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New planning director makes comp plan a priority

The walls are bare. The bookshelves are empty. Bob Bruce, Duluth's new planning director, hasn't had time to do much decorating since he took over the reigns of the planning department last week.

The walls are bare. The bookshelves are empty. Bob Bruce, Duluth's new planning director, hasn't had time to do much decorating since he took over the reigns of the planning department last week.

A native of Minneapolis, Bruce has lived in Duluth for the past 30 years and feels like a Duluthian even if some second and third generation residents may think he's got a ways to go before he can own that title.

Bruce is an architect by trade, a former city planner for Duluth, and worked on the development of Bayfront Festival Park and the Lake Superior Center, before it became the Great Lakes Aquarium. A lot has changed since then.

"Municipal government has changed, the city of Duluth has changed and I have changed," Bruce said. "The time I've spent in the private sector and the nonprofit sector forced me to understand what it means to have to make payroll, what it means to have to raise money, sell services, and deliver service. It helped me become a better public servant now that I've come full circle."

For the foreseeable future, Bruce's priority will be shepherding the development and approval of a comprehensive plan for the city. Several years ago, neighborhood planning districts were created to give direction for the development of a comprehensive plan, but a parade of consulting firms couldn't get the job done. Today those neighborhood districts still meet, but city hall hasn't been involved.

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Bruce said it's important that the neighborhoods don't get too far ahead of the game. "We don't want them to get so far out there that they have a level of completeness that isn't being viewed in a city-wide context," he said. "So we've got some catching up to do. I think it's important that the planning districts understand that we certainly want their involvement and all the energy and all the time they've invested. We don't want that to go to waste, but it all has to come together in a city-wide context."

Bruce likens a city's comprehensive plan to the United States Constitution that sets forth the principles we want operate by. The U.S. Constitution doesn't replace the need to make laws or struggle with planning questions on a day-to-day basis. But we reference it every once and awhile and say, 'How does this fit?'

Also, like the Constitution, it can be amended. "The idea is to set down the framework that says, 'Here's our direction for the next 20 years or so,' and all the day-to-day decisions can reference that and hopefully contribute to that desired end," Bruce said. "This is not something that will answer all the questions; it's a framework so the day-to-day decisions are made in an overall context rather than in isolation."

The comprehensive plan looks at broad land use questions such as zoning, open space, transportation corridors, public infrastructure, public utilities, and housing questions like the controversial one facing Duluth now: the blend of rental property and ownership.

Bruce said people don't understand the potential economic impact of students as people. "We need to stop treating them like visitors to our town," he said. "We need to really engage them in activities of the city in the hopes that they will stay and build businesses and enjoy the place and not treat them as though they're a problem we have to deal with."

Capital improvement spending will likely be another hot-button issue. The comprehensive plan will define geographic areas where the city will prioritize capital improvement spending.

"We want to target our capital improvement dollars to areas where we want those activities to be supported," Bruce said.

Once the comprehensive plan is complete, residents will have a resource to research future land use planning for undeveloped land near their homes. Many people assume vacant land in their neighborhood will stay vacant, when that's not the case.

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On the other hand, if a planning district identifies a piece of land it feels is absolutely integral to quality of life for the neighborhood, the city planners can flag that land and not just let the market forces dictate its future.

For now, Bruce is studying the work that has been done on the comprehensive plan, identifying the work that needs to be done and drawing up strategy and timeline for completing the plan. Within the next couple of months, Bruce will announce a large public meeting that will officially restart the comprehensive plan development process.

At the roll-out event, Bruce will talk about how he plans to knit the work done at area neighborhood planning meetings into a city-wide comprehensive plan.

"It's very important that we don't view this as ten planning district plans that are all put into one three-ring notebook and call that the city plan," he said. "There are city-wide contexts that have to be thrown in there with the individual planning district issues. We know it needs to be something that people will embrace and approve, but planning, by definition, is more than just making people happy today. It requires stretching people to look ahead and agreeing on 'this is where we want to be.'"

And again, the plan will not be set in stone. Bruce said he wants to have a document that directs but doesn't bind the planning department.

"We don't want to create a plan or a structure that is unresponsive to external opportunities," Bruce said. "The plan is not some iron document. We need to be very clear about the big patterns, the principles we want to work toward instead of everyone just living in the moment."

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