Architecture and engineering firm LHB fits an easy-to-navigate, light-filled, and durable new transportation hub into a tight downtown site

By John Reinan

When architects at LHB sat down to design a new transportation center for Duluth, they had to consider dramatic elevation changes in the downtown site, the need to keep buses running during construction, integration with the city’s skywalk system, and . . . hockey sticks.

The lights had to be above hockey-stick height, and the materials had to be hockey-stick resistant. That’s because the transportation center is the main skywalk connection to AMSOIL Arena, home of University of Minnesota Duluth hockey as well as countless other puck-related events.

The way the design team handled that issue was simple yet effective: They raised the skywalk’s ceiling by about five feet and widened it by almost three feet, not only keeping things safe from sticks but also adding much-needed volume and light to the passage. The entire transportation center, finished earlier this year at a cost of nearly $29 million, reflects that careful blending of new construction with existing infrastructure.

Although an existing building and parking deck were demolished for the project, the new center had to make use of an existing retaining wall as well as incorporate several skywalks. And it all had to fit in a tight footprint on Michigan Street in an historic area of downtown.

The previous, cramped transit center had separate facilities for eastbound and westbound traffic, creating a bottleneck in the area, says Dennis Jensen, general manager of the Duluth Transit Authority. “There were cars, buses, jaywalkers, hangers-on,” he says. “We wanted to get all the people inside.”

But once you get the people inside, they need to see out. That made transparency another key consideration in the design, says LHB architect Aaron Kelly, AIA. And as a prominent public facility, he adds, the Duluth Transportation Center (DTC) needed to send a message about the state of downtown: “We had to do something worthy of a gateway project.”

Finished in light and dark shades of gray metal cladding, with brick on the pedestrian-facing surfaces of the ground level and generous areas of glass throughout, the building is a bright, welcoming presence on a street that city officials believe is poised for a renaissance. The hope is that the DTC will help spur transit-oriented development on Michigan Street, a once-bustling thoroughfare that suffered after Interstate 35 cut off downtown from the Lake Superior shore some 30 years ago.

Energy efficiency is built into the DTC in a variety of ways. LED lighting is used throughout, and the structure incorporates an integrated photovoltaic system. The skywalks were fitted with in-floor radiant heat to supplement the variable-air-volume (VAV) HVAC system inside the terminal and skywalks. The building also benefits from a connection to Duluth’s downtown steam system, which will soon be upgraded to a high-efficiency, hot-water system.

The 410-space parking deck that’s part of the project was built with a chute to efficiently dump snow from the upper deck into trucks below. The LHB team even created a berth on the parking deck’s ground floor to accommodate the commuter trains that regional planners envision arriving in Duluth at some future date.

Inside the building, durable recycled materials limit the amount of wear caused by the 2,000 people and dozens of hockey sticks that pass through the DTC every day. The structure even includes a police substation.

In Dennis Jensen’s view, the Duluth Transportation Center is “perfect. It’s everything we wanted. We’ve taken a very limited space and gotten every bit of value out of it.”

Location: Duluth, Minnesota
Client: Duluth Transportation Authority
Architect: LHB, Inc.
Principal-in-charge: Kevin Holm, AIA
Project lead designer: Aaron Kelly, AIA
Energy modeling: The Jamar Company
Construction manager: M.A. Mortenson
Size: 144,605 square feet
Cost: $28.8 million
Completion: February 2017
Photographer: Paul Crosby