Duluth City Council may rezone former Kemps Dairy property for development

Plans for the site are still evolving, but its owners say they want to see an expansion of Lincoln Park's Craft District.

The former Kemps dairy plant, stood abandoned in the 1900 block of West First Street, in January 2020. The shuttered facility was torn down in 2022, leaving behind a vacant lot.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH — Two businessmen who have played an outsized role in reshaping Lincoln Park and helping establish the neighborhood's thriving craft district are eager to build on that success with the redevelopment of a half-block of property that was once home to Kemps Dairy and a fire extinguisher business.

Louis Hanson, of the Duluth Grill family of restaurants, and Chris Benson, owner of Frost River, have teamed up to acquire property in the 1900 block of West First Street, which the city proposes to rezone from a mixed-use business to a Form District 5 designation (Mid-Rise Community Shopping and Office), to match the zoning along West Superior Street. The change would allow for more diverse set of uses than the current zoning does. The ordinance says the Form District "would allow for future development consistent with the Future Land Use Plan and with other development in the Lincoln Park Craft District."

The dairy was built in 1914 and operated until 2013, when it was permanently closed. The facility was demolished in 2022.

Benson said they’ll be looking for the right partner to breathe new life into the site.

“We’re not developers. But we are strongly interested in development. It’s important that the right things happen down there,” he said. “We’re all working together for what’s best for the neighborhood.”


Hanson said, “We’re not looking to do anything personally. We want something that’s going to be inclusive for the neighborhood and that really adds value to it. We want to see positivity,”

Noah Schuchman, chief administrative officer for the city of Duluth, explained the motivation for the proposed zoning change, with an ordinance introduced for its first reading by the City Council Monday night and likely headed to a vote on April 10. The new zoning would allow for fairly intense development, including buildings up to 50 feet in height.

“We are not at a point yet where we have an active development going into that site,” Schuchman said. “But we are preparing for that possibility through this ordinance change and this action. So, it is a hopeful change. We have developers that are interested in the area. So, we’re working to be proactive to make sure the site is ready for potential uses as we move forward.”

rezoning proposal.jpg
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

Chris Fleege, director of Duluth’s planning and economic development division explained the rationale for rezoning the property, saying: “It’s really the first step to prepare it. But the likely development would be a mixed-use, and a housing project is what they’re really potentially looking at. So, by creating a form district, that does provide more flexibility and is consistent with the craft district as it moves up that street.”

As Lincoln Park continues to attract additional investment, 1st District Councilor Gary Anderson asked about the risk of gentrification.

“I think of the ongoing impact of the transformation of this neighborhood on the existing neighborhood,” he said, suggesting people could be displaced or priced out of the market.

That’s certainly not the intent, replied Adam Fulton, deputy director of Duluth’s planning and economic development division.

“The broader goals related to reinvestment in Lincoln Park are being viewed through the lens of what was adopted in Lincoln Park’s small area plan. And that small area plan called for this type of reinvestment, recognizing that the industrial base has shifted. We would love to still have the jobs at that creamery in this location. But they have elected to do that in a different spot at this point in time,”he said.


The 2015 Lincoln Park Small Area Plan noted: "The area is slowly transitioning from more intensive land use activity, such as industrial and manufacturing to a neighborhood and destination commercial use."

Gentrification is something that we want to be paying close attention to.
Adam Fulton, deputy director of Duluth’s planning and economic development division

Fulton said the prospective redevelopment of the Kemps property is and example of "reinvestment in a site that had been blighted and is now vacant."

"We are still focused on core development. So, that is what we’re going at through the use of the Affordable Housing Trust Fund and through any instance where there is any public assistance that we are striving to achieve a level of affordability in any given housing project. We’re also working closely with our housing partners, such as Center City Housing or One Roof Community Housing, to look at affordable projects to make sure that we’re achieving that level of reinvestment, and at the same time preserving the affordability of this neighborhood, because gentrification is something that we want to be paying close attention to,” Fulton said.

Benson said seeing the half-block parcel returned to productive use could be a game-changer for the neighborhood, alongside other key redevelopment in the area.

“It’s huge. If you go back years and look at the different properties that were identified as needing to be fixed or rehabbed, it’s the furniture buildings; it’s the Seaway; it’s the dairy property,” he said.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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