Ringsred plans next move to save Kozy from wrecking ball
Building's former owner vows to continue legal battle
Despite a court ruling earlier this week that appears to clear the way for the Duluth Economic Development Authority to proceed with its plans to demolish the former Kozy Bar and adjacent buildings in the 100 block of East First Street, Dr. Eric Ringsred remains undeterred in his efforts to save the structures.
Ringsred previously owned the fire-damaged Pastoret Terrace and the adjoining Paul Robeson Ballroom — a property most locals still refer to collectively as the Kozy, in memory of the Kozy Bar which once operated there. Although he lost possession of the buildings in 2015 through tax-forfeiture proceedings that stemmed from his failure to pay property taxes, Ringsred has continued to push for the buildings to be renovated rather than torn down.
Ringsred argued that Pastoret Terrace, which was built in the late 1880s under the guidance of Oliver Traphagen, one of Duluth’s most prominent architects, must be protected as a public resource under the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act, which states that the preservation of historic structures should be considered a “paramount concern.”
But Judge Eric Hylden wrote in his order that “although the Kozy is a historic building, there are no feasible and prudent alternatives to demolition, taking into account public health and safety, even if historic preservation is DEDA’s paramount concern.”
Ringsred contends DEDA has been too willing to turn its back on the buildings since a 2010 fire that led to them being condemned for human habitation. DEDA earlier had issued a request for proposals to redevelop the property, but it received responses from just three interested parties, and all of them were deemed unacceptable or unfeasible.
Ringsred said the city has passed up legitimate opportunities to renovate the property in partnership with others.
“If the city really wanted to make something like this happen in conjunction with others, this could happen. And this is what’s been so frustrating. I think that could rise like a phoenix from the ashes and actually be a beacon in that community,” he said.
But Hylden noted in his findings that Ringsred arguably had been the best positioned person to renovate the Kozy, as its rent-collecting owner. The judge suggested: “If he was unable to make it happen, then perhaps it is not feasible and prudent for anyone else to do it either.”
Duluth City Attorney Gunnar Johnson chimed in, pointing to the $2.6 million Ringsred received when he sold the NorShor Theatre property to the Duluth Economic Development Authority in the spring of 2010.
“With all those resources behind him and all the opportunities that he had, he was not able to do it. He lost the building,” Johnson said.
The Kozy has sat condemned for human habitation since a fire struck the property in the fall of 2010. Ringsred contends that only a portion of the Pastoret Terrace building was seriously damaged by the fire, but nevertheless the whole property was condemned, forcing it to sit largely unattended and turning it into a magnet for mischief-makers.
Ringsred had no fire insurance for the property, relying instead on the protection of a sprinkler system he had installed.
He owned up to a poor decision to forego insurance, saying: “Ultimately, I’m willing to admit when it was a wrong call. But it just seems to me that that should be a two-way street. If either the court or the city wants to hold people accountable, they need to hold both sides accountable.”
Ringsred said that sprinkler system likely saved lives and quickly notified the local fire department of the alarm. But Ringsred acknowledged that he had overestimated the city’s firefighting capabilities.
While Ringsred noted that many people on the scene questioned the speed of the response, he said he doesn’t place any stock in suggestions that firefighters purposefully let the fire spread.
“That wasn’t the case. They were putting forth their best effort. I have no question about that,” he said.
As Ringsred has sought to save the Pastoret Terrace building from a date with a wrecking ball, the fire-damaged property has languished.
Hylden cited testimony by Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken that the building continues to be the source of police calls, involving break-ins, solid-waste dumping, squatting, graffiti, vandalism and other types of problem behavior.
In his decision, Hylden wrote: “The court finds it credible that public health, safety and welfare was adversely affected by the Kozy, both when it was operating as an apartment building and in its current state as a place condemned for human habitation.”
But Miles Ringsred, Eric’s son and attorney in the case, said many people remain unaware of proposals brought forward that would bring the Pastoret property “back to its former glory.”
“People really seem to think that Eric wants it to stay in its current condition and to sit and do nothing. So, that’s been a difficult public perception that’s hard to change,” he said.
Hylden agreed with DEDA officials who deemed the redevelopment proposals problematic due to significant funding gaps. “The last thing anyone wants is for a historic renovation to get halfway done, only to have the building again fall into a neglected state,” he wrote.
Ringsred suggested that if by chance a developer started to renovate the property and fell short of funding, that doesn’t mean the project wouldn’t be completed. He noted that the redeveloped Fitger’s complex went through three bankruptcies.
“We’ve seen that happen with other projects, and the projects ultimately get done,” he said.
“I think that displays either a narrow mind or a naivete about the way projects work. How many projects do you see out there that don’t get done eventually,” Ringsred asked.
However, Johnson views Hylden’s ruling as sound and firm.
“The court was very clear in its decision and very clear in the history that it reviewed,” he said. “And I agree with the court. This is the end of the line. It’s time to move forward.”
Yet the Ringsreds pledged to continue their fight, with Miles Ringsred saying: “I think there are still a few avenues forward that are definitely worth pursuing, because we truly believe that the building could and should and can be saved.”
Responding to those ongoing efforts to block the demolition of the Kozy, Johnson said: “We have no control over Dr. Ringsred or his son, Miles. But we will continue to vigorously defend this matter and try to move forward with the resolution that’s best for the city of Duluth and for that piece of Duluth as it now sits.”