DULUTH – A historic brick and brownstone building on a downtown corner could soon be torn down and replaced, a potential end to a legal squabble between the city and the building’s former owner that has lasted more than a year.
A St. Louis County judge ruled in favor of the city and the Duluth Economic Development Authority (DEDA) on Friday, paving the way for the demolition of the former Kozy Bar. The landmark property, built in the late 19th century, once housed a ballroom and luxury townhouses. Most recently, it was used as single-room housing for low-income residents, but it was damaged by a fire in 2010 and deemed unfit for habitation ever since.
Though the Kozy is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, District Court Judge Eric Hylden wrote that the city and DEDA showed no “feasible and prudent alternatives” to demolition exist when public health and safety are taken into account.
“As it stands, it is a blighted property, full of pigeons, charred walls and wet ceilings. It attracts crime and solid waste,” Hylden wrote. “The Kozy has come to the end of the line. With no feasible and prudent option for historic renovation, it must come down.”
Eric Ringsred, who owned the building until 2015, and a local organization called Respect Starts Here filed suit in April 2018 amid discussions of demolishing the property to make way for a new development. Ringsred lost the building to the state for failing to pay property taxes, and DEDA purchased the Kozy about a year later.
Hylden’s ruling describes a long and acrimonious relationship between Ringsred and the defendants — the city and DEDA — that has led to multiple clashes over the tearing down of old and historic properties in Duluth.
Ringsred, an emergency-room doctor by day and historic preservationist of sorts when off the clock, owns several other buildings in Duluth. In 2010, he sold the NorShor Theater to DEDA, which did a major renovation of the performing arts center.
But Ringsred did not funnel the proceeds from that sale into the renovation of the decaying Kozy building in the middle of downtown, instead choosing to buy another property across the street. Hylden described what he saw as a repeating chain of behavior seemingly motivated by “one side acting in spite of the other.”
In this case, Hylden wrote that the condition of the Kozy property was “deplorable” and beyond fixing. DEDA asked for proposals from developers looking to fix the building in a way that would preserve its historic structure, but it received few responses — and none that were “feasible and prudent options,” Hylden wrote.
Following a 30-day waiting period, the city and DEDA will be allowed to proceed with demolition plans. There has been a temporary injunction in place to prevent the tearing down of the Kozy property while the case was being considered.
At a news conference Monday, City Attorney Gunnar Johnson said officials will try to move forward “as swiftly as we can.”
“The time has come to move to the next phase in building something that really brings some life to this part of Duluth,” Johnson said as he stood in front of the dilapidated, boarded-up building.
The court ruling described the property as “a magnet for crime” that has attracted squatters and drug dealers in recent years.
“It is in the best interest of the community to reactivate this site with new construction,” Mayor Emily Larson said in a statement. “I have heard frequently from residents who are eager to see something new and positive happen at this corner. This decision helps make that happen.”