DULUTH — Demolition began this week on the high school that for decades served as a unifying force in the center of Duluth, high on the hillside with an unparalleled panoramic view of the city's waterfront.

"It's a bittersweet day," Duluth Public Schools Superintendent John Magas said Friday at a news conference. "We know there are many people who have strong attachments to Central High School."

Excavators were dismantling pieces of the front of the 213,000-square-foot building, and the lettering detailing the school's name at the entrance had already been removed for preservation.

Central, opened in 1971, is being torn down to make way for housing development more than a decade after its final class graduated in 2011.

The Duluth school board has an $8 million purchase agreement for the 55-acre property at 800 E. Central Entrance with Chester Creek View LLC, part of a New York-based development group that also owns the multimillion-dollar apartment and retail complexes Kenwood Village and Endi in Duluth.

Developer Luzy Ostreicher has declined to talk about his plans for the property until a sale closes, but Duluth commercial broker Greg Follmer, who is handling the sale, said he expects development of condos and townhouses, similar to the plan that fell through last winter with St. Louis Park-based Saturday Properties. A January closing is anticipated.

Chris Fleege, city planning and economic development director, said it is likely that the developer will seek tax-increment financing for the property and offer market-rate housing. Duluth officials met with Ostreicher this week and shared ideas, including a project similar to the Woodland neighborhood's BlueStone complex, with potential for boutique hotels and retail among housing, completed in phases.

"They've made a big commitment to the community already," Fleege said. "The city is super supportive of this. It repurposes a site, and it's a win for the whole community, if everything comes to fruition."

But it's the end of an era for thousands who attended the school.

Central, home of the Trojans, was considered by many a great uniter. It blended students from rural townships, the hillside and Park Point in the center of a sprawling city that snakes nearly 30 miles along Lake Superior and the St. Louis River.

It was the heart of the district, said Don Ness, former mayor of Duluth and a fourth-generation Central graduate.

"Duluth has always struggled with this east-west divide, and having a strong and thriving high school in the center of our community helped lessen the starkness of that divide," Ness said. "With the closure of Central, we've lost that liminal space. Today, those divides feel considerably more problematic."

Central was chosen as the high school to close during the district's tumultuous $315 million building overhaul begun in 2007 — a decision that drew public outcry. Called the Red Plan, it sent students to the remaining two high schools, either the western Denfeld or eastern Duluth East. The property has remained a lightning rod since, failing to sell for more than a decade despite spectacular views.

It first listed for $13.7 million. A $10 million deal with a Chicago-based developer fell through in 2015 because of the "extraordinary" costs involved with developing the rocky landscape.

In 2016, the K-8 Duluth Edison Charter Schools offered the district $14.2 million to turn Central into its own high school. The school board, which has a policy not to sell properties to K-12 competitors, rejected the offer when it voted against waiving that policy. Chief concerns were fears of ongoing enrollment losses and their effect on the public school system.

Then, many in the city still felt the sting of the inability to vote on the Red Plan, one of the most expensive school bonding projects in Minnesota. Some wanted to offload the property to end the maintenance cost drain or to give students more school choice. Others cheered the move, decrying the need for another high school in a city where enrollment continues to decline.

Demolition of Central is expected to cost $810,000, paid for by the school district using bonding money. The purchase agreement was contingent on demolition. Iconic pieces of the school's history, including the Trojan mascot embedded in gym flooring, have been saved for a newly formed alumni group, Duluth Central Alumni Association.

The school district's new administration, facilities and transportation buildings are under construction in the back portion of the Central property after the sale of the original historic Central high school downtown for housing.

The developer is marketing the nearby former Secondary Technical Center for lease, potentially office space or higher education use.