Friday, November 16, 2012

Building a Sense of Place in Downtown Duluth

Scene at the PROVE Gallery this past Friday.
One day, back in the early 90's when we lived at the top of the Central Hillside in Downtown Duluth, I came home from work to find an artist from Bulgaria painting a landscape on the sidewalk in front of my house. I walked over and watched him for a few minutes, then asked where he was from and why he was here. He said that Duluth was one of the three most beautiful cities in the world the way the late afternoon sun rushed down at an angle over a steep hillside to a vast body of water below. He compared it to San Francisco and a city in Switzerland, perhaps Zurich if I recall properly.

The incident became a vivid reminder of why this Northland community is something of a magical place. And it’s one of the reasons why the Twin Ports region has become such an attractive nesting space for artists seeking a sense of place.

I’ve always enjoyed the title of Swiss psychologist Paul Tournier’s insightful volume A Place For You. A place, a destination, a home… a source of nourishment and development. We all long for it. According to the report released by national city planning experts earlier this week, the fermenting Duluth arts community has been this and is becoming moreso.

Tonja Sell piece at the PROVE.
The 78-page report has much of value, and though available to all (as noted in my column yesterday) I will take a few blog entries to highlight some of its features, observations and recommendations. There were seemingly countless people and hours devoted to assembling this information, and my guess is that the best way to build on what has been done is to keep talking about it, which I am sure was the point of Mayor Don Ness's press conference Tuesday.

Early on the report explains the background and outlines the aims of the of those who took this initiative.

In October 2011, Duluth city leaders, downtown businesses, and community organizations joined together to convene a mid-course review of progress in achieving the guiding principles and recommendations from its 2005 charrette. The review was sponsored by the City of Duluth, Duluth Local Initiatives Support Corporation (Duluth LISC), the Greater Downtown Council, and the University of Miami School of Architecture.

The 2005 Duluth Charrette Principles
1. Boost Duluth
2. Evoke a sense of place
3. Foster public safety
4. Preserve and enhance heritage resources
5. Invest in the public realm
6. Establish and restore the unique urban ecology of the city’s neighborhoods, districts, corridors, and downtown
7. Calm traffic and improve connectivity
8. Broaden the mix of uses
9. Expand housing opportunities for people from all walks of life to live downtown
10. Improve the regulatory framework

What impressed me was the quantity of people involved in this visioning process, as well as the caliber. Young people may not realize that the population here was once nearly 50,000 more than it is today. This was a steel mill town, major port in the industrial age as well as for the breadbasket of the nation. As the rust belt rusted, Duluth began to reconfigure its image, a process that has culminated in a document full of noteworthy recommendations.

Specific actions to pursue

 Arts and Economic Development – Treat the arts (visual and performance) as a retail and entertainment anchor; create additional places where artists can live and work, and in the process, liven up the street. Cluster arts and synergistic residences, retail and educational facilities in nodes to maximize the economic spinoff, and “Duluth is sometimes called the ‘San Francisco of the Midwest’ because of its dramatic topography, proximity to Lake Superior, and abundance of historic architecture in its downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. This, combined with its location in the northern alpine wilderness, gives it a distinctive character among small U.S. cities. The charrette team was inspired by Duluth’s stunning geographic setting juxtaposed with the traditional urban fabric imposed on the landscape.”

 Housing – Duluth has benefitted from strong public, private, and non-profit sector partners led by LISC that have helped stabilize and diversify housing options within the downtown for a wide variety of household types and income levels. The panel advocates maintaining a strong commitment to expanding downtown housing opportunities, including the addition of more market-rate housing and getting the word out about the fun and sophisticated living options in and near the downtown. Duluth’s economic and downtown development groups all need to help tell the story in addition to investing in making the Duluth Creative Corridor work even better as a regional economic engine.

The city and its partners should set quantifiable goals, provide the incentives to achieve them, and document successes.

 Institutional Partnerships – Capitalize on the presence of anchor institutions, including hospitals, and universities, in or near the Duluth Creative Corridor that provide two of the essential amenities (access to good health care and education) that are always top drivers in the “best place to live” studies and reports. Four critical “to dos”: 
1) Create joint campus/neighborhood-friendly plans; 
2) Provide incentives for employees to live near where they work (a household money-saver); 
3) Encourage students to volunteer and live in the corridor; and 
4) Invest in improving the off-campus environment.

 Marketing – Strengthen and tell the Duluth story, but not just in the Midwest. Duluth is ready to compete with great urban places like Boulder and Ashville that are Meccas for young creatives and outdoor enthusiasts. The identification and study of peer communities such as these and others can provide valuable insights into how communities of similar size and resources capitalize on their unique assets and strengths to compete. With its spectacular shoreline, dramatic topography, the Canal Park area, connections to northern vacation destinations, and burgeoning downtown nightlife and arts scene, Duluth has the natural and urban livability assets to become a national destination.

 Planning, Urban Design, and Connectivity – Adapt existing codes and adopt new regulations and review procedures that support and actively facilitate the realization of the Duluth Creative Corridor (treating street design in a context-based manner, for example). Great cities are defined by great streets. Connect the higher education campuses physically, visually, psychologically, and through branding efforts to the downtown and waterfront as one seamless, walkable urban living area. Invest in making Superior Street a cultural hot spot and a great street of urban stature.

 Leadership – Get institutional leaders more actively involved and invested in realizing the corridor vision. Establish a regular, ongoing coordinating group to keep the vision alive, assign actions with clear and trackable outcomes, monitor and document progress (the numbers are important), stimulate excitement and innovative thinking, and tell the Duluth story. The coordinating group must include community leaders from business, government, industry, non-profits, and academia that can take decisive actions that move implementation forward: marshaling resources, forging partnerships, removing obstacles, and empowering staff to effect change. In short, the panel concluded, the Duluth Creative Corridor will reposition Duluth as one of the country’s great urban places. As evidenced by its exceptional progress to date and the continued support for a bold, shared vision, the city has the requisite public and private leadership and fortitude to make that happen.

Years ago there was a jingle on the radio about this town designed to bring people back in. I believe it was Julie Finkel of the Centerville All Stars who sang it: "Downtown Duluth. It's Everything Special." With today's vision and the developmental achievements of recent years, I believe the slogan is apt. There's plenty of work to be done, but much to look forward to as well.  

In the meantime, get out and enjoy the arts. There are plenty of venues. Have a great weekend.


Ann Klefstad said...

Great stuff, Ed! You're right, the report is too good and useful to sit in a drawer. Thanks for helping these recommendations see the light of day.

Logan J. Skew said...

Amazing!! thanks for info

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