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Large housing development proposed in Duluth Heights

The Duluth Planning Commission supports rezoning a Blackman Avenue site to accommodate an apartment building.

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An artist's rendering of the proposed a four-story apartment building in Duluth.
Contributed / Amcon Construction
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DULUTH — A sizable new apartment building soon could be coming to town, and a few dozen townhomes may be added to the mix in time.

KAMI Inc. proposes to build a four-story, 194- to 198-unit apartment building off South Blackman Avenue and Palm Street. About 140 parking stalls would be tucked underneath the Duluth Heights structure, with another 137 stalls of surface parking also available on site to serve tenants and their guests.

"It's a fairly steep site. So, we want to cut into the hillside. What I call the basement level would be where the underground parking is, and then four stories would extend up from there," said Dennis Cornelius, a managing partner with Amcon Construction, a Minnetonka firm helping KAMI with the project. Cornelius also expects some electric vehicle charging stations to be included in the design.

But several neighbors, including Kathy McAuliffe, expressed their opposition to the project at a Tuesday evening meeting of the Duluth Planning Commission. She suggested the development would intrude upon her privacy, saying that submitted plans fail to provide a sufficient buffer.

"The height of this building is of great concern. A four-story building is going to be towering over our home and looking into our second-story master bedroom," she said, noting the considerable investment her family has made in their residential property.

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McAuliffe also voiced concern that runoff from the new development would lead to greater problems with water on her own property, which sits at a lower elevation.

Andrew Barnebey, a TKDA project engineer, said much work has gone into the design of stormwater management and retention systems on site, especially given its close proximity to Brewery Creek. He said neighbors should expect an improvement rather than a worsening of water runoff.

"We don't just have to address the runoff from our development. We have to reduce the current runoff by 25%. So, that's our intent," he said.

Greg Bethke, another resident of South Blackman Avenue, said that the prospective new housing development, especially in conjunction with recent nearby work at the former site of Duluth Central High School, threatens to change the character of the neighborhood.

"It's a very quiet street typically. But it has been anything but that over the last four months, with all the construction traffic and increased traffic flow on Blackman Avenue," Bethke said. He suggested the heavy equipment could take a toll on the street, resulting in higher assessments for area residents.

Cornelius said KAMI Inc. has successfully undertaken similar-sized projects around the Twin Cities area, but the pending development would mark the firm's first foray into Duluth.

City Planner Kyle Deming said the proposed land use is consistent with the city's comprehensive plan of the area as suitable for urban residential development.

Adam Fulton, deputy director of Duluth's planning and economic development division, said staff remain very supportive of the proposed project, especially as the city works to ease its tight supply of rental housing. Duluth's 2021 Housing Indicator Report found the city's vacancy rate for rental housing has hovered around 2% of late.

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"This is on a spot that is close to existing infrastructure and has real good proximity to Central Entrance. It's a site that has been contemplated for development for a while. So, it's an appropriate place to see this," Fulton said.

Planning Commissioner Jason Crawford said, "I understand the neighbors' concerns. But we don't have a whole lot of developable land in the city, and this seems like a really sharp project."

He said Duluth's need for additional housing must be taken into account as he moved to support the requested zoning change for the development.

Some concerns were raised about Morgan Park project.

Commissioner Margie Nelson seconded the motion, noting that discussion about developing the site in question to accommodate denser housing has been long-lived.

In 2001, a different prospective developer proposed to build a 115-unit retirement community on the 7-acre site, but that project stalled before construction could begin.

The Duluth Planning Commission voted 5-0 Tuesday night in favor of a proposed zoning change from R-1, low-density residential, to, R-2, multi-family residential, to allow for the development. The zoning change will still require approval by the Duluth City Council before it can take effect.

If the council signs off on the proposed zoning change, Cornelius said he hopes to break ground on the project this fall, with an expectation that the building would be ready for occupancy by 2024. Two public hearings on the proposed zoning change will be required before the council can bring the matter to a vote.

The city needs housing. Narrow, long houses on otherwise unused land could help.

Cornelius described the design of the building as "very contemporary."

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"I know that there's a big demand for housing in the Duluth market," he said, expressing optimism that the project will be well received. The building's amenities will include a swimming pool, patio, an equipped exercise area and community gathering spaces.

"It will be well-appointed market rate housing," Cornelius said, explaining that the project is not expected to require any public subsidies, such as tax-increment financing.

He said his client was drawn to the site in part by its close proximity to commercial businesses, its access to public transit and the opportunity to link into a developing network off foot and bike paths in the area.

If approved, the apartment building will be the first phase of development on the site with opportunities to add additional housing to the mix in the future. A concept plan submitted to the city showed 37 two-story townhomes with two-car garages as the prospective next stage of development.

This story was edited at 9:51 p.m. on May 11 to remove an inaccurate map. It was originally posted at 1:29 p.m.

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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