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Proposed new hotel in Duluth Heights roils rural neighbors

The Duluth Planning Commission wants the developer to respond to concerns before it considers signing off on the project.

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Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Plans for a new 168-room hotel just east of Kohl's have been placed on hold for now.

Earlier this week, the Duluth Planning Commission voted 6-0 to table action on a plan review for the proposed four-story hotel at the corner of Sundby Road and West Page Street, after listening to a number of neighbors' concerns about the impact the development could have on the surrounding rural community.

Ben Fye, who lives across the street from the site of the would-be hotel, expressed his fears the development would intrude on his family's privacy. "The plans call for a 51-foot-tall building, and my concern is those hotel windows will be looking directly down over my house and family," he said.

Fye noted that while the site of the proposed development is zoned mixed-use commercial, making it a seemingly-acceptable place to build a hotel, his property directly next door is zoned rural-residential.

Jo Haubrich lives on West Morgan Street and said that since hotels have begun to spread into what had been a quiet residential area of town, "We're seeing cut-through traffic from Swan Lake Road to Yosemite to Page increase exponentially. This is just going to completely change the area. La Quinta has already done that. There are four hotels in a 1-mile radius already, and now if you put this in our backyard, it will make a difference," she said, requesting that the city conduct an impact study "before destroying a neighborhood like this."

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But city planning staff recommended the Planning Commission approve the hotel project, which is consistent with the property's long-standing commercial zoning due to its proximity to the commercial corridor that runs along Miller Trunk Highway, noted Adam Fulton, deputy director of Duluth's planning and economic development division.

City Planner Chris Lee said Duluth does not typically conduct impact studies for projects of the scale of the development being proposed.

The hotel is being proposed by Kinseth Hospitality Companies, headquartered in Coralville, Iowa. The same business already owns and operates another hotel in Duluth, Tru by Hilton at 503 Clearwood Drive. Kinseth is an established name in the hospitality industry, with more than 100 hotels already in its national portfolio and more than 2,700 employees on its payroll, according to its website.

The name of the newly proposed Duluth hotel was not disclosed in a planning staff report. But an architectural drawing that depicts the building's proposed elevation showed it operating under a "Townplace Suites by Marriott" flag.

One resident questioned the proposed construction of an additional hotel in the area and asked if the city had tried to assess that need.

Fulton said that would be beyond the planning department's purview.

"It would be my assessment that if a developer is proposing to construct a hotel, there's likely demand for a hotel. We did not do a market analysis," he said.

Tricia Hobbs, a senior economic developer for Duluth, spoke favorably of the project and the role it could play in continuing to promote Duluth as a tourist destination.

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"The city is supportive of this new economic development.," she said, noting that 2022 "has seen strong hotel occupancy numbers, with more multiple-night stays on the rise."

"We look forward to continuing to support the lodging community in the months and years to come as Duluth tourism grows even stronger," Hobbs said.

Joyce Alworth, a resident of nearby Yosemite Avenue since 1984, said: "I've seen huge changes with the existing hotels that have been added." She pointed to increased traffic and noise in particular.

"I feel much less safe than I did," Alworth said. "It just grieves me and makes me very sad that they may have the authority to put a hotel there in this commercial district, but I disagree that it is the right thing to do."

Planning Commissioner Gary Eckenberg said: "There will always be comments that 38 years is a long time to hope everything will remain the same as we found it. That's the way we feel when change comes to any neighborhood. But my main concern is the applicant isn't here tonight to hear any and all the comments that people are making about this major change that everybody would have to live with."

Eckenberg said he was disappointed a Kinseth representative did not choose to attend Tuesday's public meeting to address neighbors' numerous concerns about the project, even though Northland Consulting Engineers, a firm retained by the prospective developer, was on hand to take some questions.

Kinseth Construction and Development Manager Aaron Mailey did not respond to a News Tribune request for comment.

To allow more time for the would-be developer to respond to residents' concerns, Eckenberg moved to table the matter. His motion was seconded and unanimously approved, meaning the matter likely will be back before the Planning Commission when it next meets on Oct. 11.

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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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