasm.
"I'm just being awed by the beauty," the visitor from Dallas said over the phone. "It's gorgeous. The waves cresting up here, just crashing on the shore. ... I feel like I'm in a Gorton's fish commercial."
Roberts, the founder of a nonprofit called The Better Block, was in Duluth to join locals in looking at an area that arguably could use some beauty enhancement. He and a group assembled by Zeitgeist spent time exploring the area of Fourth Street and Sixth Avenue East on foot. It was the first step toward a big and quick build planned for the first weekend of November, when volunteers will temporarily create a demonstration of what could be done to make the intersection more walkable and surrounding area more livable.
"We took some measurements and talked to them about what kind of projects might be feasible to do in that area," said Shawna Mullen, active transportation planner for Zeitgeist. "We haven't nailed anything down for sure yet."
Sixth Avenue East, and the Fourth Street intersection in particular, long has been the bane of those who emphasize livability in Duluth planning. The intersection is difficult to navigate on foot, they've said, and the heavily used traffic artery essentially divides the Central from the East Hillside.
Roberts said he was struck by the corridor for its potential as well as its challenges.
"Sixth Avenue itself seems to be a pretty big dividing line in the neighborhood," he said. "(We were) trying to understand what happened and how can you potentially address that and restitch that together so the community feels connected again on both sides."
Roberts' planning career started unintentionally, in his own Dallas neighborhood of Oak Cliff. He and neighbors, frustrated at a balky governmental response to the needs of their deteriorating neighborhood, carried out improvement projects on their own. Roberts and his organization work more closely with city officials now, he said.
City of Duluth planners were part of this week's effort, although Zeitgeist took the lead, Mullen said.
Projects reflect the local situation. In a Dallas neighborhood, a pedestrian marketplace was set up in the center of a multi-lane street. In Ottumwa, Iowa, a children's play area grew in a vacant lot, and bump outs, bike lanes and crosswalks were added to make streets more pedestrian-friendly.
That project took place last October, said Fred Zesiger, director of Main Street Ottumwa, and although the changes were temporary, the effects have remained. "Some of these things are not that hard to do," he said. "Sometimes people have a hard time visioning just by looking at things, and when they actually see it, they're like, 'Oh, OK.' "
Roberts first came to Duluth in May, when he was featured speaker at the mayor's bike ride and luncheon. Soon after, he proposed helping with a Duluth project, and the Knight Foundation provided funding.
It was an easy offer to accept, Mullen said.
On Monday evening, Roberts met with groups such as Neighborhood Youth Services, One Roof Community Housing and Community Action Duluth, Mullen said. The next step will be an online survey to gauge what's wanted for the neighborhood.
The hope is to address street design to make it easier for pedestrians and bicyclists to cross the avenue, Mullen said. It's also hoped pop-up shops will stimulate ideas for economic development.
It's a different approach than what has been tried before, she said.
"In the past, there have been multiple different planning documents and studies and community conversations around both of these street corridors, but what has been lacking is actual action," Mullen said. "This is the first step. This is the first action of something that is being done to address the issues in this area."