At the intersection of student needs and Duluth development, UMD’s Grand Entrance was created.
BlueStone Commons, with furnished lofts and a neighboring marketplace, was built across the street, completely transforming how campus correlates with the community.
Now, less than a year after opening, BlueStone developer Mark Lambert is announcing details of an expansion that will more than double the housing and retail options, saying, "This is only 3/7 done."
First, a look at how it all began.
2012: Thinking of a Master Plan
Across the street from BlueStone is UMD’s Grand Entrance, which was (figuratively, of course) paved by students.
The concept was on meeting agendas for years, as UMD’s administration acknowledged that the campus topography of parking lots and buildings didn’t send a “welcome” message.
The goal was to establish a visible entryway for walkers and bikers that would, in the words of the 2012 Campus Master Plan update, “develop a focal point, create a front door, connect and integrate UMD into the Duluth community, and visibly manifest sustainability.” The Grand Entrance would include signage, a walkway and bike trail, and a stoplight and intersection.
To find the perfect spot, they simply had to look for the path most traveled. Students had been cutting across campus for years. Instead of redirecting foot traffic, planners would use this as the site of UMD’s new Grand Entrance.
Meanwhile, Lambert was thinking about his own master plan. He was building BlueStone as UMD was building its Grand Entrance. The two parties started talking and coordinating their efforts, enjoying the serendipity of their mutual needs. "UMD helped," explains Lambert. "It said it was going to have a Grand Entrance, and it's going to tie into BlueStone." From UMD's perspective, it was simply a matter of synchronization. “New or enhanced entrees were identified in our master plan, so we were able to adjust to coordinate the timing with BlueStone," says Mike Seymour, vice chancellor of Finance and Operation.
Seymour describes this as a public/private partnership, explaining that students look for upscale housing when they visit campus. "So instead of us having to provide higher-end housing, the private developer brought that in closer proximity to campus. In turn, we wanted to make sure that those students had access to campus."
"It's a wow."
Coordinating BlueStone Commons' debut was like a highly-visible game of Twister. Situated on Woodland Avenue and promising luxurious living and shopping opportunities not seen north of North Branch, the community was watching.
Developer Mark Lambert is no novice to college housing. He started researching the market in 1995, built Campus Park from 1997 to 1999, Boulder Ridge in 2006, and Summit Ridge in 2009.
Lambert says he saw an opportunity in Duluth's housing market to add another development to his portfolio, "It's a needed product and a needed time. I think Duluth has been a bit challenged over the years. There were a number of years when housing wasn't being built so they're playing a bit of catch up. This product plays into that need."
In 2010, Lambert began acquiring property and zoning. BlueStone construction got underway in 2012.
Lambert knew he had a phenomenal location, "With UMD and St. Scholastica, there are probably 19,000 people who are in this area. Then you have Woodland Avenue with 18,000 cars a day, up and back, and East Hillside." The trick was creating a product that would motivate the built-in audience to move in and, simultaneously, create a marketplace for all these groups.
The common thread throughout BlueStone is unexpected amenities. BlueStone Lofts' targeted demographic is college students, but the units feature granite countertops, front load washers and dryers, and walk-in closets. There are also common areas like outdoor patios, a workout room, and a sound-insolated music practice room. With all this, rent's not cheap. Says Lambert, "The challenge you still have is that people will say it's expensive and that's true. But the reality is that it's very expensive to build new. And when you look at the amenity package we provide, we're a pretty good value."
A BlueStone amenity that's especially appealing to parents is safety. Bridgette Clarke's a biology major at UMD and says this is what prompted her mom and dad to push for residency at BlueStone, "They like all the cameras. This place is like a fortress!"
Then there's the second half of the formula, BlueStone shops, described by Lambert as 'a real marketplace': Waxing the City, Sports Clips Haircuts, Northern Communities Credit Union, Qdoba Mexican Grill, Kat's Eyes Optical, Starbucks, and Chily Billy's. "For the universities, for everybody driving by, for the neighbors that we have here. I think we have a beautiful development. It's a 'wow.'
One of the shop owners brings the added bonus of market insight, garnered nearly 30 years ago when "FroYo" was a foreign concept.
A Second Helping
Alumnus Bill Marker remembers taking breaks at Baskin Robbins in the late 1980s; now he's dolling out the ice cream. The Chilly Billy's Frozen Yogurt owner graduated from UMD in 1989 and is back in the neighborhood with one of the first BlueStone Shops to open, which also happens to be the very first frozen yogurt shop in the Twin Ports.
It's Marker's second Chilly Billy's; his first is in Dinkytown. "We were always looking for a second store. I heard about this project before it was even built, so I picked this spot before anyone else saw it." His motivation was twofold: As an entrepreneur he realized this was a great opportunity. As an alumnus, Marker knew it would add to what UMD offers students.
Baskin Robbins was close to campus; Marker remembers it being where the Mount Royal Beer Cave is now located. But if something was out of walking distance and you didn't have a car, your Duluth experience was pretty limited. "Weekend nights you'd zip down to Canal Park because that was the only place around, but you needed a car because it's three miles downhill. That's a long walk. So if you didn't have a car you were stuck on campus."
With Chilly Billy's and its neighbors now situated across the street from UMD, being 'stuck on campus' isn't so bad. On a recent day, four members of the women's hockey team were enjoying Chilly Billy's, despite the chill in the air. Marker says Bulldogs are regular customers, but calls his clientele "a great mix" of stay-at-home moms and their kids, retired people, high school students, and people he remembers from his UMD days, "You get alumni who come in and say, 'I wish they had this when I was here."
More Than Doubling
With so much exuberance that it takes careful listening to follow along, Mark Lambert unveils BlueStone's next stage.
More housing will be built behind the current lofts, "We'd have approximately 120 units of one and two bedroom loft-type apartments." Right now there's capacity for 280 people, the addition could house 200 more residents.
The current 10,000 square feet of retail space will double with about six additional storefronts. Exactly what will be in those storefronts isn't crystal clear just yet, but the list of potential businesses is exciting. "We've got room for a Trader Joe's or CVS or Target. We're trying to reach out to some larger users; a Whole Foods is a possibility. Any one of those is a possibility."
Construction of the restaurant Tavern on the Hill is well underway and its expected to open in August, offering indoor and outdoor seating and well as a "to go" menu. It's owned by the New London Corporation which also owns the area's popular Black Woods restaurants.
Lambert is plugging in the players, looking for exactly the right mix. "Lofts, restaurant, these shops, maybe academics, Trader Joe-ish/Campus Target concept, and six more storefronts down Woodland Avenue."
Zenith Award Winner
Nearly a year after its completion, the path from BlueStone Commons to campus through the Grand Entrance is well established, as if its been there for much longer.
Kevin Claus, construction manager at UMD, oversaw the Grand Entrance from the beginning to the exciting end, "We poured the last of the concrete the Saturday before school started." Nine months later, Claus was accepting the Zenith Award from the city of Duluth on UMD's behalf for the Grand Entrance, standing beside Mark Lambert, who was recognized for the planning of BlueStone.
The letter from Mayor Don Ness announcing the award summed up the partnership between UMD and BlueStone, saying, "Good development could not happen without help, dedication, and investment from our institutions."
Story by Lori C. Melton