DULUTH – A public school official said Tuesday that the district is planning to vacate the Historic Old Central High School by October to make way for a developer seeking to turn the iconic downtown building into apartments.
At a public hearing about the potential sale of the property, two staff members from Duluth's alternative Area Learning Center (ALC) and Academic Excellence Online programs — which are housed in Historic Old Central, along with the district's administrative offices and its Adult Basic Education program — expressed concern about where they would relocate.
"We're about six months away from having to vacate this facility," Chris Vold, dean of the ALC, told the Duluth school board. " … And we're still no closer to any decisions for these schools than we were five months ago."
Duluth Superintendent John Magas declined to comment on specific points raised at the short hearing but said the district has been working to find space to lease for both programs.
In October, the Duluth school district entered into a purchase agreement with Saturday Properties, a St. Louis Park-based developer with plans to transform the property into 121 mixed-income units with access to a sauna, a golf simulator and more.
Saturday Properties has posted initial designs for the apartments, named after the high school's old yearbook, online at zenithdchs.com. Mark Laverty, the company's director of development, said his team is seeking approval for state and federal historic tax credits that are critical for the project's financing.
The project is eligible for additional tax benefits because of its location in a federally designated Opportunity Zone. Laverty said Saturday Properties will also seek tax-increment financing because of the mixed-income nature of the project — 10% of apartments will have rents restricted to households at 60% of the area median income, according to the project's website.
Laverty said his company hopes to start construction right after closing on the sale in October, with the goal of renters moving in by spring 2023. Saturday Properties is planning to host virtual open houses in the coming months to provide updates and field questions; they've already said they plan to keep the building's beloved clock tower and bells illuminated and working.
"I think the most exciting thing for us has been realizing different design pieces in the different classrooms that we're going to be able to preserve in the building itself," Laverty said.
Historic Old Central was built in 1892 and used as a high school until 1971, when Duluth built a newer Central High School on the city's hillside. A 2019 assessment said Historic Old Central, which is on local and national historic registers, would require $48.5 million in repairs in the near future.
The Duluth school district received special approval from the Legislature last year to levy up to $31.5 million — an amount officials say would have otherwise been put toward maintaining Historic Old Central — to construct a new facility to house administrative offices on the hillside property that's home to the newer Central High School.
"It would be more responsible to channel the money that you're saving in maintenance in this building to meet the increasing maintenance needs of the district," Loren Martell said at the Historic Old Central public hearing Tuesday, criticizing Duluth's plan to build new without a bond referendum.
The newer Central property, a 77-acre tract, has been for sale since shortly after Duluth closed the high school in 2011. The district has said it plans to build on the back third starting later this year, while continuing to work to sell the front portion.
Katie Galioto • 612-673-4478