DULUTH - About 40 residents gathered in the community room at the new City Hall on Wednesday to ask questions and provide input on the proposed redevelopment of the old City Hall block to the project's developers and architects.
Before the council acts on a revised concept for the mixed-use redevelopment, Mayor Nancy Harris wanted residents to have an opportunity to express concerns that centered on balancing retail and office space in the project and the visibility of a two-level parking deck. The city's Downtown Development Authority endorsed the revised concept in October.
Scott Magar, a principal in the architectural firm of Hill Foley Rossi & Associates, explained that the project includes 28,500 square feet of office space, 25,700 square feet of retail space and 6,500 square feet of restaurant space. A total of 257 spaces are planned in the parking deck located in the center of the redevelopment and in other parts of the project, he said.
Since initial plans for the project were unveiled last fall, The Milestone Group now has Batson-Cook Development as a new partner replacing Coro Realty Advisors.
Hill Foley Rossi, which designed the new City Hall and the recently completed Duluth Downtown office-retail building, replaced the original architect. The old city hall block redevelopment project would use similar materials and reflect the turn-of-the-century architecture used in these two buildings, Magar said.
Both the DDA and the city council recently voted to allow the developers to abandon plans to save the old City Hall, a former church, and the parsonage to ensure the project's economic feasibility. The initial plans included the church and parsonage.
Summarizing several comments, Mayor Harris remarked that citizens appear to be worried about the project turning into an office park. John Starr and Jeremy Hammerton with Batson-Cook assured residents they intend to build a quality development and to pursue retail tenants, but some of the retail space potentially could be leased as office space depending upon the market.
The project includes one story of street-level retail with two stories of office space above it on West Lawrenceville Street, restaurant space at the corner of West Lawrenceville and Main streets, and a retail building on Main Street.
A proposed residential component of 20 units on Hill Street may be placed on the back burner due to the downturn in the housing market, according to the developers.
Although the DDA has granted the developers the concession that retail space can be leased as office space after a certain time period elapses without tenants, residents were assured it would still appear to be retail space.
Some residents suggested practical retail businesses they would like to see downtown, such as a sundries shop. Another person proposed unique businesses like the violin maker located on Main Street.
Others like Stacie Stamper still want the old City Hall and parsonage incorporated into the redevelopment. "The old City Hall and parsonage are still usable," said Stamper. "If we could preserve them, I wouldn't have such a problem with this project."
Stamper advocated preserving the city's history and the structures on the block instead of trying to redevelop it with new buildings that look old. "We're not Suwanee," Stamper said. "We're historic Duluth."
The entrance to the parking deck would be located on Ga. Highway 120 (Abbotts Bridge Road) and visible from the highway in heights ranging from 11 feet and gradually diminishing to about four feet. From two breezeways planned on West Lawrenceville and Main streets, a small section of the parking deck would be visible from the Main Street side only. Magar said that the parking deck would be screened with landscaping.
The development will be required to have about 65 percent of the space pre-leased to obtain financing for the project and provide an adequate number of parking spaces. According to the developers, closeby parking is critical to the success of the project.
The developers indicated that they plan to time construction of the project with the completion of planned improvements to Ga. 120 expected to be done in about three years. "We don't want to be holding a grand opening while Highway 120 construction is going on," Starr said.