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History: Changing Duluth's waterfront from junk to jewel of the North

The area now known as Canal Park was a combination of business and industry with an eroding shoreline and no real lake access for the residents. Photo provided by Jerry Kimball.1 / 4
Today the Lakewalk is enormously popular with residents and tourists alike. Photo by Jana Peterson/Budgeteer News.2 / 4
Photo by Jana Peterson/Budgeteer News.3 / 4
Some of Jerry Kimball's fellow walkers. Photo by Jerry Kimball.4 / 4

At 8 a.m. nearly every weekday morning of the year -- rain, snow, wind or sunshine -- Jerry Kimball and a group of friends meet at the Rose Garden for a four-mile trek along the Lakewalk to Canal Park, with a stop at Caribou Coffee -- "for kibitzing, coffee, tea and toilet," Kimball wrote in his homemade book -- before heading back to the Rose Garden.

For Kimball, the route holds an extra-special significance. As longtime head of Duluth's Physical Planning Division, Kimball played a major role in planning and implementing what he likes to call the "renaissance" of Canal Park.

Had he and his friends tried to walk the same route 25 years ago ... well, they couldn't have.

That's because there was no Lakewalk before 1988. Before the 1980s, what we now refer to as Canal Park had several thriving businesses, including Grandma's Restaurant, but only one hotel (a Holiday Inn) at the corner of the lake, a number of aging warehouses, a car dealership, a scrap yard, a strip club and no real access to the lakeshore.

"Canal Park used to be a plethora of junk yards," said John Bray of the Minnesota Department of Transportation. "In fact, Duluth was featured in a Parade article about communities that were desecrating their waterfronts."

While it may seem strange to outsiders and/or younger Duluthians that a MnDOT representative would weigh in on Duluth's primary tourist destination, Canal Park would not exist as it does today without Interstate 35: in particular, the section of I-35 that runs between Mesaba Avenue and 26th Avenue East.

"If it weren't for the freeway providing the interchange at Lake Avenue, Canal Park wouldn't be the same today," Bray said. "Two critical things had to happen to make Canal Park: an on-and-off ramp at the head of Canal Park, and they had to build the Lakewalk."

Changing times and attitudes

The first portion of I-35 had marched on massive pillars through West Duluth in the 1960s without much debate or discussion. Eisenhower's 42,500-mile interstate system -- initiated in 1956 -- was the new reality, a sign of progress and, in most cases, an unstoppable force.

Then people said "no."

"It seems like 1970 was the time that the attitude of the public toward freeway construction really shifted, locally and nationally," said Ben Boo, mayor of Duluth from 1967 to 1975. "An eruption occurred -- the people said 'No more freeways will be built at the desecration of neighborhoods.' Prior to that, (freeways) just went through and ripped neighborhoods apart."

Someone at the federal level recognized that change in attitude as well, Boo said, noting that the Federal Highway Administration made money available to cities to involve citizens in redesigning the remaining interstates to enhance, rather than hurt, the cities they touched.

In Duluth, the rebellion may have started at Architectural Resources on east Superior Street, where both Kent Worley and Bill Majewski worked.

"We found out they had plans to put the highway out into Lake Superior, which we figured would block a lot of downtown views of Lake Superior, among other things," Majewski said, noting that the pillar design was to continue. "So, a bunch of us younger guys in the firm thought it would be worth trying to stop the freeway and get it redesigned."

While their efforts weren't immediately embraced -- Majewski said one MnDOT engineer told them they were "nuts" -- eventually the citizens of Duluth joined the rebellion.

Worley deserves much credit for both stopping and redesigning the interstate. The landscape architect was a key player throughout, from founding the Citizens for Integration of Highways and the Environment (CIHE) group in 1970, to the work he did designing many of the interstate's waterfront amenities, including Lake Place (the park-over-a-tunnel that connects downtown Duluth to Lake Superior and Lakewalk).

"CIHE kind of woke people up, got information to residents about what exactly was planned," Worley said. "But it wasn't CIHE that made the change happen, it was the whole city. People were like: 'You're going to do what to our lake?'"

In the end, Mayor Robert Beaudin appointed a group of residents both for and against the freeway continuation to the I-35 Citizens Advisory Panel. With input from across the community, this group in 1976 approved an alternative design for the I-35 extension through downtown using an "inland" freeway route (basically what exists today). The new design used four cut-and-cover tunnels that carried the freeway under historic landmarks and ultimately served to connect the downtown to the lakeshore in an entirely new way. Putting the roadway in tunnels also eliminated water spray and wind issues and reduced traffic noise.

The stars were right

The freeway laid the groundwork for Canal Park in two ways.

1. Psychological: the citizens of Duluth had been awakened to their own ability to effect change by participating in the planning process.

2. Physical: digging those four tunnels created A LOT of excess rock (179,000 tons of gabbro volcanic rock, to be exact).

Crews began digging the tunnels in 1983. Rather than paying money to haul the rock somewhere far away for disposal, various agencies worked together to put it where it would benefit Duluth the most: Canal Park.

"When a nor'easter would blow in, sometimes it would throw big wooden timbers from an old break wall through the windows of the properties along the lakeshore, including the Holiday Inn," said Majewski, who had left the private sector by 1973 and was (again) working for the city planning department under Kimball.

To illustrate Majewski's tale of destruction, Kimball displays a photo of the Holiday Inn, with all the windows of the first floor broken and filled with snow after a winter storm.

Worley, who was working with state and federal officials by this point, credits two people in his office with coming up with the idea of using the rock to create more shoreline along Lake Superior. Once the idea was developed, the city had to get permission from the Department of Natural Resources as well as easement rights from the landowners (who had riparian rights extending out into the lake).

The end result of 1,400 truckloads of rock being dumped along the shoreline was an additional 6.3 acres of land, which provided space for Lakewalk as well as a buffer between the lake and the buildings along the shore.

"Things came together at just the right time," Kimball said. "There was a lot of luck involved, but also a lot of intensity and skill."

Make no mistake. While the whole I-35 process helped lay the groundwork for today's Canal Park, the reinvention of Canal Park was a city-led project. Much of the funding was local -- both public and private -- and the planning and implementation of this waterfront makeover were led by the city planning department.

"The freeway project enhanced the potential for Canal Park greatly," Kimball said. "We still could have done it, because we had local funding,

but Lakewalk added a wonderful dimension."

As with the I-35 redesign, the waterfront planning process started with the people of Duluth.

Creating a new waterfront

The time was 1983 -- about the same time workers started digging the tunnels through downtown -- and the local economy was struggling.

"John Fedo was mayor then," Majewski said. "He asked the planning commission to come up with a strategy to stop the job loss. What followed was really Jerry's baby."

Kimball and the planning department held a series of citywide citizen "visioning" forums called "Future City, Duluth Tomorrow" to discuss the city's strengths and how to build on those. Out of those sessions -- which sometimes attracted as many as 200 citizens -- came the desire for a greater connection and focus on Lake Superior.

"These were truly public meetings, where we had genuine eight-person roundtable discussions," Kimball said. "That's why I think Canal Park had so much public support."

The Downtown Waterfront Plan and Strategy was published in early '86 and was 90 percent implemented by 1993.

Duluth was right on the front wave of waterfront revivals, following Baltimore and Boston in the early '80s. Kimball traveled to different waterfront projects while the Duluth plan was in the development stages.

"We benefitted (from other early waterfront projects) because we knew what to do and what not to do," he said. "We did not want to concentrate only on retail. We did want to preserve as much history as we could."

While Canal Park is not a true historic district, many of the buildings were renovated (with help from city storefront renovation funds) in a manner that was consistent with the nautical and industrial nature of the district. In fact, any renovations in the area were subject to review from a newly created citizen design review board.

Today, Kimball proudly points out and explains many of the physical details that make the Canal Park area so attractive, starting with the entry tower.

"The tower was designed to be a beacon to draw people off of the freeway, just like the lighthouses draw the ships in," he said, noting the bottom was molded from stonework at Old Central High School.

Entrances, he says, are important design elements.

He points to the blue metal archways that mark entryways to Lakewalk from Canal Park Drive to Superior Street.

"You try to define and develop entrances, so things are understandable to people, how they work," Kimball said.

Not all of the improvements are as sexy -- wider, paved sidewalks; sewer infrastructure repairs; a horse lane; removal of overhead power lines -- but they were important in terms of laying the groundwork for continued success.

The thinking behind even the simplest details is fascinating. Kimball points to the grates surrounding some of the trees growing along the sidewalk, which were designed to look like the grates on ships, he said.

Another point of pride for Kimball: most of the businesses located in Canal Park are local businesses, not franchises. Emphasis on local services and products was another goal of the plan.

Public art abounds in Canal Park, from the bronze statue (one of many bronzes) of the Determined Mariner at the southern end of Canal Park Drive to the sturgeon fish sentries at the Minnesota Slip Bridge to the bas relief sculpture of area industry and history in brick.

A total of 5 percent of the budget was spent on public art, a significant

figure, Kimball said.

"I love it when I'm down here and I overhear people talking about what 'we' did," he said. "People have an awful lot of pride in this area; that makes me feel really good."

In 1993, the city of Duluth was awarded the international Waterfront Center's prestigious top honor award for excellence in waterfront development. Although many of the earlier awards had been for major single construction projects, Duluth was cited for "consistency of quality and the totality of projects."

"This was the highlight of my career in terms of enjoyment," Kimball said. "I spent a lot of time on it because it was fun and because I thought it was important."

Little did he know that he would spend five days a week in his retirement pounding the pavement through this gem of a district, nearly as faithful as a mailman, in the company of dear friends no matter what the weather.

Story by Jana Peterson/ Duluth Budgeteer News