The time is right for Old Downtown

There was a time -- not so long ago -- when a person could walk down the sidewalk in Old Downtown and not pass another soul. Not anymore. In fact, business is looking pretty good in the historic business district east of Lake Avenue.

Sheraton shine
The $40 million Sheraton Duluth Hotel and 311 Superior condominium project at Third Avenue East and Superior Street opened in 2007.

There was a time -- not so long ago -- when a person could walk down the sidewalk in Old Downtown and not pass another soul. Not anymore. In fact, business is looking pretty good in the historic business district east of Lake Avenue.

A visitor can savor the "best breakfast in town" at the newly renovated Coney Island, and then walk two doors down to the Fannie Rose candy store to satisfy their sweet tooth after they eat. Too late for breakfast? The Zinema and Zeitgeist Arts Café are popular evening destinations for residents and tourists in search of something a little bit different. A new restaurant-pub is in the works at the old City Hall building. Even the NorShor Theater is showing signs of life with clothes on (knock on wood).

It's not all about entertainment either. The Technology Village -- after a long hard slog following the bursting of the technology bubble and the sudden poverty of its intended tenants -- is 90 percent full. There's another new skywalk, this one across East Superior Street between the Technology Village and the Wieland Block buildings, which are also gaining tenants.

No one argues that Old Downtown is finally coming into its own. What they don't agree on is a particular reason for that rebirth. It depends on who you talk to:

  • Landscape architect Kent Worley, who designed Lake Place to connect downtown Duluth to Canal Park and Lake Superior, says old downtown is blooming because of the seeds sown by the I-35 extension and the resulting connection between downtown and the waterfront formed by the park that sits on top of the first freeway tunnel.
  • Tim Nelson, co-owner of Fitger's Brewhouse, Burrito Union and the planned Duluth Tycoons restaurant-pub in the old City Hall at 132 E. Superior St., reckons it's the loyal "scenesters," the folks who, as he put it, helped make East Superior Street the "cultural core" of downtown Duluth.
  • Rob Link, the "L" in A&L Properties (a huge player in downtown real estate and renovation), gives credit to the Technology Village, the 225,000-square-foot building at the corner of Lake Avenue and East Superior Street that was completed in 2000. Mayor Don Ness concurs with Link.

"The Tech Village building has been the key to reinvestment in Old Downtown," Ness said. "I don't think there is any question that -- without that significant risk -- there would be not be the other private investment that has happened. That project has been unfairly criticized over the years; the reality is that building saved Old Downtown and it's about time that reality is recognized."
The truth behind the rebirth of Superior Street east of Lake Avenue is likely a combination of all of the above, plus a little bit of luck. And business owners are betting that the upward trend will continue.


"That's what we're banking on," said Rand Sola, who owns Coney Island with his brother Steve Sola. "We grew up here and we've watched the fortunes of Old Downtown over a lifetime. More recently, we watched the Sheraton and other properties and picked up on the fact that if [a building] wasn't being worked on, it had at least changed hands in the past five years. So, if it wasn't being worked on, with a new owner, it probably would be soon."

Business is up at Coney Island, Sola said, noting that they had a good May and June is looking healthy too.

The Sola brothers also co-own the Fannie Rose building with Don and Pat Garofalo, who recently opened the Fannie Rose candy shop with partner John Hartwick. They make their own fudge and caramel corn, and order fine chocolates from three different confectioners, Pat said. They also offer Zots (the candy with the fizz inside) and chocolate-covered insects.

"We try to offer quality as well as nostalgia," Pat said. "We want our customers to leave with a smile."

While the Solas and the Garofalos are relative newcomers to business in that part of downtown, Link was there when revitalization was still just a pipe dream. He and A&L partner Lee Anderson built the Technology Village in the late '90s, on the site of the former Strand Theater. It was a partnership, Link explained, between the city, the University of Minnesota Duluth and A&L.

However, by the time construction was completed in 2000, the technology bubble had burst.

"At the time, we had agreed with the city and a consortium of six higher-ed institutions to put this whole concept together," Link said. "Originally, A&L was only obligated to fill 20 percent of the building, mostly on the Superior Street level, with food, beverages, services, Kinko's, whatever. But due to the collapse, our partners couldn't deliver."

So A&L had a $25 million building and not very many tenants 10 years ago. Today, Link said, the building is more than 90 percent occupied.


"There were a lot of struggles, lawsuits and public opinion battles, but the Technology Village turned out to be the genesis for everything that followed," he said. "I don't mean that in a boastful way -- just look at the facts."

Worley would have someone look back even further, more than 30 years ago, to a time when the Federal Highway Administration wanted to build Interstate 35 out over the corner of Lake Superior, blocking downtown views of the lake and cutting off the long-hoped-for access to the lakeshore. When residents said "no," the FHWA listened, as did the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Worley was part of the I-35 redesign, and the person most responsible for the Lake Place concept which provided a bridge -- as well as nearly three acres of prime parkland -- connecting downtown to Lake Superior and what is now Lakewalk and Canal Park.

Worley talked about the the Red Book, an I-35 planning document used to justify the expenses associated with the redesign and accompanying projects such as Lake Place.

"In the Red Book, we drew the exact lines of positive influences radiating from the corner of the lake if it were handled properly, creating the entrance to the lake from downtown," Worley said. "This illustrates the perfect example as to long-range planning and its effects."

However, the landscape architect is quick to point out that one part of the planning process went awry 30 years ago, when the city sold the empty lot that was supposed to be the main entrance to Lake Place to the Muffler Clinic instead.

"I had designed that entrance, just like I designed Lake Place," he said. "There were walkways, planting beds, seating areas, stairs and ramps to account for the change in elevation. Then they sold it and it never happened. It's like Lake Place hasn't had its front door for three decades. Imagine if you built a multi-million dollar house and someone sold the front porch. ... There is a unique opportunity here. Can you see the timing and need?"

A bigger and more visible connection

Worley isn't alone in thinking a greater connection to Lake Place and Canal Park would be very good for downtown Duluth.


Rand Sola loves the idea of a big, green park-like area that would be an obvious entrance to Lake Place and beyond.

"We are so connected to Canal Park geographically here, but, mentally, we're miles away," said the Coney Island owner. "We're closer to the Hampton Lodge than Grandma's is, plus you don't have to cross any streets to get here; we're connected by this beautiful park. ... If you know where you're going, it's easy, but I bet most tourists end up walking over I-35 on the Lake Avenue Bridge, with all its lights and wind. My dream is to break down that mental separation."

Link would also like to see something happen with the former Muffler Clinic lot, but there are no specific plans in place right now and the lot is for sale. When he bought the lot eight years ago, he thought he was doing the city a favor.

"It's my understanding that the city had been trying to work out an agreement with the owners for years, and had even gone as high as seven figures, but nothing had ever worked out," Link said. "Then one day, I received a phone call, much like I received on the Chinese Lantern building after it burned and sat for two years (now the Duluth Athletic Club), or the old Livingston's building (at 222 W. Superior St.), which had sat in default of taxes and unheated for seven years, or several other buildings. Anyway, I got a call from someone in the city who asked me to get involved in the negotiations to take over the property. ... I purchased the property with the understanding that we would work out a deal to get them access to the park. That was several mayors ago."

Ness said he is, indeed, very interested in creating that connection to Lake Place, noting that he would like to see the city get a public easement through the Muffler Clinic.

"We are hoping to see a public-private partnership on that site in which the city participates in the redevelopment by purchasing the public easement," Ness said. "I'd like to see private development on the site that would benefit from being adjacent to a public easement through the site. It would be great to see a sidewalk cafe or destination retail that would bring folks from Canal Park into downtown."

The future looks bright

While a new entrance to Lake Place would certainly enhance the connection between Canal Park and downtown businesses, the revitalization of Old Downtown looks set to continue with or without it.


"I think it's all happening because it makes sense," Link said. "I'm excited about the NorShor and Temple Opera, the Zeitgeist, the other individual buildings. I love to see all the renovation -- there's so many people investing down here. And, yes, we've got $50 million invested in the corner of Lake Avenue and Superior Street, so we want to see it happen."

Tim Nelson is equally positive about prospects in Old Downtown.

"I think it's on the cusp of some great things," he said. "We believe in that area: what we're planning and what other people are doing. And we're confident we can make it work."

Ness is betting on people like Nelson, and the Sola brothers, and Link, of course. He's also betting on the latest old building that may get a new lease on life: the NorShor Theater.

In April, the city and NorShor owner Eric Ringsred signed a purchase agreement for $2.6 million, which included the NorShor Theater, the NorShor Annex buildings and the fully-occupied Temple Opera building. The Duluth Economic Development Authority, the city's development arm, would actually own the buildings.

"The NorShor holds the key in that area fulfilling its potential," Ness said, holding out hope that the deal will go through by its target date of June 15. "When Laura and I opened Vintage Duluth six years ago ... We saw the potential of an arts and culture district that highlights our local talent (artists and entrepreneurs) and that would define a new generation of community leaders. ... Just as Homegrown started out as a picnic birthday party and now brings thousands out for an eight-day festival. The ideas and connections that have been formed at local rock shows 10 years ago are now the basis for a revitalization of a business district."

Scenesters, developers, believers, planners ... they've all played a role.


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