A well-heeled developer based in Walnut Creek, Calif., has quietly acquired and assembled a chunk of property in downtown Duluth that has long been eyed by many as an area ripe for redevelopment.

Under the guise of the name 101 East Michigan LLC, Hall Equities Group purchased a building in the 100 block of East Superior Street from Bullseye Land Co. LLC in March for $1.65 million. Then this summer, using the same name, it bought a neighboring piece of now-vacant property that was formerly home to a business called the Muffler Clinic from A&L Partnership for $950,000.

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Hall Equities is perhaps best known locally for its 2015 acquisition of ZMC Hotels, a Duluth-based hospitality firm that now boasts 34 hotels spread across 13 states.

But Hall Equities has an even bigger footprint with a portfolio of 165 properties in 16 states and about 8 million square feet of property under its management.

Heather Rand, director of business and economic development for the city of Duluth, said she has been in communication with Mark Hall, president and CEO of Hall Equities, and his team regarding the property, but they’re still weighing their options.

“He told us that they need a little more time before they were going to start coming to us with some firm concepts of what they’d like to see in terms of redevelopment there,” she said.

Rand suspects the project Hall dreams up will be worth the wait.

“They’re the real deal. They know what they’re doing,” she said.

Rand expects to learn more about Hall’s plans to redevelop the $2.6 million in downtown Duluth property he has assembled in early 2018.

In the meantime, Rand said she was pleased to learn that businesses currently located on site will continue to operate. Those businesses include Bullseye Silkscreen, the Chinese Dragon and Old Town Antiques.

Hall did not respond to phone messages the News Tribune left at his Walnut Creek office Wednesday and Thursday.

Rand said the property could accommodate a hotel or other types of development. She noted that Hall Equities has an impressive track record and has undertaken many other sorts of projects that could be a good fit, as well.

“That site has wonderful views, so it’s really difficult for me right now to venture a guess as to if he’s going to pursue market-rate housing or commercial or Class A office space, which I’m also hearing we have need for downtown. There are a few businesses that have indicated to me that they are seeking Class A office space, which means an attached parking ramp and lake views. So their team knows they have options, given the really wonderful opportunity that location provides,” Rand said.

Lakewalk link

Kent Worley, a landscape architect, said he hopes any future redevelopment of the site will include a plan to complete an unfinished link to Duluth’s Lakewalk.

Worley helped design the Lakewalk, Duluth’s Interstate-35 underpass system, Leif Erikson Park and Lake Place Park. The latter was supposed to provide a connection between the downtown and Canal Park across the freeway, but it was never fully completed. Instead, the park terminates in almost a dead end hanging just above the site of the former Muffler Clinic. A narrow boardwalk trickles westward from the park along the back of several buildings that line Michigan Street. The elevated walkway was originally intended to serve as a temporary Lakewalk link until a proper entrance to Lake Place could be built in the 100 block of East Superior Street.

Worley said Hall and the city now have an opportunity to realize that original vision.

“The concept would be to sort of share a space through whatever they build,” he said

Worley suggested that pedestrian link to Lake Place Park could also provide skywalk access across Superior Street. He contends these links would be useful public amenities that also would benefit whatever type of development Hall proposes to build.

Rand agreed that Hall’s project could open the door to improved downtown access to Lake Place and the Lakewalk.

“This is our big opportunity to get that right, and we’ve made them aware of the fact that that’s something that we are really looking forward to partnering with them on, and they understand that,” she said.

No library talk

Although there had been some talk of the possibility of building a new downtown library in the same area during Mayor Don Ness’ tenure, Rand said Mayor Emily Larson has not pursued that idea any further.

“To be quite honest, we have not been targeting that site as a potential library site with this administration,” she said.

Rather, Rand said she’s content to work with Hall and his team.

“Actually, I’m rather excited that we have a private developer who has the capacity to really develop a wonderful project there. So, that being said, we also know something is going to have to happen with that downtown library. But Mayor Larson is very focused on fixing our roads and streets right now.”

Once a street plan is in hand, Rand said Larson will likely return to the issue of the downtown library’s future.

“It’s not gone away. She just knows she needs to deal with the streets right now.”