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As Duluth college enrollment grows, developer brings housing plan

Roanne Axdahl of Duluth stands in the backyard of her Duluth home, which overlooks Woodland Middle School at Woodland Avenue and Clover Street. The school district recently reached an agreement with developer Mark Lambert to sell the Woodland site, which would anchor an area of mixed student housing and retail development. Axdahl said she fears such a development would lower her property value and her quality of life. (Clint Austin / / 2
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Even as Duluth college students and residents are telling the city they want more student housing and retail closer to campus, an established developer of student housing complexes is working to create just that.

It's serendipitous for the city, which began studying a six-square-mile area around the University of Minnesota Duluth and the College of St. Scholastica for development last spring.

Stillwater, Minn.-based developer Mark Lambert, who was behind the Boulder Ridge and Campus Park student housing complexes in Duluth, reached a purchase agreement with the Duluth school district for the 22-acre Woodland Middle School site in September. Across the avenue from UMD, the Woodland site is among the closest expanses of land to the campus without being on it. At least three new buildings are planned there.

Student housing mixed with restaurants and other retail would be in one building -- and possibly two, depending on demand -- and a hotel is one idea for the third.

Lambert, who hopes to reuse the middle school instead of tearing it down, presented concepts to members of the city's Higher Education Small Area Plan committee on Thursday. He mentioned reaching out to Trader Joe's and Whole Foods as potential tenants, and he talked about several ways the school could be reused.

"I am confident if we build this, the students will come," Lambert said. "And I am working very hard to make sure the neighborhood comes, and the retailers come. It really isn't just about a student housing development."

Location will be a draw

A 30 percent increase in the college student population from 2001 to 2010 prompted the city's study. City planners want to balance the needs of UMD and St. Scholastica and its students with those in the surrounding neighborhoods, and feedback shows that to many that means a development where students can live, eat out and shop -- in some cases, all in the same building close to school. Because of its proximity to both UMD and St. Scholastica, the Woodland site rose to the top of the list.

Location is among the most important factors students consider when choosing housing, and cost is another, said Cindy Petkac, land use supervisor for the city.

Though not all students will be able to afford Lambert's four-bedroom, four-bathroom apartments in the first building he hopes to fill, its location close to UMD and St. Scholastica will be a draw, she said.

Other areas being studied for combined housing and retail development include the Kenwood and Mt. Royal shopping centers and the St. Marie Triangle, which is a neighborhood near UMD with many houses owned by a small number of landlords. The city also is looking at possible zones for development in the London Road corridor, the Fourth Street corridor and an area near the hospitals.

The city has sought widespread feedback, using focus groups with students, residents and developers; surveys; public meetings; a market study, and an area for comments on its website. Recommendations for changes to the city's 2006 comprehensive land-use plan will go to the City Council in March.

"We heard a lot of stories from students who wanted to be closer to campus and they were on waiting lists and couldn't get in," said Jenn Reed Moses, the city planner in charge of the small area plan.

Many of those students end up in the Central and East Hillsides, where housing stock is cheaper and often of lower quality than buildings closer to the campuses. One consequence of building new housing might be a glut of empty rentals in the Hillside.

Some residents concerned

Lambert has done his own market study, and he plans to begin the project with housing for only 300 students, with the possibility of adding more over time if the demand exists. If 1,000 students want to live there, the site could accommodate it, he said. He'll most likely have housing for non-

students, as well.

He said he plans to open his first building in the fall of either 2013 or 2014.

The city's study shows that the potential housing pool for new student apartments is between 2,500 and 2,900 students. But it also shows that there isn't necessarily a need for more housing.

"But what we've seen is students are living predominantly in single-family homes in single-family neighborhoods," Reed Moses said. "The idea is to try to alleviate the pressure on (those neighborhoods), and one effect of that is those students will be driving back and forth to campus less, so it alleviates traffic and congestion."

Roanne Axdahl is one neighbor in the 2300 block of East Eighth Street who's not happy about the Woodland development. Her home is next to the middle school, and she's worried the development will reduce her property value and affect her quality of life. The school hours jibe neatly with her own, and a combination of student housing and retail so close to her home would change her quiet life, she said.

"I think students would much prefer living in a single-family home than an apartment," she said, and the students who live around her in houses are respectful. "I don't think it's needed. I think what students look for are bars to go to that are close to campus. Why should we as a neighborhood provide that?"

Richard Florey lives about a block from the Woodland site. He, too, thinks that sort of development will hurt property values, and he doesn't see a need for more housing.

"I don't think the neighborhood fits any high-rise student housing or retail," he said. "There are better areas to be putting these things. Traffic alone without the development is a nightmare between 7:30 a.m. and

4 p.m."

Woodland Middle School neighbor Mark Poirier said Lambert has done a "great job" of reaching out to surrounding neighborhoods and talking to residents.

"We've been building up here for 15 years," Lambert said. "We've got a good reputation; we listen and try to find a good balance ... We've been very neighborhood-sensitive. We're trying to preserve frontage and maybe do a better job landscaping."

UMD is working with Lambert to possibly coordinate his development entrance with a new main entrance to the campus.

'A great economic driver'

Although the Mt. Royal Shopping Center is part of the study, the shopping center, with Bulldog Pizza among its eight tenants, has no plans for new development, said Ryan Boman, property manager for the center. The adjacent former Conoco gas station will become something new, he said, but the shopping center was remodeled in 1998.

"We're very supportive of the Woodland site," Boman said. "It's a great economic driver for the community."

St. Scholastica senior and Duluth native James Mategko said Woodland seems to be the best site, but he would like to see more than that developed. The Kenwood shopping area is another good choice, especially because so many students live along Arrowhead Road, he said. Because of the debt students carry, they also need more options around campus than just new luxury housing.

"The number who can afford to live there is not going to be high," he said.

Students have long been clamoring for popular, inexpensive chain restaurants like Panera Bread, Chipotle and Noodles and Co. A couple of those, along with a small grocery store, a local sit-down restaurant and a bar would be welcome additions around campus, many students said.

UMD students generally live on campus for one year, said Jason Reid, a senior.

"You grow as a student and you want to live off campus but still be close," he said. "You want to live with your friends and eat better food and have the college experience of being on your own."

The Woodland development and any others that grow from the plan would be good for all residents and would make the area around campuses more pedestrian-friendly, Reed Moses said.

"In the bigger picture, it's really about making college students more a part of our community," she said. "If we really want to grow our city, that's a ready-made population."