Big changes will be coming this summer to the Lake Superior Plaza, located next door to the Allete Inc. corporate headquarters at the corner of Lake Avenue and Superior Street in downtown Duluth.
The Duluth City Council unanimously offered its support for the proposed design of the public space Monday night. Allete, which is the parent company of Minnesota Power, will foot the bill for the improvements, with the ambitious project expected to cost well over $1 million. At large Councilor Arik Forsman abstained from the vote, citing a personal conflict of interest as a Minnesota Power employee.
"It's a significant investment. But it's a private corporate investment. It's not a utility investment in the plaza," said Tina Koecher, Allete's manager of customer experience operations.
She said the plans have been in development since last summer.
"We used a collaborative stakeholder process to develop the design," Koecher said.
Allete's work to develop an inclusive plan and the company's pending investment were lauded by 3rd District Councilor Roz Randorf, who represents the downtown neighborhood.
"They have a great design. They worked with — public and private — so many stakeholders, to put together a project that really shared the vision for what the public can really do," she said.
One of the main points of entry for the public space will be at the busy intersection of Lake and Superior, where Koecher said plans call for the construction of a concrete "stramp" — a combination of a wheelchair-accessible ramp located alongside a series of steps that can also double as seating.
Koecher said the design is intended to be adaptable, so the plaza can accommodate a farmers market one day and a performance or a public demonstration the next.
Concrete planters containing a pollinator garden would be built along Lake Avenue to provide a buffer from traffic at the busy intersection.
Additional access points to the plaza will be created off Superior Street, closer to Allete's headquarters and on the lower side of the property emptying out onto a sidewalk off Lake Avenue, leading toward Canal Park.
"This plaza presents a pathway for connectivity to Canal Park. It's also a gateway to Superior Street and the downtown business district," said Koecher, pointing to the flowing lines of the plaza, which are intended to simulate a river.
Noah Schuchman, Duluth's chief administrative officer, praised Allete for its vision.
"I think it's a real credit to Minnesota Power that they are willing and committed to improving that area," he said. "I think it will be a great community asset."
The design includes a number of trees and benches.
"So, these are little areas where people can sit and read a book, have coffee and gather together," Koecher said, noting that the reconfigured plaza will provide more greenery and shade.
Cafe-style seating will be installed along with suspended catenary lighting in a corner of the plaza, closer to Allete's headquarters.
On the lower side of the plaza, the design calls for a deck with bench swings on it and solar canopies above.
Another pollinator garden would be planted alongside the Allete building, and Koecher said plans call for a wind turbine blade to be mounted vertically to the side of the structure to reflect the company's growing commitment to renewable energy.
The plaza project will be timed to coincide with work on Superior Street and Lake Avenue this summer.
"Certainly, our goal as a city has been to help keep them on a timeline where that work can happen alongside the work that's happening on Lake Avenue, on Superior Street, at that intersection and over I-35, so that we're reducing the time that disruption is happening," Schuchman said.
Koecher said Allete will redevelop the space with an eye toward the future in a post-pandemic world.
"One of the things we really hope the plaza will represent is a bright spot in our downtown for when we are able to safely gather together again," she said. "We want this to be a warm, inviting place for doing so."
Koecher said Allete fully understands that the plaza will continue to serve as a public space where people are free to express their political views.
"We're comfortable with the fact that this is a public space, and that it's for the community. Absolutely, we're comfortable with that," she said. "As long as folks are safely and respectfully using this space. I think that's completely reasonable."