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This summer, an extensive year-and-a-half project will begin at Chambers Grove Park, on Duluth’s far western end. The Department of Natural Resources, working with the Army Corps of Engineers, the Minnesota Land Trust and other entities, will remove the steel sheet pilings and rock retaining walls that currently comprise the park’s shoreline along the St. Louis River and construct a “softened,” more natural shoreline in their place. They will also build three large stone weirs extending into the river, which will create favorable spawning beds for sturgeon, establish calm-water access points to the river for kayakers and canoeists, and give anglers a place to sit while they watch their bobbers.
On March 11, 2015, Daryl Peterson, a project manager with the Minnesota Land Trust, explained to the city Parks Commission that the primary goal of the project (and the rationale for its state and federal funding) is habitat restoration. The St. Louis River, Peterson said, is “the most important spawning habitat for the lake sturgeon population in the entire western Lake Superior.”
Sturgeon disappeared from the river in the 1950s due to pollution, habitat loss and other factors, and were re-introduced in the 1980s. The Fond du Lac dam prevents the fish from traveling all the way to their historic spawning beds, which were located among the rushing rapids and large boulders of what is now Jay Cooke State Park. Opportunities to build and restore the kind of “riffle” habitat that sturgeon need exist only between the Highway 23 bridge to the Fond du Lac Dam, which is just over a mile of river. The Chambers Grove project will be a very important contribution to this effort.
“We’ll go from less than 400 square feet of marginally suitable spawning habitat in this reach to almost an acre and a half of suitable spawning locations for sturgeon after this project,” said Peterson. An acre and a half is about 65,000 square feet, which means the project will increase sturgeon spawning habitat by 16,000 percent along the Chambers Grove shoreline. One can only imagine the kinds of raucous sturgeon parties that will ensue.
One effect of the sheet piling is that the river’s flow is forced along it at a much higher velocity than is natural, causing it to scour out the riverbed next to the piling. The deepest part of the river today is right next to the shore; if you stepped off the piling, you would fall straight into eight feet of water. “It’s a very sharp transition,” Peterson said. “We don’t have any complex bank. We don’t have any place for little fishies to hang out.”
When the piling is removed and rock weirs are put in, the flow velocity along the shore will be considerably reduced and the deepest part of the river will move to the middle of the channel. The relaxed shoreline will also allow park users to actually touch and interact with the river, instead of just watching it flow by from behind safety chain barriers.
Beginning in mid-July, the new shoreline will be constructed and stabilized using what is known as “toe wood,” which essentially means taking a big tree, roots and all, and pushing it into the bank “like a pencil,” according to Peterson. It is expected that “a couple hundred trees” will be needed to treat the entire shoreline. The toe wood will be overlaid with sod, which will put down roots that will lock the logs into place. The roots of the trees, which will be left sticking a short distance into the river, will collect fine sediments and help “create a more naturalized channel.”
“It might look a little bit of a mess this summer as we’re working on this,” said Peterson. “But once you’re done, it looks pretty cool. It cleans up nice. And then this bank becomes a much more complex, much better fish habitat.”
The new incarnation of Chambers Grove Park is expected to present itself to the public early in 2017.
New parking ramp equipment
At the city council’s agenda session of March 5, 2015, Matt Kennedy, the city’s parking manager, briefed councilors on Resolution 126, which authorized the city to spend $621,099 on parking ramp equipment.
The city currently owns three parking ramps: the Technology Village ramp at Lake Avenue and First Street, the East Superior Street ramp next to the casino and the Medical District ramp at 3rd Avenue East and First Street. According to Mr. Kennedy, the equipment at all three ramps is in horrible shape. Fee computers, gate controls, and pay stations are broken or failing. Replacement parts are obsolete and unavailable, leading the city to cannibalize machines to fix other machines. Emergency intercoms work haphazardly.
“If someone presses a Help button at an entrance or an exit, it may or may not be audible to either the parker or the person at the other end of the system,” said Kennedy.
According to Kennedy, the equipment at the Tech Village ramp is 14 years old and that at the casino ramp is even older, which is about the lifespan one would expect for such equipment. “You would typically desire to see about 15 years of very good use before you would replace it,” he said.
At the Medical District ramp, however, the equipment is only 8 years old. And one thing that Kennedy did not mention is that much of the equipment at the Tech Village ramp is only 9 years old, not 14. In 2006, the city spent $160,000 to replace the booth-attendant system at the Tech Village with an automated system. Today, it is many of these 9-year-old parts that are failing.
“In the earlier years of these ramps, the ongoing upkeep wasn’t quite as much as we would desire,” said Kennedy. “Because we missed those first 5 to 8 years at the respective ramps, we lost an opportunity to extend their lifespan a little bit.”
To put it another way: Because the city failed to maintain its equipment, the lifespan of the equipment was cut in half and we are now spending $621,000 to replace it.
Adding further layers of obfuscation to the matter, the Statement of Purpose for Resolution 126 says: “The existing access and revenue control systems in the three major municipal parking facilities in downtown Duluth have exceeded their effective lifespan, having been in use in excess of ten years.”
This is inaccurate for two reasons: (1) It implies that the effective lifespan of parking equipment is 10 years, rather than 15; and (2) it doesn’t mention the 8- and 9-year-old equipment.
The fact that these omissions and inaccuracies all serve to minimize underlying problems leads me to believe they are no accident. City councilors seldom have the time to delve very deeply into the endless flow of paperwork that passes before them; to make their decisions, they rely heavily on city staff and Statements of Purpose. If a city staffer chooses to omit something here or downplay something there, it is very unlikely that anyone will call them on it. And so, human nature and political pressures being what they are, omission and downplaying become standard operating procedures.
We can, of course, hope that things will get better. According to Kennedy, the city’s ability to maintain parking equipment has improved greatly in the last three years. All the new equipment comes with a one-year warranty, and the city intends to purchase a five-year service plan after that, and maybe extended plans after that. “We’re very confident that we would easily get 15 to 20 years from this,” he told councilors.
Well, we shall see. In 15 years, if all the parking equipment is still going strong, I will be the first in line to offer my congratulations.
Mayor: Concerns about maintenance “political shorthand” for critics
On March 2, 2015, a constituent sent Mayor Don Ness a long email regarding proposed trail and park projects in the St. Louis River Corridor. She made a number of practical suggestions about the projects, asked several questions, and wound up by expressing concerns about maintenance.
“Duluth has a history of not properly budgeting for maintenance,” she wrote. “It was just a few years ago that Spirit Mountain, its board and the city council approved letting Spirit Mountain spend their dedicated maintenance fund to build the Alpine Coaster. […] There are lots of trails citywide that aren’t maintained properly currently. Maintenance should be considered for each and every proposed new [St. Louis River Corridor project]. If there isn’t money to maintain it, it should not be built.”
The mayor responded promptly, as he tends to do, giving each of her concerns a detailed answer. With regard to maintenance, he wrote, “With the passage of the Parks referendum [in 2011], the city has increased its park maintenance efforts and is slowly catching up with deferred maintenance. In my budget presentation to the council this year, I will have an increase to our maintenance budget to both better care for existing facilities and expanded offerings, especially in the River corridor.”
To someone like me, who has been writing about maintenance issues for some time now, it was nice to know that the mayor had maintenance on his mind. But he had other things on his mind as well.
“However,” he went on, “I’m concerned that ‘maintenance’ is now being used as a shorthand political tool against projects that people don’t like or a catch-all criticism of city operations.”
Reading this statement, it was hard for me not to take it personally. I always thought that if I identified a problem that was clearly a result of lack of maintenance, and then recommended avoiding the problem in the future by maintaining things, that I was using common sense.
There is certainly no shortage of such problems to identify. As the letter writer pointed out, Spirit Mountain squandered its maintenance budget on an Alpine Coaster that has not come close to generating the revenue we were told it would—meaning that the ski hill now has more capital equipment to maintain, but almost no money to do it with. Half of our water and sewer infrastructure is a century old, which results in costly water main breaks every winter. The library went unmaintained for most of its existence, and now we are facing very expensive systems upgrades, at a minimum.
That’s just off the top of the pile. There are many, many more examples I could give.
Imagine my surprise, then, to find out that by focusing on such issues, I was not merely fulfilling a journalist’s responsibility to look out for the city. Rather, in the mayor’s mind, I was using these concerns as a shorthand political tool against projects I didn’t like.
To be sure, I don’t like projects that propose spending vast amounts of money on new stuff and not a penny on maintenance. That’s because I have seen where this strategy leads. Maintenance itself is the very heart and core of my opposition. If the city did as I have suggested and set aside a dedicated maintenance fund for every project prior to the project being built, I can assure you that my concerns would be greatly diminished.
I shouldn’t be surprised that this idea has taken root in City Hall, though. If people who talk about maintenance a lot can be labeled simple obstructionists, that is a political shorthand of its own that will prove very useful to those who insist on building projects we can’t maintain.