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Neighborhoods keep planning Some groups upset city left them without leadership


Anger boiled, and in at least one corner of Duluth there was plenty of city-bashing. But for the most part, neighborhood planning districts returned to business during their first gatherings after a consultant was fired and the city's comprehensive planning process was thrown into disarray. "The natives were restless. They still wanted to beat up the city planning department,'' Allan Beaulier of Smithville said of his district's first meeting since the turmoil of the past two months. "I guess we were able to regroup, but it sure wasn't easy. We have a lot of work to do.''

Neighborhood planning districts were created from Fond du Lac to Lakeside more than a year ago. The idea was to encourage grass-roots input and participation as the city plots its future through the year 2020. The groups have been meeting monthly. But they were told not to meet in December. Just days earlier the city fired SmithGroup JJR, the Madison, Wis., consulting firm hired to lead the planning process. The decision was made amid concerns about SmithGroup's leadership and vision, as well as its delivery of maps and other materials.

"We never saw it coming. There was no inkling of this firing at all, none. We're still dismayed,'' said Don Dass, a regular at planning district meetings in his Lakeside-Lester Park neighborhood. "I'm afraid the city may have politicized something that absolutely should not be political,'' he said. "There's not a whole lot of trust right now. The rug was really pulled out from under us.''

"We were left speechless and up in the air,'' said Claudia Lundquist of the planning district that covers Lincoln Park/West End. "All of a sudden there was nobody leading us. We were working, working, working and then all of a sudden, nothing. It really left a lot of people hanging.''

All 10 districts have now met since Duluth and SmithGroup split. City staff attended those first meetings. They answered questions, listened to concerns and tried to offer direction. "Each district has its own personality. It's tough,'' said Chuck Froseth, a city planner working with neighbors in Central Hillside, Observation, downtown, Park Point, Woodland, Kenwood, Hunters Park, Morley Heights, Lakeside-Les- ter Park and the North Shore. "It wasn't damage control, it was more 'What the heck happened? Why did you do it?' We tried to tell them. And we tried to help them get refocused,'' Froseth said. "I think people are still concerned with trust and with what happens next. But we're getting through it.''

Duluth planning officials are moving forward as well. In City Hall, planning staffers are identifying the city's industrial resources and their locations, said Mike Conlan, the city's director of planning and development. They will also pinpoint industrial-zoned land for city leaders to decide if that's the best use for the property. Planning staffers are also completing a draft of the city's medical district. Both plans could be complete by the end of the month, Conlan said. "There are parts of the process that are very visible and parts that aren't,'' he said. "Just because these things can't be seen at the neighborhood planning district level doesn't mean nothing's going on.''

But the city still hasn't received maps and other information SmithGroup was to provide the city in December, when the contract was severed. Conlan said he's not overly worried about SmithGroup's delay, but is working to get the maps and information so staff can use the data. What happens next is neighborhood plans, Froseth said. He hopes each district will create a plan by summer that will detail where businesses should go, where housing could be created, what the neighborhoods' goals are, their objectives and the things their residents hold sacred. "The neighborhood plans will be mini plans of sorts,'' Froseth said. "We can add to them later on. But they'll give us a base.'' The city hopes to have a new consultant hired by summer, too, Froseth said.

"The first meeting we had there was a lot of pent-up stuff that came out,'' said Beaulier, whose district covers Fond du Lac, Gary-New Duluth and Morgan Park. Issues neighbors vented over included a proposed rezoning of Fond du Lac, the possibility of new housing there, and sewer and sinkhole problems in Morgan Park. Neighbors in Congdon and Endion walked away from their first meeting feeling pretty good. They finalized a vision statement and managed to avoid talk of the firing, said Larry Sundberg, a St. Louis County health department worker who lives on Jefferson Street. "Everyone just said we want to continue the process and move ahead. We still want this to happen,'' Sundberg said. "We felt it was important for the neighborhood group to continue, so we did.''

The district asked plenty of questions at its resumption meeting, Sundberg said. Most were heartened when city officials assured them the process' steering committee wouldn't be disbanded or that neighborhood land-use maps wouldn't be discarded when an overall citywide map is created. "All of this is too important to give up now,'' said Lundquist of Lincoln Park/West End. "People do still want to be involved. Neighbors should have a say in planning the next 20 years. We certainly don't want to let some outsider come in and do it.''

Across town in Lakeside-Lester Park, neighbors have decided they want a streetscape plan to bolster their East Superior Street business district, in-fill housing, a way to deal with the loss of big trees when streets are widened, and new townhouses so older residents can remain in the neighborhood. "There are still plenty of things we want to see happen,'' said Dass, a Jay Street resident who does drug interdiction at Duluth's main post office as a member of the Minnesota National Guard. "The dust has to settle now,'' he said. "I mean, we were making great progress. We had a pretty good idea what we wanted to see. Then all of a sudden we didn't know where anything was at. "But there are things we care about very strongly,'' he said. "We don't want to see it all screwed up. We have to stay involved.''

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