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Canal Park experiment gets mixed reviews

Chris Lee, with the community planning division, carries chairs out to set up with tables on Buchanan Street in front of the DeWitt-Seitz Building and Little Angie's Cantina in August. (file / News Tribune)

With the help of a McKnight Foundation grant this year, the city of Duluth turned Canal Park into a laboratory, where it tested out several ideas to make this already-popular tourist destination even more of a draw for out-of-towners and locals, alike.

But the experiment called "Imagine Canal Park" drew very mixed reviews, as revealed by a recently released report. An experiment that rerouted traffic on South Lake Avenue received the coldest reception, with 77 percent of survey respondents rating the temporary setup unfavorably. Meanwhile, a winter celebration called Cold Front February proved overwhelmingly popular, with 98 percent of respondents giving it a thumbs-up.

In regard to the Cold Front celebration and the popular winter programming and activities it offered, Adam Fulton, manager of the city planning division said: "It was clear that we want to do it again."

"When we start any of these pilot actions, we're not sure exactly how they'll go, obviously. But we had an almost uniformly positive reaction to having this type of an event," he said.

City Planner Emilie Voight said the city will look to recreate an ice trail that ran alongside the Lakewalk in Canal Park, but those plans will be placed on hold this year until the storm-damaged path is repaired.

"We had a system for counting the people who went by on the (ice) trail, and the numbers were very high, and people continued to use it even after it was no longer officially being maintained by park maintenance," she said. As a result, the city will look to perhaps operate a similar ice path on a winter-long basis in the future.

Although the city encountered challenges, when it attempted to reroute traffic along South Lake Avenue, portions of the experiment were valuable in the view of Keith Hamre, Duluth's planning and business development director.

"We did find out that the idea of three lanes on Lake Avenue to keep traffic moving — so that we didn't have a parking lot effect when the bridge was up — actually worked, and it worked fairly well," he said.

"But it became more challenging for pedestrians along Lake Avenue, because people tended to drive a little faster. The sight lines were better, so they didn't feel like they had to go as slow, and pedestrians felt a little more unsafe," Hamre said.

One of the recommendations in the report was to reduce the speed limit in Canal Park to 20 mph.

The city also experimented with temporarily blocking off traffic on Buchanan Street and turning it into a pedestrian plaza with seating, entertainment and activities. But 62 percent of people surveyed took a negative view of the change.

Nevertheless, Hamre said the city is looking at repeating the experiment periodically to host intentional programming on Buchanan, such as closing the street at 4 p.m. Fridays so it could become a pedestrian plaza for the evening.

The city could use hydraulic bollards, rolling planters or gates to temporarily close the street to motorized traffic.

"We know we've got people down there in the summer, and we know people have a hunger for doing things down there beyond what's currently available," Fulton said.

Street musicians were welcomed into Canal Park this summer as part of the initiative, and Hamre said they were well received.

In light of the experience, Fulton suggested Duluth may want to revisit policies that currently make it difficult for buskers to perform.

To relieve some of the traffic pressure on the area, the city offered a free service shuttling people from downtown to Canal Park on buses fashioned to look like trolleys.

The Duluth Transit Authority reported that the passengers who used the free Port Town Trolley service were split about half-and-half between tourists and locals.

Hamre said the service was well received. So much so, that the city has allocated $55,000 in tourism taxes to continue offering free rides next year.

However, Hamre noted that routing the service could be a challenge in 2019, as reconstruction of Superior Street continues.

Voight said wayfinding signs that helped visitors navigate their way through Canal Park also drew praise, enough so that the city will look to expand on that initiative in the future, as well.

Fulton said the city received some complaints about its Imagine Canal Park effort, particularly the loss of parking, but he still considers the exercise a success.

Hamre said: "This is going to provide us with a base of information to engage with the stakeholders in the Canal Park area and also to talk with residents on Park Point about what some of the reinvestment plans there should look like."

Peter Passi

Peter Passi covers Duluth city government and community issues. A graduate of Carleton College, he has worked as a reporter for more than 30 years and joined the Duluth News Tribune newsroom in 2000.

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