Officials gather for belated groundbreaking of new development at former Woodland Middle School

Candace Renalls, Duluth News Tribune
Mark Lambert
Mark Lambert, developer of the BlueStone Commons housing and retail complex being built at the Woodland Middle School site, speaks to guests at Wednesday’s groundbreaking ceremonies. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

With construction already well under way, Wednesday’s “groundbreaking” for BlueStone Lofts at the former Woodland Middle School site seemed to come a bit late.

The wooded site next to the Duluth school was cleared a couple of months ago and leveled. The concrete foundation is in, and the walls are going up. On most days, the site is abuzz with construction activity.

But developer Mark Lambert brushed off the delay. Too many project details needed to be addressed before holding the ceremonial groundbreaking for the first phase of his BlueStone Commons development.

Until this week.

About 100 local officials, business people, educators and the community turned out for the event that included speakers in a big tent, a light lunch and the symbolic tossing of dirt with shovels and hardhats.

There were plenty of compliments for Lambert and the project, which promises to create a mixed-use hub for nearby college students, relieve student housing pressure on nearby neighborhoods and change the face of that part of Woodland Avenue.

The upscale 100-unit student housing complex is targeted to open in August. More housing will follow. But if the right tenants are found, food and retail will come next along Woodland Avenue. The former middle school may be repurposed for use by the University of Minnesota Duluth and the College of St. Scholastica.

All will be near the eastern edge of the UMD campus, where a new main entrance may be created.

Lambert said it’s not just a complex his Summit Management is building, but a neighborhood.

“It’s a great project for UMD,” said University of Minnesota Duluth Chancellor Lendley Black, noting its potential to create a more vibrant area for students, faculty and the community.

Mayor Don Ness thanked Lambert for adding to Duluth’s housing stock with a “huge” investment. “This project would not be so far along without someone like Lambert,” Ness said.

BlueStone is not Lambert’s first Duluth project. Summit Management also is behind Summit Ridge, Boulder Ridge and Campus Park student housing complexes in Duluth.

A year ago, Lambert reached an agreement to buy the 22-acre Woodland school property from the Duluth school district in two $1.5 million installments.

Done in phases over three to five years, BlueStone Commons is expected to cost $35 to $45 million.

BlueStone Lofts is phase one, offering one- to four-bedroom apartments for 300 students. They’ll be fully furnished with upscale decor and with bathrooms off most bedrooms. Rents will be $500 to $800 per month per student. Amenities will include underground parking, a clubhouse, fitness area, tanning, game room and outdoor patio with grills and fire pit.

The two-story house at 1220 Woodland Ave. that has so far escaped demolition for the project is serving as the BlueStone Leasing Center. The 1912 brick home has been remodeled inside, with its kitchen and furnishings giving prospective tenants an idea what the BlueStone apartments will look like.

Its use as leasing center is just temporary, however. It’ll be razed in about six months, unless someone wants to move it off the site, Lambert said.

Six houses in the 900 block of Woodland Avenue, also bought by Woodland Commons, will eventually be razed to make way for the row of retail Lambert plans to create there. Possibilities include a coffee shop, hair salon, restaurant, mini-grocer and mini-pharmacy.

“It could be next year, it could be in four years,” he said of that happening. “It all depends on finding the right tenant.”

Until then, those houses are being rented.

Some have complained about the widespread removal of trees for the project. But Lambert said it was necessary to allow for the construction and leveling the surrounding grade.

“There needs to be a balance or there’s no development,” he said.

He noted that a three-acre area of mature white pines has been preserved on the eastern edge of the site. And landscaping will be done after construction.

Some of the land’s bluestone, which inspired the project’s name, is also being preserved. General contractor Doran Companies is building around a huge outcropping of bluestone which will become part of the complex’s courtyard.

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