The Esmond Building, formerly known as the Seaway Hotel, finds itself at a crossroads, with ambitious plans for its redevelopment now emerging.
Today, the Lincoln Park structure at 2001 W. Superior St. sits almost completely empty, as the vast majority of its residents have moved to new digs at the recently opened Garfield Square building a few blocks to the east.
Just one tenant remains in the Esmond, refusing to leave. Jill Keppers, executive director of the Duluth Housing and Redevelopment Authority, which owns the Esmond, said efforts to persuade the building's lone occupant to be on his way continue, but legal eviction remains a last-ditch option.
Last week, the Duluth Housing and Redevelopment Authority's board of commissioners passed a resolution authorizing a potential $1 sale of the Esmond Building to an outfit called Minnesota Opportunity Zone Advisors LLC, or MN-OZA.
The sale has not closed, and Keppers said further details will need to be resolved before it does.
"Once we are feeling more comfortable with their financing plan, we'll move forward," she said.
Jamie Stolpestad, a MN-OZA representative, described plans to redevelop the building, bringing 30 units of updated rental housing to the second and third floors, as well as artsy commercial ventures to the 8,500 square feet of space available at street level.
He hopes to enlist the help of engineering students from the University of Minnesota Duluth to make the building more sustainable, with new mechanical systems and improved efficiencies. Stolpestad said MN-OZA also aims to partner with Apadana Solar Technologies to look at renewable energy options, including solar and wind power.
Keppers said any future redevelopment would likely need to offer an affordable housing component. The HRA received a $230,000 loan from the Duluth Economic Development Authority and a $1.1 million forgivable loan from the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency in 2014 to acquire and repair the condemned building. This ensured many of its low-income residents wouldn't be forced onto the streets. Both of those entities would need to approve of the proposed sale before it can proceed.
Through January, the HRA has poured more than $708,000 of its own funds into the building as well.
Stolpestad said MN-OZA, too, will need more information before it can commit to the project.
"It's an old building, and there are some quirky challenges we're going to have to tackle and overcome," he said, noting that the brick building will be evaluated with the help of consulting engineers from LHB Inc. The building currently is subdivided into 70 single-room, low-rent units, but the building's layout would need to be opened up to accommodate more spacious and attractive units.
Once the building is completely empty, Stolpestad said some "destructive testing" is planned to determine exactly which partitions can come down and which load-bearing walls must remain.
"There's a lot of work to do, but we're confident in the outcome and working hard with all of our partners," he said.
Jason Hale, senior housing developer for the city of Duluth, said the project remains at an exploratory stage.
"I think we're tentatively excited about what the building could become, but it's too early to tell because we don't have cost numbers or the firm details yet that we would need to know if it is feasible," he said.
The prospect of seeing the Esmond redeveloped to provide more affordable housing has been warmly welcomed by 4th District City Councilor Renee Van Nett, who represents Lincoln Park. She described the sense of optimism people are demonstrating in that neighborhood.
"People are taking so many risks and are willing to try so many different things. This would create housing, and housing is a giant issue. So, if we can get more housing in the area without gentrifying it, that would be great, because our differences and our diversity are our strength," she said.
Stolpestad described what he sees as "both a transformation and an evolution" underway in Lincoln Park, adding that he'd like to help take that "to the next level."
"When we had our first conversations with the Duluth HRA, we were pretty open about observing the checkered past of the building, and we thought it was important to focus on transformations that would ad a 'cool factor' to the building. So while some of the things we're talking about may seem unconventional, we do think they can be a cool factor," he said.
Hale, too, views the potential redevelopment of the dilapidated Esmond as a step forward for Lincoln Park, noting: "It's on a crucial corner of a neighborhood that's growing and expanding and reinvesting in itself."