Developers in paradise

On the St. Louis River, private dreams and public planning intertwine

Kayak Bay. Photo credit: John Ramos
Kayak Bay. Photo credit: John Ramos
Tallas Island. Photo credit: John Ramos
Tallas Island. Photo credit: John Ramos

Part One: 
The paddle park commandos

Don Ness, Duluth’s mayor from 2008 to 2016, was the city’s most popular chief executive in recent memory, and one of his most popular initiatives was the establishment of the so-called “half-and-half” tourism tax. The half-and-half tax is really two taxes: a half-percent tax on restaurant meals and bar tabs in the city, and another half-percent tax on hotel stays. As Ness envisioned it, the half-and-half tax would remain in effect until $18 million had been raised, and the entirety of that money would be used for recreation projects in the St. Louis River Corridor, on the western side of Duluth.

Ness unveiled his idea in his State of the City Address on March 3, 2014. “This is our moment,” he declared. “We must both be deliberate and aggressive in demonstrating that these neighborhoods are a great choice for young homebuyers. If we don’t, I worry that we’ll see property values decline, increased conversion into rental properties, and seniors who will struggle to sell their home when the time comes … The stars are aligning. This is our moment to create a vibrant future for these neighborhoods and for Duluth.”

Two large projects had half-and-half money earmarked for them from the start: Spirit Mountain’s new water line ($2.1 million) and improvements to Wade Stadium ($2.3 million). Mayor Ness made a unilateral decision to begin those two projects at once. To account for the remaining $13.6 million, city staff spent the year following Ness’s announcement soliciting public input and identifying potential river corridor projects.

On March 23, 2015, the city administration presented the city council with a list of 26 projects, asking for a resolution of support to continue their planning efforts. The meeting was a festive affair. Fifteen citizens showed up to speak. All were supportive of the projects in general, and several singled out specific projects for praise. Four people mentioned a new ice-climbing park in West Duluth, two mentioned mountain bike trails, and two praised a proposed Nordic Center at Spirit Mountain. The city council was equally enthusiastic, unanimously approving a resolution of support for all 26 projects. “It’s a wonderful night for Duluth, and [I will be] really excited to see these projects come back to us individually,” said Council President (now Mayor) Emily Larson.

One project on the list that went unmentioned was the “Tallas Island Paddle Center,” which had $350,000 earmarked. Tallas Island is a long, narrow island in the St. Louis River, directly below Spirit Mountain (in fact, Spirit Mountain’s water line, which draws water from the river, cuts through Tallas Island). As proposed, the paddle center would be a new park located on the bank of the river facing Tallas Island, which would provide an access point to the river for human-powered watercraft. 

Although the paddle center was not singled out for special attention, it held a special place in the administration’s planning. Besides the high-profile water line and Wade Stadium projects, the paddle center was the only other project on the list scheduled to receive half-and-half money immediately. In February of 2015, more than a month before the council voted on the list of projects, the city hired Minneapolis-based consultant HKGI to develop a Kayak Bay Paddle Center Concept Plan, for $24,390. (The Tallas Island site is sometimes called Kayak Bay.) The first payment from the city’s half-and-half tax fund, on Feb. 28, 2015, went to HKGI for this contract.

“Knowing the aggressive timing of this project,” HKGI wrote in their proposal, they would finish the concept plan by April of 2015 at the latest. To begin their work, HKGI held a kickoff meeting with “three key partners”—the city, the Department of Natural Resources, and the Minnesota Land Trust—to “discuss the project [and] formulate the approach to the visioning session with the larger group.”

The concept plan produced by HKGI consisted of a colorful map of the proposed paddle center, with brief notes attached. The most prominent feature was a new road that would be built into the site from Grand Avenue, which would cross over the Munger Trail, the Western Waterfront Trail, and a BN railroad line along the way, as well as a large tract of property owned by private developers. 

The proposed park itself, situated on a narrow strip of land between the BN line and the river’s edge, included parking for 16 cars and 3 trailers, a loading area, portable restrooms, a changing enclosure, a boat storage area, two “sand-beach launch areas,” picnic tables, a fire pit, and a “mobile warming hut” for winter use. A “5-Year Plan” suggested adding a “small comfort building with restrooms, lockers, showers” and a “small office building for DNR and classroom space, basic retail, [and] boat storage” to the site in the future. On Tallas Island itself, the drawing showed canoe camping sites, picnic tables, pit toilets, walking trails, and bird blinds.

Luokkala leads the charge

As planning proceeded on the Corridor projects, and the Ness Administration gave way to the Era of Larson, many of the projects gained constituencies who advocated for them. The Gary neighborhood mobilized in favor of a new community center, equestrians got behind horse trails, and zoo supporters advocated for spending money on the zoo. One project that remained in the background, however, was the paddle center at Tallas Island. It appeared on concept maps in occasional reports, and that was about all. City staff spent very little time talking about it. 

For example, at an open house on June 13, 2017, Senior Parks Planner Lisa Luokkala and consultant Heidi Bringman updated the public on planning efforts for Western Waterfront projects. Their presentation was an hour and 7 minutes long. Of that time, they spent 3 minutes talking about the paddle center. Similarly, on Nov. 8, 2017, when Luokkala and Bringman spoke to the Parks Commission, their presentation took an hour and 28 minutes—but only 2 minutes and 17 seconds, or 2.6 percent, of that time was devoted to the paddle center. 

As such, the project remained in the background, known but not really noticed, until January 10, 2018, when the administration announced that planning for the paddle center was done.
On that day, Luokkala presented the plan to the Parks Commission. The city had chosen to call the project the “Lower Spirit Waterfront Access and Park” rather than a paddle center. The site would still offer ADA-accessible launch sites for kayaks and canoes. The city’s proposal was smaller than HKGI’s concept plan—the parking lot was smaller, no permanent buildings were proposed, and no improvements were any longer planned for Tallas Island itself, among other changes. Luokkala assured commissioners (twice) that a bridge to Tallas Island was no longer proposed, which was odd, since the city had never proposed a bridge to Tallas Island. The biggest and most expensive feature of the plan—the new road down from Grand Avenue—remained. 

Luokkala told the Parks Commission that they needed to come to a decision quickly, because the city, county, state, and private developers had been designing the road for a long time now, and they really needed to know where it was going to end. Would it cross the BN tracks and go to a new city park on the river, or would it end above the tracks in a turnaround? Luokkala said that the city wanted the Parks Commission to vote on the plan at their following meeting, Feb. 14. If approved, the plan would move on to the City Council.

Some commissioners, like President Erik Torch, were practically fainting with delight, ready to approve the plan then and there. Others didn’t seem so sure. If planning for the road had been underway for such a long time, it was funny the Parks Commission was only hearing about this hard deadline now.

Throughout her presentation, Luokkala did her best to imply that the water access park enjoyed broad public support. Sadly, the facts of her narrative contradicted this. For example, when she spoke of a meeting, held in 2016, where the city had gathered 39 stakeholders and asked them what they wanted a riverfront park at Tallas Island to look like, one of the top five answers to emerge from that meeting, without the question even being asked, was: We don’t want a park there.

“So we did not build consensus in that meeting,” Luokkala said, “but we did get a lot of feedback of how people wanted to see that area used.”
Similarly, Luokkala cited the Riverside Small Area Plan, completed in 2015, as evidence that the public supported the new park. The Riverside Small Area Plan states this: “The City has engaged a consultant, HKGI, to develop a concept plan for a paddle center. The exact project and programming details remain to be decided. However, this project will play a key role in the way recreational development takes shape east of Grand Avenue.” 

It is apparent that the city planners who wrote this paragraph had a high regard for the paddle center. But when one reads the actual findings in the report itself, the message is almost the opposite: Among the top priorities identified by the stakeholder group are “Keep shoreline undisturbed”; “Protect the bay, river, and estuary”; and “[Provide] river access in already disturbed areas—no new disturbances.”

In the citizen comments attached to the end of the Riverside Small Area Plan, three of five letters are from citizens with deep concerns about the paddle center or opposed to it outright. There are no letters of support. 
Because Luokkala’s presentation was the first public meeting, really ever, where the administration was talking specifically about the paddle park, this meeting was also the first time the public showed up to comment on it. Eight citizens signed up to speak on the new park. Seven of them opposed it. 

Concerns about the park fell into two general categories. The first was environmental. Among other things, people worried about the impact of developing the river’s edge, noting that impervious surfaces increased erosion and pollution. Plus, they just liked it better the way it was. “Isn’t it okay just being natural?” asked one resident.

The second concern was financial. People wondered why the city wanted to build a new park at Tallas Island when there were plenty of existing water access points along the river which the city could equip with paddler docks and amenities much more cheaply. According to city staff, the total cost of the Tallas Island project, including the road down from Grand Avenue, was now coming in at $3.1 million. The county and state were covering $2.2 million for the road through the private development, which left the city with a $900,000 bill—quite an increase from the original 350K estimate. Wasn’t there a cheaper way to get a canoe in the water?

Westerlund covers

One month later, on Feb. 14, 2018, Planner Luokkala returned to the Parks Commission. Since the previous meeting, she told commissioners, she had received communications from 18 members of the public. Nine of them supported the new park, and nine were opposed. After carefully weighing everybody’s concerns, the city had decided to keep going ahead with the park. To reduce impervious surfaces near the river, they were moving some parking spaces to an overflow lot above the tracks. They also wanted to change the name of the park to “Spirit Landing.”

Next, City Councilor Em Westerlund spoke. As council liaison, Westerlund is a nonvoting member of the Parks Commission. Like most council liaisons, she generally spends meetings sitting quietly, only making an occasional comment to clarify the council’s perspective on something. But today must have been a special day, because Councilor Westerlund talked for more than five minutes straight.

Em Westerlund: I just mostly want to express, first of all, that I’m most excited about this plan in the accessibility aspect, knowing that we don’t have any other ADA-certified facilities for water access currently. It’s a real need ... The fact that plans for this site take special care to accommodate that population, and we’re proactively investing in universal design and ADA compliance, is something I really applaud.
It was a straight-up sell-job, the most blatant I’d seen in years. She continued.

Westerlund: I feel that city staff have been responsive to the concerns of the community. I think, if you [look at] the original proposal for this site, and then the ongoing public input that’s gone on, you’ve seen the plan respond explicitly to the majority concerns that have come through … For me, as a city councilor, I’m often hearing some frustration with the public input processes, people feeling that they’re not heard, and that a plan’s already made up ... I do think that this particular process has been very responsive to the input we’ve received … I think that this robust public input has continued to make this plan something that the community can get behind, and I hope that people feel that they’ve been heard as they’ve watched the plan evolve.

Certainly, there was robust public input, especially lately. Tonight, eleven members of the public were signed up to speak. Seven of them opposed the new park and four supported it, or mostly so. One paddler, Josh Sorvik, charmed the commission with his good-natured pitch for the new park, but summed up by saying, “I appreciate all the work that you guys are putting into it, and I think it sounds amazing—if it should work, I mean, I would love it. And then, if other landings should work and this one doesn’t, that would be awesome, too. I’m up for anywhere. I don’t care, whatever. I’m trying to get my boat in the water.”

Commissioners kept their own comments brief and to the point, then voted 6-4 to turn down the new park. This was unusual. More than that, it was unheard-of. Nobody could remember the Parks Commission denying a city proposal before. The staff seemed a little stunned. The Parks Commission, likewise.

Larson mows down the resistance

The following day, Feb. 15, Mayor Emily Larson announced that she was going to ignore the decision of the Parks Commission and bring the project to the City Council anyway. She said the job of a leader was to look at the bigger picture. Some parks commissioners were secretly happy—you might say they held a “torch” for the project. Others were upset. Hadn’t the city ASKED them to make a decision about this? Hadn’t Lisa Luokkala stood there and said the city wanted the Parks Commission to help decide where the road should end? Well, the Parks Commission had decided: They wanted it to end above the tracks.

On Feb. 16, City Councilor Noah Hobbs appeared on KBJR news to advocate for the project. “This provides another access point to the river that currently isn’t provided within the city,” Hobbs said. “There are certainly some environmental concerns which I believe the city has been sensitive to and [will] mitigate.” The councilor seemed quite knowledgeable about the project, considering that he had never said anything about it before. Hobbs reminded me of Councilor Westerlund at the Parks Commission. Westerlund, too, had been very knowledgeable about a project she’d never mentioned before.

On Feb. 25, the dynamic duo joined forces with their colleague, Fifth District City Councilor Jay Fosle, to publish a letter in the Duluth News Tribune praising the new park, saying it had gone through a “thorough vetting process.” 
On Feb. 26, 2018, the Spirit Landing project went to the City Council. Seventeen members of the public showed up to speak. The paddling contingent, at long last, was making themselves visible. Several paddlers in wheelchairs urged the council to approve the project. Josh Sorvik showed up again. He seemed much more committed to the Tallas Island site than he had been previously, now praising it effusively. Other citizens urged the council to reject the plan, for reasons that were now starting to sound very familiar. Some people clarified that they were in favor of accessible paddle launches, but didn’t think they should cost $900,000. Nine speakers spoke in favor of the paddle center. Eight were opposed.

The outcome was never in doubt. As city councilors discussed the project, they continued to cite reports that didn’t support the park as evidence that people supported the park. They praised city staff for their hard work and thanked them for being responsive to the community. Some councilors’ deep pools of knowledge about the project had grown even deeper. “This proposal has the highest-level, most modern stormwater infrastructure plan to be a part of it, to ensure that our waterways are not compromised,” said Councilor Westerlund, who was really turning out to be detail-oriented.

In the end, the City Council voted 7-2 to overrule the Parks Commission and move ahead with the paddle center. As the cries of betrayed citizens faded slowly away, city staff sighed with relief and marked one more thing off their list.

Next week: Part Two!