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Prep work for downtown Duluth transit center begins

Workers with Rachel Contracting use an excavator to begin demolishing the F.I. Salter Building (behind Wells Fargo below Michigan Street) on Monday afternoon to ready the site and adjacent parking ramp (left) for the new Duluth Transit Authority Multimodal Transportation Center. (Bob King / / 4
Workers use an excavator, along with water to keep the dust down, to demolish the F.I. Salter Building Monday afternoon. (Bob King / / 4
The bucket and thumb of the excavator grabs and bends steel beams from the F.I. Salter Building into a compact package for salvage Monday. (Bob King / / 4

A steel arm, with something akin to a medieval weapon at its tip, raked down the back of the Salter Building on Monday, filleting it, over and over, into a mass of debris.

“I’ve never seen one like that before,” Dennis Jensen said. “I’m kind of used to the old-school wrecking ball.”

Jensen is general manager of the Duluth Transit Authority. To see the wreckage was meaningful to him; it meant the DTA’s $27.3 million Multimodal Transportation Center project in downtown Duluth had advanced off the page and into reality.

The demolition of both the Salter Building and the adjacent Wells Fargo parking ramp set in motion the eventual construction of the transportation center. It figures to remake Michigan Street by giving it a very public façade — a contrast to a street that now features mostly the backs of many of downtown’s largest buildings.

The project also includes  rebuilding the Northwest Passage that is the city’s main skywalk artery connecting downtown to the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center and Canal Park.  

“I think it’s a big day,” Jensen said. “We’ve been planning this for so long. To start seeing machines and men and women means we’re moving. It kind of sets the stage for what’s to come.”

The demolition will force the rerouting of some skywalk foot traffic, including three days without the Northwest Passage, probably next week. The DTA will provide shuttle service for the days the passage is temporarily closed.

After an estimated three weeks of demolition, the project will move into foundation construction and build up from there.  

DTA spokesman Heath Hickok said the transit authority serves 3.2 million passengers annually. While the demolition crews from Minneapolis’ Mortenson Construction and Rachel Contracting carved away at the building in the background, Hickok spoke about the Michigan Street of the future.

“Hopefully, we’ll begin to see some ripple effects,” Hickok said. “Our partners at the Chamber of Commerce and Greater Downtown Council, especially, will be able to leverage other economic developments.”

The Multimodal Transportation Center at Michigan Street and Third Avenue West — with the bus terminal facing Interstate 35 — will feature four levels: ground parking, a second level for the bus terminal, a third level that features Wells Fargo office space and more parking, and an open-air parking lot on the fourth level. Throughout, there will be walkways with heated pavement as a way to minimize the risk of people falling on ice.

Across Michigan Street and facing the Salter Building, David Carlson worked Monday with his wood shop doors open for the world to see. He’s the owner of Junk-Wise Inc.; his shop, which opened in May, is directly below Port City Antiques. Working atop a pair of heavy wooden fire doors fashioned into work benches, he makes custom display cabinets out of old furniture, using the motto, “Green by accident; smart by design.” A retired railroad worker, he takes the bus to work and enjoys connecting with people.

“I’m all for this,” Carlson said of the transportation center that is expected to open in November 2015. “I like the bus. It’s cool. It’s a lot of fun. Sometimes, I see some strange people. Sometimes, I see some people who look normal but might be stranger than the strange people.”

If connecting people to each other is what Carlson enjoys about the bus, then it’s connecting people to Duluth that matters most to the DTA.

With a widened Northwest Passage, bicyclists will be able to walk their bikes across to Canal Park using a skywalk for the first time. Conceivably, the Northern Lights Express passenger train will one day allow riders to arrive at the Depot and easily transfer to a DTA bus.

“We are a destination city,” Hickok said. “There’s so much going on in our city. The connectivity will be unprecedented.”