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As downtowns and urban neighborhoods thrive across America, city managers outside city centers have begun to ask, “How do we reinvent the suburbs?” Building on that extensive body of knowledge, Parsons Alley, the public-private redevelopment of an infill site, offers answers in a small suburban city 10 miles northeast of Atlanta.
In addition to its handsome design, Parsons Alley activates abandoned properties, creates a popular and lively new public place, and attracts businesses that appeal to young professionals.
The project reuses a 1904 bank and a circa-1940 church and preacher’s home, and it built new structures on the scale of former warehouses to create an entertainment district that fits the character of Duluth. The development is the culmination of a fifteen-year planning process for the former railroad town overtaken by suburban growth in the 20th Century.
“Parsons Alley is serving as a true a catalyst for redevelopment and has already sparked over a hundred million dollars of private residential projects within the downtown core,” notes James Riker, Economic Development Director for the City.
The 3-acre infill site has seen many uses, including an active retail and distribution businesses that died after a mall was built in the 1980s. The municipality occupied the church as a city hall from the 1970s to 2008, when the offices were moved. The city purchased nearly all of the properties a decade ago and has since been landlord and then master developer. One proposed mixed-use project fell through in the housing crash of 2008.
Duluth leaders had a vision of a mix of old and new buildings that retain the scale of historic buildings on the site—with the goal of creating an exciting destination with quality restaurants. To achieve this, the city sold commercial lots and retained ownership of the public realm. That led to a partnership with Vantage Realty and Fabric Developers, who hired the winning architecture and urban design team.
The project includes six commercial buildings—including a barbecue restaurant, chocolatier, brew pub, and other shops— grouped around a new square. The town previously lacked such a public space. Now, because of the design, children can roam freely without parents fearing for their safety. “In Duluth we recognize the aspect of urbanism that reflects local culture and encourages social interaction,” says Mayor Nancy Harris. “Places that are culturally and regionally authentic almost always appeal to the local population and visitor alike.”
A rare combination of National Historic Landmark buildings and infill a fordable housing, the St. Joseph’s Redevelopment transforms a dilapidated former convent and convalescent home into a mixed-use asset for a distressed city neighborhood.