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Duluth adopts design standards for Buford Highway, downtown

DULUTH - The Duluth City Council unanimously adopted an amendment to the city's zoning ordinance Monday that establishes overlay districts and creates design standards for development in some of the most visible parts of the city.

The overlay districts, which supplement underlying zoning regulations, impose standards for building materials, architecture, windows, landscaping, parking and lighting along the Buford Highway corridor and in downtown Duluth. The standards were proposed by the city to promote and facilitate attractive redevelopment of these areas.

The amendment prohibits pawn shops, major vehicle repair and emission testing stations, sales of automobiles, trucks and boats, modular and manufactured homes, and outdoor storage yards along the Buford Highway corridor. Schools and extended stay hotels and motels also will be disallowed. Motels and hotels will require special-use permits.

Non-permitted uses for downtown include drive-throughs; auto repairs; sales of automobiles, trucks, auto parts, tires and accessories, modular and manufactured homes; outdoor storage yards; schools or colleges; hotels and motels and extended stay hotels and motels. Bed and breakfasts were added as an allowable use in the downtown area.

Existing non-conforming uses will be grandfathered. If discontinuted, non-conforming uses would have to be resumed within 180 days to continue to operate.

Flashing, blinking and neon signs will not be allowed in either overlay district.

The council vote followed a review of the latest revisions to the overlays by Cliff Cross, the city's planning director.

These changes included clarifying the "reviewing authority" that would be charged with implementing and enforcing the amendment. The planning director and authorized city staff will serve as the reviewing authority until the city follows through with plans to create an architectural review board. In some instances, the city's Zoning Board of Appeals may grant modifications to the design standards.

The ordinance was drafted by the city's planning staff and reviewed by the planning commission prior to being forwarded to the council for action. The final document incorporates comments made by residents and city council members during an Aug. 11 public hearing and Aug. 25 meeting.

"It's been a long process, and it's been very thorough," Mayor Nancy Harris said. "Now when we start redeveloping Buford Highway, we'll have some really strict standards to guide development and make it a more attractive place."

The council lifted a moratorium on issuing special-use and conditional-use permits in highway commercial districts following passage of the overlays.

The final version of the amendment is posted on the city's Web site at www.duluthga.net.

The city council has called a special meeting for 6 p.m. Wednesday to discuss possible revisions to plans for the proposed redevelopment of the old City Hall block in downtown Duluth. Comments from the public will be accepted. The block is bounded by West Lawrenceville Street, Hill Street, Abbotts Bridge Road and Main Street.

Called the Duluth Town Center, the proposed turn-of-the-century-style redevelopment includes mixed-office, retail and residential uses.

The Duluth Downtown Development Authority at its Aug. 19 meeting voted not to require the potential developers to preserve the old City Hall, the former Duluth First Baptist Church and the parsonage as part of the redevelopment project. The DDA also has recommended this action to the council.

The original plans presented by the developers, a partnership of the Milestone Group and Coro Realty Advisors, last fall kept the old City Hall located on West Lawrenceville Street intact.

Although official action may be taken, the council likely will postpone a vote until its Sept. 22 regular meeting.