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Pete Langr: Opportunity -- and risk -- in potential rezoning

Duluth's issues with student housing in university neighborhoods go back more than 40 years. As early as 1969, rezoning neighborhoods to allow for student housing was proposed -- and opposed. The result was inaction.

Duluth's issues with student housing in university neighborhoods go back more than 40 years. As early as 1969, rezoning neighborhoods to allow for student housing was proposed -- and opposed. The result was inaction.

Those who opposed planning for student housing were successful in leaving a legacy long after most of them have gone, but that legacy is not one of neighborhoods populated with traditional families.

Instead, that legacy is that of neighborhoods permeated with rental conversions, college students with housing hassles they had no hand in creating and the continuous political dance of neighbors, politicians and landlords who must try to balance competing and legitimate interests.

On that backdrop comes the expected sale -- perhaps in 2013 -- of the 21-acre Woodland Middle School property, which is directly across Woodland Avenue from the UMD campus. The potential of such a site to accommodate students is obvious, and the city plans to rezone the site in preparation for its presumed redevelopment. The potential for opposition is also obvious: The land is adjacent to a beautiful residential neighborhood on the other side.

Therefore, on April 1, city officials held a public meeting to propose and take comment on the re-zoning that might occur at the Woodland site, and possible similar changes along a section of Fourth Street. The proposed rezoning would potentially allow for a mix of development, including apartments and retail stores.

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Attendees at the meeting gave their opinions. Unusually for Duluth, little NIMBY was heard. Instead, over and over again two main themes were calmly expressed.

The first was that the city is on the right track with its proposal to allow student-centered development near the university. The desire of students for near-campus apartment-style housing with businesses that cater to them was supported.

The second theme was to protect the neighborhood, through buffers of distance and trees, and by keeping traffic away.

Therein lies the challenge. The fear is of rezoning without protection, and most of us have seen unattractive and poorly maintained student housing complexes near universities. What residents probably want is something like the nearly adjacent Mt. Royal complex (which opens up on Woodland Avenue) but something that largely blends into the neighborhoods on the other sides through the quirks of Duluth topography and some sensitive development.

What residents on the back side of the Woodland property can legitimately be afraid of is that they aren't protected by topography, and that the city's proposed zoning doesn't provide them with enough buffer from a potentially insensitive developer.

One neighbor, who built a home directly across the street from the Woodland site, mentioned that he probably wouldn't have built there if he had known that the zoning might change.

That, in summary, is what residents of university neighborhoods have been saying for 40 years. Comments such as "If I'd only known that students were going to move in next door" or "If I'd only known that my neighborhood would be converted to rentals" seem to be the mantra of many.

But residents would have known all of that very well if 40 years ago the city had proactively begun to change zoning in some areas to allow for student housing. Nearly every resident who now lives in zones that have been unofficially and sub-optimally converted to student housing would have known exactly what could be coming before they ever purchased or updated the home, and they could have acted accordingly. Many other neighborhoods might have been spared the influx of rental housing, because higher-density housing might have been built near campus.

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Yet, even now in the city's comprehensive plan, only one small area near UMD is treated in a way that might eventually allow its conversion to planned student housing.

Ultimately, I can't believe that for more than 40 years Duluthians have been totally blind to the desirability of student housing near the colleges.

Instead, our inability to manage change has caused us to neglect to find a way to accommodate student housing needs in a way that also protects many neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, the consequence is that we ended up with what we did not want.

Thoughtful changes to zoning at Woodland and along Fourth Street could be a part of seriously addressing student housing issues. Unfortunately, those spaces aren't nearly enough to provide for the better-than-even chance that our student population will continue to grow.

Budgeteer columnist Pete Langr writes every other week in the Budgeteer. Contact him at petelangr@msn.com .

Related Topics: HOUSING
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