DULUTH – A fire earlier this week raised more questions about the fate of two historic downtown buildings, which have been mired in court battles for more than two years as the property's former owner attempts to prevent the city from demolishing them.
Duluth officials on Thursday said the Fire Department has not been able to enter the Pastoret Terrace and former Paul Robeson Ballroom while they assess whether the blaze damaged the structural integrity of the buildings. The cause of the fire, which broke out Sunday morning, is still under investigation.
The Duluth City Council is slated to vote Monday to authorize a $135,000 payment for maintenance of the property, which formerly housed the Kozy Bar and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The council held a closed meeting Thursday evening to ask Duluth's city attorney questions about the fire's impact on the property and an ongoing lawsuit.
The city and the Duluth Economic Development Authority (DEDA), which owns the abandoned buildings, have for years hoped to tear them down. Officials say they are a blight and public safety concern to Duluth.
But Eric Ringsred, who owned the property until 2015, and a local preservationist group filed suit in 2018 to halt DEDA's demolition efforts. The Minnesota Court of Appeals in August ruled in favor of Ringsred, overturning a District Court order that favored the city.
The appellate ruling barred a teardown and said Duluth must "perform all maintenance and repairs necessary to prevent the property's further deterioration." The council's Monday vote would be a step toward complying with this order, though the city has said it is waiting for clarity from the District Court about what exactly the directive entails.
"There's a lot of reasons or places to be suspicious and to have concerns in this situation," said Miles Ringsred, an attorney who represents his father.
Miles Ringsred said he plans to call for an emergency hearing to ask the court to consider repercussions for DEDA, claiming the agency did not do enough to prevent the fire from happening.
"Whether it's through willful neglect or just negligence, their actions — inactions, really — speak volumes," he said. "If there is going to be any recovery for this property, it does not seem like it's going to be possible under the stewardship of the city."
City spokeswoman Kate Van Daele declined to comment on the litigation.
"The city secured the building this spring after several individuals entered the building, and we were in the process of securing the building again," she said in a statement.
DEDA obtained the property from St. Louis County in 2016, not long after Eric Ringsred forfeited it for failing to pay taxes. The buildings were most recently being used as low-income housing until they were deemed unfit for habitation after a fire in 2010.
Fire Chief Shawn Krizaj said no utilities were hooked up to the Pastoret property, nor was it struck by lightning Sunday.
In late April, arson was suspected in a small fire at the property, though no arrests have been made in connection with that incident.
The $135,000 in maintenance funds would be reimbursed by the county, which has $245,000 set aside for the property's development. The resolution coming before the council Monday says the payment would only be made if DEDA is required to do work on the building by the court.