Before I begin my condemnation of BlueStone Lofts and the Park Point Marina Inn, I just want to preface my position with this. I don’t mean to vilify anyone personally. I do not begrudge anyone for trying his level best to make an honest living. I just feel there has to be a voice of reason where there is none and that happens to be me on this occasion.
I’m far from perfect and I’m not a know-it-all. I simply hate this throw-away practice of our modern, disposable society. And for some reason, I still want the very best for Duluth even though I haven’t lived there for decades.
There are some good people there doing great things. In architecture and house building, it’s David Salmela and the Bruckelmyers. Builders’ Commonwealth is up with the best, too.
It is the armchair urban planner, the aesthete, the eco-warrior, the idealist and the public advocate that is writing this. That said, here is my tirade.
Am I the only person to object to the construction methods used at BlueStone Lofts and the Park Point Marina Inn?
Maybe I’m out of step with American building practices because I have lived on the other side of the pond for nearly twenty years. Here in London there is a lot of concrete being poured and ironwork going up such that it looks like an erector set. The city is experiencing an unstoppable building boom especially in the residential market and increasingly the purpose built apartment is replacing the flat conversion.
There are problems, for sure, but the only prefab buildings here are post-war tower blocks that met the needs of thousands of displaced families after the Blitz. One by one they are being demolished. New builds almost exclusively use structural steel and reinforced concrete for living accommodation that is usually finished in stone cladding, brick, glass or stucco depending on the property.
I am not opposed to timber-frame houses, but in multiple dwellings I question the durability, structural integrity and fireproof standards.
Call me old fashioned, but I read The Three Little Pigs and got the message, while many contemporary American architects and builders appear to have been deprived of the wisdom imparted by that fairytale.
In a published commentary, I advocated a university district for the college community of St. Scholastica and UMD and I supported in principle the BlueStone development on Woodland Avenue. However, I cautioned against shoddy planning and construction, citing Mark Lambert’s earlier student apartment complexes, Summit and Boulder Ridge.
While it seems the site plan and design of BlueStone is significantly better than Lambert’s earlier endeavors, the construction and finish is just as inferior. It is as if the same template was used but disguised with a false faÃ§ade and a little window dressing in the form of granite countertops to give the illusion of quality.
BlueStone Lofts is nothing more than the Emperor’s New Clothes to me.
I looked at the progression of the build and was horrified to see that a five-story apartment house comprised of 100 dwellings over a parking garage could be constructed of lumber. The framing of the building resembled a box of matchsticks.
In fact, there is little or nothing about BlueStone Lofts that is either bluestone or loft but that is the deception of marketing.
Generally, all this phoniness starts to get on my nerves. Why have wood clapboarding on a house when you can substitute vinyl cladding made from petrochemical products in a region where the timber industry is suffering? How flame retardant is it and what kind of toxins are released when it burns? I don’t know but I prefer my wood to come from trees just like I want my butter to come from cows.
And if BlueStone Lofts were truly contemporary in design, they would have fitted kitchens with integrated appliances. I agree with Lambert when he said, “We didn’t build a Dinkytown” – far from it but I must demur with his comment, “We have built something great for our community.”
This is like serving a bucket of KFC as the family is gathered around the Thanksgiving table anticipating a home-roasted turkey with all the trimmings and then boasting about the fare.
And it perturbs me that the student community is getting fleeced because when the flimsy floor joists flex overhead and the paper thin walls reveal the carousing neighbors on the eve of exams the pretense of urban loft living will reveal the reality.
When the veneer of urban chic comes unglued like the cheap lino on the floor, when the fiberglass shower enclosure reveals scratches and the food spills between the stove and the cabinets results in a debit to the rental deposit – the novelty of BlueStone living will diminish as quickly as its unwanted presence in Chester Park.
I just hope the unthinkable never happens – fire.
When I thought it couldn’t get worse, I looked at a video clip showing a mobile crane hoisting a prefabricated cubicle into place at the Park Point Marina Inn which is under construction. This is taking cost-cutting construction to the lowest bottom denominator.
You don’t need to be an architect or a builder to look at this cardboard contraption of a building to see that it is rubbish and I am utterly appalled that building codes and planning and zoning permit it.
Most galling is the hype and accolades bestowed upon it as if it pays homage to the clubhouse of the Duluth Boat Club that once graced the site. The owner and general manager kept referring to “beautiful.” That is deeply disturbing.
This has to be the worst example of what has gone wrong in the building industry, fire code, building code, planning, zoning and development that I have seen.
How can these failings be publicized so openly without anyone challenging them, if not for aesthetic reasons if nothing else?
How can building codes in Minnesota be so lax that it is permissible to build any multiple dwelling out of flimsy and flammable wooden frame construction? Moreover, when City Hall revamped the building permitting process, why didn’t it rewrite the code to exceed state requirements?
These are superficial, matchstick, throwaway buildings that simply look cheap and no doubt feel cheap. Metaphorically, these are the disposable food cups and containers of the fast food industry. And when the vinyl cladding gets stapled to the waferboard walls, I have to wonder how “green” and “sustainable” these places really are.
Years ago I overnighted in the Fairfield Inn on Miller Hill and the whole room shook each time a guestroom’s door shut in the hallway. This was because the regulation fire doors were heavier than the walls that supported them. Oakland campus apartments at UMD were just as bad when I lived in them.
Fairfield is clearly disposable premises that have a predictable shelf-life to Marriot. When they have maximized their utility, the corporation will dispose of them.
It’s both interesting and lamentable that the fast food industry that America invented and the disposable society that followed have manifested in the construction industry.
What does this say about our values as a society when we lose our pride of place?
“Pave paradise, put up a parking lot” by Joni Mitchell never sounded so redolent.
When is Duluth going to wake up? What it has going for it is what the rest of Minnesota hasn’t. So, why paper over the cityscape with cheap and nasty buildings? With relatively few exceptions the city is awash with plastic coated houses and the majority of new accommodation is going up in residential subdivisions that neither plug-in to the neighborhood or enhance it.
Duluth has every reason to demand legacy architecture and top-notch planning. It is not elitist to require something better than the cookie-cutter plastic house.
Look at Canal Park if you want to see a travesty of urban planning. So much public expenditure went into making a waterfront plan that ensured a uniquely Duluth district – not one that tried to emulate New England or whatever.
Today, 50 percent of Canal Park is devoted to surface parking. The lakeshore is blighted by sprawling, pseudo northwoods-inspired motels that are totally incompatible with the warehouse fabric of the district.
The DeWitt-Seitz Marketplace stands as a fine example of gentrification among others. But instead of pursuing high density development with strict controls over building materials and design criteria, the City of Duluth and DEDA supported the influx of suburban motels that are more suitable to an Interstate cloverleaf than a post-industrial warehouse district.
Myriad opportunities to enhance Canal Park with a distinctive identity were lost. Instead of getting brick and stone edifices, pedestrian thoroughfares, sheltered courtyards and a sweeping view of Lake Superior, Duluth traded café culture and al fresco summertime dining, boutique hotels, city apartments and lofts, concealed and protective parking, studio spaces and a 24-hour neighborhood for a day-tripper’s paradise of tourist tat, windswept parking lots and roadside motels for transient visitors.
Is it any wonder it goes into hibernation in winter?
I really think this is my very own Custer’s Last Stand because as things are shaping up, the Bayfront along Railroad Street is going to be another circus.
This is the tourist market that Duluth is aiming for so what more can I say except that perhaps it’s not really my battle?
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