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Downtown Revitalization Proposal Aired

Morris & Fellows presents proposal for public-private partnership to transform Old City Hall Block, now known as The Block, in Duluth.

Morris & Fellows, a company that has been involved in developing, redeveloping and rescuing significant projects nationally and locally, has proposed entering into a public-private partnership with Duluth to revitalize its downtown.

Cheri Morris, president of the Sandy Springs-based company, outlined a plan at a joint meeting of the Duluth City Council and Downtown Development Authority Monday (Dec. 17) that would initially focus on the Old City Hall Block, now referred to as “The Block,” but eventually involve other parts of downtown.

The Red Clay Theatre would serve as the anchor for a restaurant and entertainment district with retail shops, offices above the stores, residences, and possibly a boutique hotel envisioned by Morris and her team. The alley between Main Street shops and the warehouse would be lined with restaurants.

“We would also want to use the [former] parsonage and church sanctuary, she said.

“Almost all urban redevelopment is led by food and beverage and live entertainment,” according to Morris.

The revitalized block would appeal to young professionals and empty nesters, who want walkability and want to live in downtowns, Morris said.

Morris was accompanied by two real estate experts and a construction manager.

“We think you have a goldmine in The Block,” Morris told the city officials gathered in the Community Room at Duluth City Hall. The city owns the block of historic buildings bounded by Main Street, West Lawrenceville Street, Hill Street, and Abbotts Bridge Road. City ownership of the property is an advantage, Morris said.

When redeveloped, the downtown could have a value of $100 million, she said.

In the public-private partnership, Morris explained, the city would be responsible for infrastructure improvements and sidewalks. Her team would renovate the buildings and recruit tenants. “We carefully select retailers,” she said.

The Morris & Fellows proposal included the following elements in downtown Duluth:

  • Eight to 10 restaurants
  • 20-30 new shops
  • 40-70 offices above the shops
  • 350 multi-family homes
  • 85 townhomes, cluster homes and single-family homes.

Morris predicted The Block could be open for business by New Year’s Eve in three years.

Morris & Fellows “saves history where possible and celebrates architecture,” Morris said. Sometimes new fronts and outside extensions are added to historic buildings, she said, and innovative signage is used, but the buildings are preserved.

Building heights would be staggered and would be limited to four stories, she said.

“We want to partner with the City of Duluth to preserve your history and usher in your future,” Morris said.

The Block would be the city’s catalyst project for more downtown improvements, Morris also said.

“The project does not include Buford Highway,” she said, “but it would improve as a result of the trickle-down effect.” The result would be better highway retail, she said.

Morris & Fellows has been involved for the past 30 years in projects in New York City (Grand Central Station), Washington, DC (Union Station), Atlanta (Lucky Marietta District), Minneapolis (Nicollet Mall), San Francisco (Pier 39), Colonial Williamsburg, San Diego (Horton Plaza), Fort Worth (Sundance Square), Rosemary Beach, FL, and Highlands, NC, (Old Edwards Inn & Spa).

Locally, some of its projects are located in Inman Park, Woodstock, McDonough, East Point, Sandy Springs, and Norcross among others.

Pam Tuggle December 18, 2012 at 04:26 PM
Great ideas as long as we keep the church and parsonage as it is our past as well as our present.
Bev Cantwell December 18, 2012 at 07:20 PM
The only way I can imagine having ALL those "elements" on the block is putting up highrise buildings. How in the world can this "preserve history"?? And furthermore, where are 435 residents going to park their cars, not to mention the office workers and shoppers? What fun the fall festival can be in the future!
DavidE December 18, 2012 at 07:57 PM
I agree. Also, a hotel is not wanted or needed. The build it and they will come mentality needs to end before it destroys the city.
DavidE December 18, 2012 at 08:04 PM
I wonder how successful this company is, they don't have a website other than a small blog. There are companies that I have forwarded to our Mayor and some of the Council that have been very successful and do have a portfolio available on a real website. This appears to have someone's agenda all over it.
Dusty Graham December 18, 2012 at 08:16 PM
I attended the presentation and was impressed by what Morris & Fellows have been able to accomplish in other cities. While details on Duluth were high-level, Ms Morris showed confidence that she do the same here. I have felt for a long time that city staff simply did not have the expertise, vision, or resources to turn downtown around. Ms. Morris does. It will cost us, the taxpayers, some amount of seed money, but the returns promise to be very, very good. Ms. Morris spoke of dominating shopping in a 10-15 mile radius. She cautioned that if another city begins this type of development first, then our return would be less. She also brought up a very valid point, RCT needs support to be really successful. The area of redevelopment includes properties bordering the Town Green and the Cemetery (think LCI zone). Buildings would be staggered between two and four stories to avoid a monotonous visual element and to provide interest. The hotel would likely be four stories to allow for a smaller footprint. I know this is strange coming from me, but I was encouraged by yesterday's presentation and look forward to more details of how the project would come together and, most importantly, be funded.
DavidE December 18, 2012 at 08:44 PM
I just saw the "fear factor" act now or someone else will do it, in your second paragraph. That would have been a red flag for me.. I would much rather see a company like Historical Concepts provide some info/suggestions as well. http://www.historicalconcepts.com
Ellen Davis December 18, 2012 at 09:47 PM
At the very least, let's hear from more companies! Ellen
ElizabethS January 30, 2013 at 04:58 AM
Drive 15 miles east and where are you ? Discover Mills / Lawenceville now Drive 15 miles South on buford Hwy where are you ? 285 doraville / buckhead when will the lies and intimidation stop When Duluth puts a Sewer line down buford hwy and allows for redevelopment, the downtown merchants will start to see the traffic they where promised.
Dusty Graham January 30, 2013 at 09:59 PM
@ElizabethS -- The City is currently making their wishlist for the 2013 SPLOST Program which will be voted on this year. The installation of sewer lines (an a required pumping station) would be an excellent project for this list. Do reach out to your mayor and council and let your voice be heard. Also start coming to meetings. Only a handful of citizens bother to get involved and we need greater numbers to show we care.

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