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Gateway renovations get high marks

James Armstrong (left) and Chad Fairborn, both journeyman painters, use rollers to touch up a section of Gateway Towers' exterior after using a spray gun to lay down a fresh coating of paint Thursday afternoon. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com

The early reviews are rolling in on the what's-old-is-new-again Gateway Tower apartments on West Superior Street in downtown Duluth, and tenants say the renovations are a hit.

"It couldn't look better," said 62-year-old Jan Nash, an 11-year resident of the 14-story tower. "New cabinets, new toilet and shower, new floors."

"Huge bathroom," said Pam Blommer, 55, who uses a walker and appreciated newfound accessibility after waiting for her updated second-floor apartment by spending a few months in transition on the ninth floor.

Gateway Tower houses a mix of elderly people, folks with disabilities and, soon, a supervised floor dedicated to safe housing for young people.

The Gateway Towers project to refurbish apartments and give the building's exterior a new look is nearing completion.With more than 100 of 150 units already renovated and more being finished every day, the $18.5 million Gateway Tower update is on track for fall completion. Its dynamic new interior and secure entryway along Superior Street were matched in recent weeks with the application of decorative steel siding and a paint job befitting a Twin Ports blue-gray sky.

The steel siding is of a different type than the cladding which covered the Grenfell Tower apartment building in London, and is being blamed for the disastrous, deadly inferno there last month.

The Gateway Tower cladding is "very, very safe," said Rick Klun, executive director of Center City Housing, one of the building's purchasing partners.

"It's a design our architect came up with — the idea was to give some visual intrigue to the exterior of the building," said Jeff Corey, executive director of One Roof Community Housing, which also partnered to purchase and save what had been an fast-expiring four-decade-old building.

Renovated using a group investment in low-income housing tax credits, Gateway Tower now will also feature sprinklers throughout the building at Klun's insistence.

"It wasn't required and the money was tight, but I stood firm," Klun said. "There's nothing more valuable than a person's life."

Heavy equipment work has turned to addressing the lot surrounding the tower — the digging encountering the foundations and debris from buildings of Duluth's Bowery, demolished ages ago. Corey said money had been set aside for what he called "underground surprises," which had been expected given the lot's issues with cracking, heaving and sinkholes.

"The building is pinned to bedrock and has never had any shifting or problems," Corey said. "But it basically looked like the buildings that had been there previously had collapsed in on themselves and the gaps were filled in underground."

Apartments are being renovated and tenants moved in columns rather than one floor at a time. The result of the total project has been a tender compact between the construction workers and the people in the building.

"The workers go way above and beyond the call of duty," Blommer said, rattling off their first names.

"They even unpacked my canned goods into my cupboards," said Nash.

Pleased to acknowledge the rapport, Corey also underlined the tenants' patience through the process.

"It's going to be a much better place to live," Corey said. "But at the same time people are tired with construction. It's intrusive, particularly if you're home all day."

Nash and Blommer pointed to one oversight: the living room windows that used to slide now only press out a number of inches — with no allowance for an air-conditioning unit.

"It's hard," Nash said. "I'm hot and my MS is kicking up."

Both of the women, enjoying a breeze tunneling down Superior Street, said management is listening to them and willing to work on a solution or alternative.

"I moved up here from Las Vegas," added Nash, the longtime resident. "I wanted to get away from the heat."

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