Higher and Higher: Duluth councilor looks up for development

Skyline of downtown Duluth, Minnesota. (PHOTO, Mark Goebel, Flickr CC)

The new 11-story Maurice’s Headquarters and Office Building in downtown Duluth added some heft to the skyline of this mid-sized metro in the Middle West last year. Now one city councilor is looking up, not out, for future development of the city.

At-large city councilor Zach Filipovich has proposed a resolution for tonight’s Council meeting that would allow taller buildings to be constructed in the heart of Duluth.

In this Peter Passi story in the Sunday Duluth News Tribune, Filipovich explains his reasons:

“I don’t see how we can substantially grow our city and at the same time not expand our utility infrastructure without having more dense and taller buildings in areas,” said Filipovich, who introduced the resolution.

The councilor makes a valid case for more dense development, said Keith Hamre, Duluth’s director of planning and construction services.

“From an economic development standpoint, we want more density. We want to maximize our utilities and the other infrastructure we have in place,” Hamre explained.

The City Council will be asked to resolve that Duluth should “encourage and use high-density zoning, building up rather than out, as a tool to preserve green space and to protect the city’s viewshed.”

Not everybody is sure about this yet. Other city councilors wonder aloud if there are ways to address future development density without necessarily focusing on the height of buildings.

From the story:

“I am an advocate for density, and I’m very concerned with sprawl,” said City Council President Joel Sipress.

But he questioned Filipovich, noting: “There are multiple strategies by which one can achieve density. There’s infill. There’s townhomes. There are lots of strategies for achieving density. But the only strategy that is specifically mentioned in this resolution is height, and I’m wondering what your thinking was?”

Filipovich responded: “I don’t know any other way to achieve more density in a single area of land other than by going up. If we’re going to have more people in one spot, we’re either going to have very tiny places to live or we’re going to need to have taller buildings or a combination of both.”

This will be part of the discussion tonight.

It’s encouraging to see Duluth look at the future in terms of building inside the city as opposed to expanding its edges. So many small towns across Northern Minnesota seem fixated on running sewers, streets and sidewalks further and further in hopes of drawing in new development. That philosophy has proven a net loser over time due to the costs of maintenance and lower tax revenues from box stores and strip malls.

Does this mean skyscrapers are in Duluth’s future? Probably not, but development solutions are more plentiful when you think in terms of what can be done where you are, rather than where you aren’t.


  1. The biggest issue in Duluth in terms of housing is the existence of a lot of severely substandard housing in West Duluth. The constant debate is between continuing development of more housing in East Duluth, where the city is running out of space rapidly without cutting into parks and green space, and where the idea of building higher buildings is centered, and rehab of existing houses in West Duluth and encouragement of people settling there. Issues of schools, shopping and entertainment, and other infrastructure are major barriers to people moving to the west.

    Meanwhile there has been a rash of new projects in the East that are medium rise (about 4 to 5 stories) multifamily housing, most clustered near UMD and the dense collection of shops and restaurants in the London Road/Woodland/Kenwood area. Some of these are quite high priced and all clearly beyond the reach of the Duluth average household income of about $42,000 a year. Whether the plans Filipovich suggests would address this is not at all clear, since the only true high rise proposal I am aware of at the moment (there may be more that I am not aware of) is clearly intended to be another high end apartment building in the University area.

    I personally strongly favor building up not out for a variety of reasons, but aside from helping Duluth hold on to and increase its population and tax base the future of this issue remains controversial, not least because of not-in-my-back-yard opposition to almost any high rise construction and the issue of seeing the city divide of prosperous East and crumbling West made even worse.

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