Dream vs. reality: Can the Kozy in Duluth be turned around? (with video)On paper, the Kozy Apartments look as though they’d fit right in with any upscale downtown in the country.
On paper, the Kozy Apartments look as though they’d fit right in with any upscale downtown in the country. Imagine clean storefronts with possibly a coffee shop and a bookstore on the street level, and up above modern apartments that would attract young professionals.
Unfortunately, that’s only an architect’s rendering showing what the building could look like fully restored. That vision seems far from ever becoming reality.
One year after fire severely damaged the front of the historic building, the Kozy looks worse than it ever has — even its owner, Eric Ringsred, acknowledges.
In front, spray-painted plywood boards cover shattered windows, while tarps hang from the roofs. Smoke and fire damage are still visible on the outside; inside, the furniture, garbage and fire damage have been untouched for a year.
Ringsred, who also works as an emergency room physician at Northland-area hospitals, admits that aside from putting a temporary roof on the front portion of the building, he’s done little to fix those problems. But he puts the blame for that squarely on the city of Duluth.
He said that years of previous battles and lawsuits with city leaders over the Kozy and other properties he has owned, such as the NorShor Theatre, have put a target on his back. Now he contends that the city is using the Kozy to harass him and block his efforts to restore the building.
“They dislike me,” Ringsred said. “They want to tear the building down.”
City leaders say they see the situation differently: They want to work with Ringsred to rebuild the Kozy, with Mayor Don Ness publicly offering to help Ringsred find government subsidies, tax credits and loans for the building.
And despite Ringsred’s harsh words for the city, Ness said he’s still optimistic that the Kozy can be renovated.
“Regardless of who the owner is,” Ness said, “we see potential in breathing new life into a building that obviously is currently in rough shape and is not adding value to our downtown, and we’d like to see that change.”
But ultimately, the mayor said, it’s up to Ringsred to comply with city building codes and make required repairs to the building. And it’s up to Ringsred to determine what the finished project will be.
“Is it going to be a minimal type of investment and operated as it has in recent years,” Ness asked, “or is there potential in working together to leverage state and federal resources to create a great project? That’s my focus and that’s my hope, that Eric will also see that potential, and that he will take the steps necessary to make that happen.”
Ringsred said he would probably reject any financial assistance from the city.
“I say ‘Keep your money.’ I don’t want them to do me any favors,” he said. “Then I feel beholden to them.”
Part of Kozy 'filthy'
The core of Ringsred’s fight with the city is over the Kozy Annex: the back part of the building, which is separated by the rest of the structure by a masonry wall.
Two days after the Nov. 15 fire, even though only the front of the Kozy was damaged, the city saw the Kozy as one unified building and condemned all of it for habitation, including the Annex.
Ringsred said he wanted to reopen the Annex to low-rent tenants at first and use that rent money toward renovating the rest of the building. His argument is that the city allowed tenants in the Annex before the fire; why shouldn’t tenants be allowed in there now if it wasn’t damaged?
“There’s nothing different in there from when they approved it three years ago (during the city’s last inspection),” Ringsred said. “They have no legal authority to condemn something that’s safe.”
Because the city has blocked his efforts to reopen the Annex, Ringsred said he will file a lawsuit challenging the city’s condemnation.
Records provided by the city to the News Tribune in response to a Minnesota Data Practices Act request outline the city’s reasons for refusing to allow the Annex to reopen. For almost a year, according to the documents, Ringsred has not complied with city instructions on what to do to reopen that part of the building.
To lift the “condemned for human habitation order” on the Annex, the city in January gave Ringsred detailed descriptions of what must be done: Restore operation to the fire alarm system and bring it up to code, fix the plumbing and fixtures, remove tires from the roof, and ensure the windows are in good repair and operational.
“Several of the apartments were noted to be filthy,” lead housing inspector Jim Mlodozyniec wrote on Jan. 26. “All apartments must be clean and sanitary.”
A walk-through of the Annex two weeks ago showed that not much has changed since then. Rust and water stains and plaster peeling from the walls were visible in several places. The lone bathroom shared among the eight units was still filthy. In numerous areas, hardwood floors were cracked and warped.
“I don’t think the Annex is fit (for human habitation),” said Jim Berry, a structural engineer who is working with Ringsred on restoring the building. “I don’t think the city is being unreasonable. I think they’re trying to do the right thing.”
Bill Scalzo, the architect who drew the renovation plans for the Kozy and who has owned Scalzo Architects for more than 20 years, said he feels that with some cleanup work the Annex could again be fit for human habitation. But he also doesn’t think the city is being unreasonable in its orders for the Annex.
“It’s a long process to try to come to the terms with reopening the building,” he said. “I understand what the city’s viewpoint is.”
Despite Ringsred’s fights with the city, both Berry, who works as vice president at the Duluth-based engineering firm Hurst & Hendricks, and Scalzo said they remain optimistic that the Kozy can be turned around.
“It’s not unusual for building owners to become frustrated with City Hall,” Scalzo said. “It’s not because City Hall and building safety aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do. Over the past few years, there have been a lot of building safety and fire code changes.”
Scalzo estimated it would cost anywhere from $3 million to $5 million to restore the Kozy to the plans he’s drawn. Ultimately, Scalzo and Berry said it will be up to Ringsred to make that a reality.
“All we can do is make recommendations and try to come up the least expensive, code-compliant, architecturally pleasing solutions and it’s up to Eric if he wants to do that,” Berry said.