Duluth has a lot to answer for

I do not sit comfortably with publicly rebuking the City of Duluth whether or not I am half a continent and an ocean away. I tried discretion to no avail. While I accept that nobody owes me answers, there is somehow justification in demanding them.

So before I launch into a diatribe that entails public expenditure, I’ll preface this by saying that I know some of you are pissed-off with potholed streets and paying out for front-end alignments. I know the City is trying to devise innovative ways to pay for Duluth’s street repairs in order to compensate for the cessation of an important revenue stream that had funded it. I know the City is not flush with money and commend Mayor Ness and his team for bringing fiscal control to the City’s budget after inheriting a mighty structural deficit when he took office.

Let us not, however, confuse maintenance budgets and their funding with investment spending or neglect supplemental funding sources when casting judgement. That said, I commence.

In 1999 a mayor’s task force recommended a botanical conservatory at Bayfront. Among its other recommendations was a stormwater garden. More than ten years ago, a feasibility study was done, a Council resolution passed and DNR grant awarded to design the stormwater garden. Today there is neither hide nor hair of either project.

These citizen supported aims, to my knowledge, have not been budgeted or planned by the City of Duluth but they are arguably the cornerstones to the public and private regeneration of Bayfront.

Together with their supporters, two community-based organizations, the Bayfront Visions Group and the Sweetwater Alliance donated their time and expertise to these projects and persuaded us of the merits of these public spaces.

I don’t know what has become of those groups but they are exemplars of the “social capital” that Donn Larson boasted about in his editorial commentary in the Duluth News Tribune (30 Mar. 14).

Not only have the stormwater garden and botanical conservatory languished but the only public infrastructure improvement to have taken place in all this time is the rehabilitation of seawalls and bulkheads.

I am at great pains to see what the City has done to communicate a vision for Bayfront or lay the groundwork for its regeneration. The Small Area Plan, in practicable terms, lacks implementation and design criteria and the City seems indifferent to enforcing compliance with its twelve governing principles.

Against this historical backdrop, I have to question who is steering the redevelopment of Bayfront? My confidence was dealt a further blow when DEDA unanimously voted for a fifth time to grant an extension to Pier B Holding LLC to buy the other half of Pier B that lies between S 8th Av W and Slip Two from DEDA in order to build a hotel.

Does this sound like a fair and competitive market to you? What does it say to investors and property developers who are considering Duluth? Perhaps it’s a closed shop?

Moreover, how can the City of Duluth seriously court property developers to a site that for all intents and purposes looks like a vacant and derelict industrial site? This is a sloppy way of representing the city and gives the accurate impression that Duluth hasn’t done its homework.

A respectable hotel developer is not going to invest money in a location whose vicinity is uncertain, unprepared, unplanned and unkempt in a rezoned area of ex-industrial city waterfront without ironclad assurances and evidence of public investment.

Permitting any property developer to come in and erect a hotel on a pier amid an area that has not been master planned, not had new utilities installed, not had streets rebuilt, not had traffic circulation studied, not had quaysides built, not had public rights of way decided is inviting trouble.

You might say that DEDA has been working with a property developer but from my perspective it appears more like they are protecting the interests of a property developer.

Where are the investigative journalists? Are there any left in Duluth?

For DEDA to vote unanimously to grant a fifth extension to Pier B Holding for an option to buy its property is preposterous to me but not half as shocking as the absence of any public inquiry by the city council.

Three of the DEDA commissioners are city councillors, which makes their DEDA vote all the more befuddling.

Is it right that DEDA does not publish contact details for the commissioners in the way that city councillors have a City of Duluth email address?

I emailed a letter to each DEDA commissioner to ask them to rescind Pier B Holding’s option when it expires and not renew it. I explained my reasons. None acknowledged.

So while I won’t go as far as to suggest there is some kind of collusion between DEDA and Pier B Holding, one has to wonder if DEDA is conducting itself appropriately and if this is fair play.

As long as Pier B Holding retains the option to buy the DEDA parcel, they are blocking any other property developer from buying it.

Sounds like a Monopoly strategy but the currency is not Monopoly money, it’s yours.

Why has the City of Duluth’s Business and Economic Development Director, Mr Christopher Eng and Business Resource Manager, Ms Heidi Timm-Bijold backed Pier B Holding unreservedly?

Why is the City Council not questioning the ethics of these actions, the fiscal prudence of backing a questionable development scheme, questioning the suitability of Pier B Holding LLC as the developer of choice and questioning the city administration on its laissez-faire stance on planning issues?

Why are DEDA not interrogating Mr Sandy Hoff, a principal in the LLC for specific information? Who are the signatories on the term sheets, who are the local investors, what is in his business plan and where are the blueprints for the hotel?

If in fact the City is privy to this information then why is this not in the public domain?

There has been a lack of transparency throughout this saga. Perhaps the Duluth media have something to answer for in regard to this, as well.

Like shifting sands, the conceptual designs for Pier B Holding’s schemes have undergone radical transfigurations with each appeal to DEDA. Several revisions ago, they were going to transform the Lafarge cement silos into a hotel which later morphed into an exhibition space for the Leif Erikson ship.

The latest concept unveiled by Mr Hoff ignores the cement works altogether. So I am wondering how an imposing quad of cement silos that serve no function to the hotel are going to enhance the visitor experience. Their future, that most probably would entail demolition or major works to convert it, are going to be messy disturbances to a hospitality enterprise, don’t you think?

I was on board the original concept of adaptive re-use of the Lafarge cement silos and liked the rehab of a post-industrial waterfront feature that paid homage to the city’s history and adhered to an authentic motif that was site sensitive and aesthetic.

I drew the line at the unfathomable underwater car parking and disneyfied theme park that characterized earlier incantations presented by Mr Hoff.

I wonder if Pier B Holding had pursued a more realistic concept would commercial lenders have dived under their desks as Mr Hoff had put it across when he approached them for financing.

His latest proposal is at once an anodyne compromise to secure financing whatever the cost to his dream and ironically a baleful icon of everything that could go wrong for Bayfront.

Bayfront is the most precious piece of urban shoreline in Minnesota. It will someday be the new gateway to downtown. It requires master planning, design criteria, sense of place structures and cohesion.

If lessons have not been learned insofar as how things went wrong with Canal Park, then I fear Bayfront will just be an extension of the middling tourist attractions aimed at the out of towners without any allure to Duluthians.


Special K

about 10 years ago

Personally I haven't had a problem with the extensions, under the assumption that there aren't any other developers interested in Pier B anyway.  If there are, and they are being blocked out by this and potential conflicts of interest with the DEDA council, then we have an issue.

I do however have a problem with the whole concept of Pier B and how the plans keep changing from grandiose and far-fetched to the current bargain bin compromise with a decrepit old silo hanging out in the parking lot.  Keep in mind this is the same crew responsible for the grand plans at Clyde Park: a bakery that didn't happen, a brewery that didn't happen, a hotel that didn't happen, and a Children's Museum begging for money.  Of the original plan, all we have is a sporting arena and a poorly planned bar and grill with generic food options that has only survived on the virtue of its event space.  So I don't have much confidence in their capabilities in a new venture of questionable planning.  But then, maybe that's why I'm not rich.


about 10 years ago

@Special K: "...under the assumption that there aren't any other developers interested in Pier B anyway."

I too assume this is why. Duluth has always been desperate for development of any sort, regardless of its quality or planning. 

It seems that the only time developers are questioned is when they are building in a residential neighborhood (e.g. Walgreens at Kenwood and Arrowhead), and even then, it was the residents who questioned the appropriateness of the development.

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