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Duluth's Nettleton Elementary School may be torn down

Nettleton Elementary School in Duluth Thursday afternoon. United Properties plans to tear down the 112-year-old school to make way for new housing, although no purchase agreement with the Duluth school district has yet been signed. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

If United Properties buys the former Nettleton Elementary School from the Duluth school district, it expects to tear it down.

A spokeswoman for the Minneapolis-based developer said last week that renovating the existing Central Hillside building would be too costly.

“We still very much like the location and believe a senior housing development would meet an unmet community need; it’s our hope that it might be possible to move forward with new construction on that site,” Sheila Thelemann, director of marketing for United Properties, wrote in an email.

A feasibility study has been conducted, she said.

The school district still is negotiating with United and no purchase agreement has been signed.

The company plans to invest at least $10 million in the project. It also is behind Kenwood Village, the $21 million, four-story mixed-use project at the corner of Kenwood Avenue and Arrowhead Road; a ribbon-cutting event for that project is scheduled for Friday.

The Nettleton school at 108 E. Sixth St. was built in 1905, with additions constructed in 1945 and 1987. The red brick building is not considered historically significant, said Dennis Lamkin, a member of the Duluth Preservation Alliance.

“Schools are a difficult property to consider historic,” he said, and its multiple additions compromise any historic nature. “It’s not the same as Historic Old Central, or other schools with more significance.”

Nettleton has been empty since 2013, closed as part of the district’s long-range facilities plan. A deal with Sherman Associates to redevelop the property fell through last summer, partly because the developer couldn’t secure historic tax credits.

Stephanie Heilig was a teacher and principal at Nettleton for a large chunk of her 40-plus years with the Duluth school district. She said this week that the building was the “center of the whole community, and meant so much to the families and the kids.”

But if it’s not being used as a community center or school, the planned senior housing fills a neighborhood need, as long as it’s affordable, she said.

“It has such a special place in our hearts,” she said, because of the surrounding supportive community and its place on the hillside, overlooking Lake Superior. “We hated to empty it and leave it and I am sure many of us would hate to see anything happen to it. But it is important for the community that something wonderful is put in its place.”

Keith Hamre, director of planning and construction services for the city of Duluth, said reuse of buildings is a city goal, but there are times that’s not possible.

“The higher goals of housing, especially senior housing, would outweigh saving the building,” he said, and a new building in the core of the city rather than on the fringe is also a priority.

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