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Duluth School Board authorizes sale of Woodland site; developer envisions mini 'Dinkytown'

The developer behind the Campus Park and Boulder Ridge student housing complexes in Duluth aims to create more off-campus student housing, this time where the Woodland Middle School now stands.

Woodland Middle School
The Duluth School Board on Tuesday authorized the sale of the Woodland Middle School site to a developer who plans to create more off-campus student housing there. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
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The developer behind the Campus Park and Boulder Ridge student housing complexes in Duluth aims to create more off-campus student housing, this time where the Woodland Middle School now stands.

And along with it, he says he's partnering with the neighborhood, local colleges, city of Duluth and St. Louis County to create the mini "Dinkytown" that many have wanted near the University of Minnesota Duluth.

On Tuesday night, the project passed a major hurdle when the Duluth School Board authorized the sale of the school property for $3 million to Village Center Development LLC. Mark Lambert, its principal based in Stillwater, Minn., had submitted his bid for the property last summer during a competitive bid process. The sale was approved in a 6-1 vote, with only board member Gary Glass dissenting.

With the school district's agreement to sell the property, Lambert said the first steps have been taken in a long and exciting planning process to redevelop the site into a mixed-use retail and housing development.

The sale will be done in two transactions. The first sale, of the school's vacant land parcels, will occur by early next year. The second sale, of the school buildings, will occur in June 2013 when the school will close as part of the school district's long-range facilities plan.

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Lambert wants to open the mixed-use retail and housing development on the site in 2013 or 2014.

"We want to create a new vibrant area that is attractive to everyone in Duluth, whether a longtime resident or just visiting the area," Lambert said in a statement. "This will be a destination featuring quality retail, restaurant and residential components."

He said he hopes to reuse the school building if feasible, but new construction is possible. The school was built in 1958 and expanded in 1994.

The project is just what the city has been looking for -- a mixed-use development to meet the demand for off-campus student housing, while alleviating the pressure to turn single-family homes into multi-tenant housing. And it would provide the apartment-style housing near places to eat and shop -- similar to the University of Minnesota's Dinkytown -- that college students say they want.

Now that the sale has been approved, detailed planning can get under way, Lambert said.

Located at 201 Clover St., near Woodland Avenue, the school is set on 21 acres across from what could become a new entrance to the University of Minnesota Duluth campus.

Lambert, though his Woodland Commons LLC, has been acquiring residential property along Woodland Avenue adjacent to the school property for some time. In 2005, Woodland Commons purchased the house at 1220 Woodland Ave. for $158,500. Last summer he purchased four houses in the 900 block of Woodland Avenue for about $150,000 each, more than their assessed values.

The homes, located directly between the Woodland Middle School building and Woodland Avenue, are about 100 years old and are currently being leased, mainly to students.

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Offers have been made for the remaining two houses whose owners haven't yet agreed to sell.

"They would be part of the strategic plan," Lambert acknowledged. "I need to secure them all."

Bill Jackson, who has lived at 912 Woodland Ave. for 33 years, turned down their offer to buy his house.

"Their offer was excellent," he said. "I just don't want to sell yet. I'll probably sell it to him in a year or two years down the road."

Jackson, however, had good things to say about Lambert, who has a caretaker living in one of the houses.

"Mark takes good care of his properties," Jackson said. "He seems like an upstanding businessman. If you give respect, you get respect."

Lambert said plans for the mixed-use development on the school property will move forward even without all the houses along that 1/10th mile stretch of Woodland Avenue.

Last year, amendments to the city's comprehensive land use plan, which serves as a guide, paved the way for the project. Under the comprehensive plan, use of the bulk of the Woodland school property was changed from institutional to neighborhood/mixed use. The exception is the residential Eighth Street side, which is to be preserved as is.

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The school property and the stretch of Woodland where the houses stand still would need to be rezoned before mixed-use development could occur, said Cindy Petkac, the city's land use supervisor. Much of the land is currently zoned R1 and R2. Those zoning changes would need to be sought by the property owner, she said.

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