Lakewalk storm damage recovery

Lakewalk damage. Photo credits: John Ramos
Lakewalk damage. Photo credits: John Ramos

Last October, a howling northeast gale, combined with higher-than-normal lake levels, produced a storm surge on Lake Superior that pounded Duluth’s shoreline and flooded waterfront neighborhoods. The waves smashed up city and county infrastructure, including dock walls, roads, culverts, and the Lakewalk, and gobbled up great chunks of the Park Point beach. In April, a somewhat smaller nor’easter rolled in and added to the destruction.

Following the October storm, city officials toured the shoreline in a Coast Guard boat to assess the damage. News stories at the time reported the damage estimate at about $3 million, but when I spoke recently with Construction Project Supervisor Mike LeBeau, he told me that the latest estimate was “over $9 million in damage … from the October storm, and [almost] $700,000 from the April storm.” 

He added, “We’re going to be doing a little triage here, I’m afraid.”
Today, the gravel has been swept off the Lakewalk and some of the worst sections of erosion have been temporarily covered with tarps, but little visible repair work is apparent beyond that. According to city Parks Director Will Roche, however, in comments that he delivered to the Friends of the Lakewalk community group at their annual meeting on May 24, plenty of work is going on behind the scenes. 

 “We’re seven months now from the storm,” said Roche, “and questions I hear all the time are, ‘It’s seven months. What’s happening? What‘s the plan? When are things getting done? Where’s my Lakewalk? Why isn’t anybody doing anything?’ … Tonight [I want to] show you … how much care and effort are going into moving forward.”

Federal disaster relief money is expected to cover 75 percent of the cost to repair the Lakewalk, but only if the federal process is carefully followed. If the city made its own repairs before submitting the application, the federal government would not reimburse that money. 
One federal requirement is that the city conduct a careful evaluation of the damage. To that end, the city hired the engineering firm TRC, out of Chicago, a company “that does a lot of work in this regard throughout the nation, especially on the Great Lakes,” according to Roche. TRC flew a radar-equipped drone over the damaged areas, generating thousands of data points to produce a detailed profile of the shoreline and identify the areas most vulnerable to future storms. When compared against baseline data, they found that, in parts of Canal Park, as much as four feet of armoring stone—boulders the size of washing machines—had been swept away by the waves. 

TRC also sent out divers to “take measurements, figure out where things are, how they need to recover,” said Roche. “This is not just, ‘Dump a bunch of rock here’ … They are very strategic about the placement of rock, what it looks like, how you armor a shoreline … They’re very technical about how they approach it … It’s really an intelligent way to go about understanding how we recover from the storm, so we don’t face the same thing again in 10 or 20 years.”

Another consideration is timing. “It would be a waste of money to try to restore the Lakewalk before you armored the shore, because you’d be completely vulnerable to another storm.”
While the federal money will restore the shoreline to pre-existing conditions, Roche said that the city may consider upgrading or changing parts of the Lakewalk to better reflect current needs. “When you talk about the Lakewalk, do we want to build it the exact same way? Do we want to put it in the same position? If we deviate from that, that cost differential is added onto the city’s responsibility.” Roche estimated that, with upgrades incorporated into the plan, the city might end up paying for 30 to 35 percent of the total repair bill.

According to Roche, if everything went perfectly, the city might expect to see “potentially some shoreline armoring in 2018, with the remainder of the repair [happening] in 2019.” Under “a more moderate schedule, which many would still call extremely ambitious … it could be 2019 before even armoring the shore takes place.”

Until that happens, the city’s strategy is to cross their fingers and hope another nor’easter doesn’t blow in.

The Beacon Pointe easement

In the process of smashing up the city, Mother Nature may have also weighed in on a long-simmering Duluth issue: a proposed Lakewalk extension in front of the Beacon Pointe condominiums at 20th Avenue East.
The story of the Lakewalk extension began in 2003, when developers asked the city to rezone some shorefront property between 20th and 22nd Avenues East from Manufacturing to Residential, so that they could build condominiums. They also wanted the city to vacate an undeveloped city easement at 21st Avenue East, so they could assemble a larger piece of property.

Some residents, who had for years been accustomed to rambling freely back and forth along the beach in that area, were concerned that their lake access might be taken away. In return for vacating the 21st Avenue easement, the city required the developers to agree to a new easement running along the shore in front of the condos, where the Lakewalk might be extended in the future. 

To build support for this plan, the developers circulated promotional literature that showed plenty of room between the proposed townhomes and the lakeshore to accommodate a lawn, terraced landscaping, and the Lakewalk extension. To ease concerns about lake view obstruction, they promised residents that the townhomes would be no more than two stories tall, which would leave a nice view of the lake from the freeway. 

Unfortunately, once they had all their variances and special permissions in place, the developers turned around and sold the project to a new group of investors, who decided to build the townhomes three-and-a-half stories tall. Moreover, as the buildings went up, it became clear that they were much closer to the shoreline than anyone had anticipated. The narrow strip of level land remaining between the condos and the lake was completely taken up by the Beacon Pointe lawn. Any future Lakewalk extension would have to traverse the steep, rocky hillside below the lawn, which would take an expensive feat of engineering to accomplish. Moreover, until and unless the Lakewalk extension was constructed, citizens would be legally barred from setting foot on the Beacon Pointe shoreline.

Citizens were outraged but powerless. The original developers’ promises carried no legal weight, and the zoning allowed for three-story construction. Moreover, the city was firmly in support of the project. On every point of contention, Mayor Herb Bergson and city staff backed up the developers. At a tense public meeting held on April 17, 2007, when angry residents complained to City Planner Bob Bruce about the broken promises (“If the beach is closed, the people are going to burn down those houses,” somebody snarled at one point), Bruce seemed surprised that they were making such a big deal about it. “That was marketing,” he shrugged.

Meanwhile, people who had moved into the new Beacon Pointe condos had their own concerns. In 2008, Beacon Pointe resident Tom Burns told the Duluth News Tribune, “If you build a Lakewalk on our grass, you’ll be in spitting distance of our bedrooms. If you want to have a pathway where you can have people look straight into our windows, that is unacceptable.”
In 2014, Second District City Councilor Joel Sipress convened a task force made up of various stakeholders “to seek thoughtful solutions to the complex issues” surrounding the Beacon Pointe easement. Their report, completed in early 2015, called on the city to do a feasibility study to determine if a Lakewalk extension was technically and financially possible, and, if so, to build it. If the extension was not found to be technically or financially possible, the report recommended that “the easement … should revert to the adjacent property owners to resolve and fully close this issue.”

In 2015, the city commissioned the feasibility study. The consultants determined that a Lakewalk extension in front of Beacon Pointe would be expensive—more than $1.5 million—and dealing with lingering property issues further down the shore would add to the cost, but that the extension was technically possible, if the width of the path were reduced from ten feet to five. The cover page of the report featured a conceptual drawing showing what a possible extension might look like.

Waves from the recent storms, however, have dramatically altered the Beacon Pointe shoreline. The lawn was eroded a dozen feet or more on parts of the property, with the crumbling embankment creeping uncomfortably close to the foundation of the building itself. Twelve years after construction, the original developers’ decision to build so close to the water’s edge was coming back to haunt current residents.

This month, Beacon Pointe owners armored their eroded shoreline with riprap, but the changes will certainly make a future Lakewalk extension more expensive, if feasible. The city, overwhelmed with work already, is certainly not considering any extension in their storm recovery plans. We may be facing a moment when the easement, for reasons of practicality and economics, may have to be abandoned.

If nothing else, we can take some small comfort in the fact that, if the Lakewalk extension had been built, the recent storms would have certainly destroyed it.

Shopping cart blues

When smaller half-size shopping carts started appearing in area grocery stores a year or two ago, I was an immediate fan. They were easier to maneuver than regular carts, and they could still hold quite a bit of stuff. Unfortunately, I have now found a flaw in their perfection.
Leaving Cub Foods with my small shopping cart last week, I was strolling across the parking lot when suddenly both front wheels dropped into a crack in the pavement. With a full-size shopping cart, this would have been a minor annoyance, but with the half-size cart it was a disaster. The entire thing tipped forward and crashed to the ground, spilling my groceries across the parking lot. Two-liter bottles of pop burst and sprayed as they rolled. My shin smashed into the cross bar on the cart, raising a knot that is still with me today.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that three different people helped me pick up my stuff. It was sort of like an Easter egg hunt. “There’s another one over here!” yelled one guy in the distance, holding up a jug of Diet Mountain Dew.
The bottom line? Those small carts cannot be trusted.