Plans to demolish historic Duluth building on hold

DULUTH — Demolition of a former hotel in a designated historic section of Duluth’s downtown is on hold after a fiery city hearing Monday.

The 117-year-old Hotel Astoria built by prominent Duluth architect John Wangenstein was most recently home to retail businesses and a restaurant, which were forced to close this winter. It is slated for demolition by its California-based owner.

Preservationists have been vocal about saving the 102 E. Superior St. building, which contributes to downtown’s National Commercial Historic District, on the National Register of Historic Places. Its owner said Monday that its historic features are gone and cited crumbling walls, never-replaced roof timbers left scorched by a 1929 fire and a failing sewer system.

“It is a blight on the downtown landscape,” said Anne Stratioti, who represents ZMC Hotels, which was bought by California’s Hall Equities Group several years ago.

But some members of the Heritage Preservation Commission, who are city-appointed volunteers, were skeptical of the lack of plans for the site or the attempt to sell it. One member accused the company of neglecting the 1905-era structure.

“This is demolition by neglect,” said commission vice president Jessica Fortney, who also serves on the Duluth Preservation Alliance. “You have a leaky roof and you have tenants in it? As far as I’m concerned, that’s a bad landlord.”

Stratioti, who said the pandemic derailed the company’s plans to replace the roof, said it would cost $2.4 million to repair just the decaying exterior.

The company, which has owned the property since 2017, said it has no plans to build a parking lot or ramp in the building’s place, as has been reported. Stratioti said the company would likely fill it and grow wildflowers until plans are decided.

The hearing before the Heritage Preservation Commission was meant for a vote on a zoning application that would have cleared the way for demolition. Commissioners appeared largely against that, but they voted to table the matter and asked for firmer costs to rehabilitate the building.

Rod Raymond owns a boutique hotel in Duluth’s original City Hall near the Astoria that was restored in recent years with the help of historic tax credits. He said at the hearing that it’s always cheaper to tear down, but restoration is possible.

“To knock down a Wangenstein without thinking of another way of looking at it,” he said, would have the effect of “gutting” the historical vibe of the block.

Others were worried that enough teardowns could lead to a re-evaluation of the historic designation. Lori Melton, another preservation alliance member, said several other buildings in the district have been demolished recently.

“Plans for its demolition illuminate a troubling pattern of historic buildings being demolished despite protections in place,” she said.

City planner Steven Robertson said he’d been in the building recently, and costs to stabilize it would be “extreme.”

The commission meets again July 11. If it denies the zoning application, the building owner can ask the City Council to appeal the decision.

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