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City council should go slow on Bayfront decisions

It has now become abundantly clear that Duluth Development and Planning Director Mike Conlan has been able to do in one meeting what Gary Doty was unable to accomplish in three years: co-opt the tireless efforts of the Bay Front Visions group in ...

It has now become abundantly clear that Duluth Development and Planning Director Mike Conlan has been able to do in one meeting what Gary Doty was unable to accomplish in three years: co-opt the tireless efforts of the Bay Front Visions group in its attempts to develop green space on the Bayfront.
At a public meeting on March 2, Conlan, Mayor Doty and a URS consultant firm representative discussed the possibilities for the Bayfront. At one point, Conlan publicly agreed with a presentation proposing that the entire 11 acres on Pier 9 be dedicated to Bayfront Vision projects: a botanical garden, a living water garden, a conservatory and an arboretum.
However, at a City Council meeting on May 20, Conlan and the administration said that only three of the 11 acres at the end of Pier 9 would be allocated for these projects, thereby reneging on the earlier agreement. This simply is not the kind of modeling that is needed for the future of the Bayfront, nor for the success of our city's comprehensive plan nor for the commitment to positive civic involvement.
And what do Mayor Doty and Mr. Conlan have in mind for our Bayfront? If history gives us a clue, it could well be condominiums with garages and asphalted parking strips for the moneyed, and retail outlets for the tourists.
This assumption is based on what the city administration has previously supported on the Bayfront. Let's take a look. The first project was an outlet mall proposed by Sam Brown in 1994. Fortunately, this would-be entrepreneur had a cash flow problem and the project was dumped.
In 1997, there was a movement by the DNR and Doty to place the heavy cruiser USS Des Moines on our Bayfront. In an advisory referendum in 1998, the Des Moines project was defeated in a landslide vote by our citizens. They made it clear that what they wanted was green space.
Shortly thereafter, the Duluth Economic Development Authority (DEDA) hired the Equinox consulting group from New York, at a whopping price tag of over $85,000, to tell us how to develop our Bayfront. Their conceptualization, which the mayor supported, included a multi-plex theater, retail outlets and condominiums. Once again, Duluthians voiced their wishes for green space on the Bayfront when they soundly rejected this plan.
This rejection of Equinox was cued by what was then the newly formed Bay Front Visions group. It was able to demonstrate that the land allotted to the Bayfront Festival Park by Equinox was inadequate for this purpose. Bayfront Visions was also instrumental in coalescing the passion of Duluthians for green space on the bayfront as opposed to "cement boxes" and asphalt.
At one public meeting held at Marshall School, more than 150 people attended and supported the green space concept of the Bay Front Visions group. This included a visitors' center, a botanical garden, a conservatory, a living water garden and an arboretum that would showcase northern Minnesota's indigenous flora.
Mayor Doty attended this meeting and had an opportunity to embrace the Bay Front Visions concept. Here was a group of citizens who felt passionately about their Bayfront project. Instead of supporting this citizen group, however, Doty appointed his own Bayfront Task Force, thereby dropping the ball in this opportunity to utilize the enthusiasm and expertise of Bay Front Visions members.
As we look ahead to the mayoral election of 2003, it is time to recognize that including the citizenry in such crucial issues as the Bayfront has never been a strength of the Doty administration.
Unfortunately, time and controversy have taken their toll on the Bay Front Visions board, and the group is now splintered. Some members of this board now seem willing to compromise their earlier plans and to embrace the idea of being on Pier 9, although they reject Conlan's idea of limiting hem to 3 acres.
So how can we help to assure the success of the Bayfront as both public green space and an economic asset? Bay Front Visions' original plan was to locate the visitors center, botanical garden and conservatory adjacent to Railroad Street. This location would provide easy access to these attractions for tourists, as well as for local people, and help ensure the financial support needed to maintain the viability of these structures in the distant future. They would ultimately be attached to a future skywalk beginning at the medical centers and proceeding west to Tri-Towers and other senior dwellings, which would then connect with the downtown skywalk and finally with the Bayfront.
The URS consultant's plan would place retail outlets and perhaps condos close to Railroad Street. This arrangement might be convenient for some tourists, but tourists will not likely travel to Duluth to see condos or to visit retail outlets on the Bayfront.
Those citizens who are working on the Duluth comprehensive plan have set the preservation of Duluth's "urban wilderness" as a high priority. There is little doubt that the green space created by the Lakewalk is the most used and sought out space by Duluthians and by people visiting our city. It is simply no longer constructive for Conlan and the Doty administration to push their agenda for the Bayfront. Their track record on development decisions like the Opus referendum, the aquarium, and Office Depot have not engendered public trust, nor have they provided the promised economic benefits.
If the members of Bay Front Visions and others interested in the Bayfront cannot be heard by this administration, perhaps it is time for a pause. It would be a wise City Council that would slow the process of decision-making regarding the Bayfront and wait until after the next election in 2003. At that time, perhaps there will be in public office a mayor who will heed the voices of our citizens. With a new administration and with, one would hope, a revitalized planning and development department, we can take a fresh look at how to make our Bayfront a treasure, not just for a privileged few but for all of our people.
Iver Bogen is professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

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