The boarded-up Pastoret Terrace Building, formerly home to the Kozy Bar, continues to serve as a beacon for troublemakers, according to testimony Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken gave Wednesday in day two of a trial that could decide whether the structure and the adjoining Paul Robeson Ballroom should be torn down.
Since 2016, local police have been called to the property at 125-129 E. First St. 37 times and at least eight of those calls stemmed from reports that people had broken into the buildings, which continue to attract squatters, Tusken said.
The chief pointed to the fire-damaged buildings as a poster child for urban blight and said: "Blight can be a driver for crime and disorder."
In the past four years, the city has been called at least 10 times to resecure the buildings by affixing new sheets of oriented strand board after mischief-makers had pried their way in, said Sarah Benning, lead housing inspector for Duluth's life safety division. The most recent such call to the property came April 9.
She called the condemned building "an attractive nuisance" and noted that old mattresses, discarded furniture and other trash continues to accumulate in the alley between Pastoret Terrace and the St. Regis apartment building.
"People use it as their own personal dumping ground," Benning said.
Tusken said increased patrols of the area around the Pastoret have cost the police department "thousands of dollars," and officers called to the buildings after break-ins often enter in fear for their own safety.
The deteriorating building also poses a potential risk to the public because of falling bricks and the possibility that an intruder could start a fire, said Keith Hamre, Duluth's director of planning and economic development.
The Duluth Economic Development Authority, which owns the buildings, has passed a resolution authorizing city staff to file for the needed permits to demolish the buildings.
But efforts to save the buildings, which have been condemned for human habitation since a November 2010 fire, continue, led by a citizens' group called Respect Starts Here and by Eric Ringsred the former owner of the property.
Ringsred lost possession of the building in 2015 as a result of tax forfeiture, and has since been fighting to ensure the building is restored rather than razed.
He approached Mike Conlan, former director of Duluth's planning department and DEDA, in 2011 and has worked with him to redevelop the property. Ringsred said he has spent more than $70,000 since then to put together plans in hopes of procuring low-income housing credits from the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency to bring the building back to life as a 40-unit apartment building.
Ringsred and fellow preservationists argue the Pastoret Terrace Building, designed by renowned architect Oliver Traphagen and built in 1887, should be protected under the Minnesota Environmental Resources Act. But DEDA rejected three plans to redevelop the building, after a screening committee decided that none of the proposals were viable or acceptable.
During questioning by Ringsred Wednesday, Hamre acknowledged the screening committee had contained no representatives of the Duluth Heritage Preservation Commission, the St. Louis County Historical Society or the Minnesota State Historical Preservation Office. But he stood behind the committee's considered evaluation of the three rejected plans, which were submitted in response to a DEDA request for proposals.
One of the rejected plans came from Pastoret LLC, led by Conlan, who said the project had already garnered about $4 million in state and federal historic preservation tax credits. But the proposed $10.4 million project hinges on its ability to obtain low-income housing credits from the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency, after two previous failed attempts.
Conlan hasn't given up hope but said: "It would take a partnership with the city, rather than the adversarial relationship we seem to have now."
Ringsred took the stand himself during Wednesday's trial, where Assistant City Attorney Eizabeth Sellers asked him if he had regrets related to owning and operating the property, which provided low-cost rental housing for about 50 tenants prior to the fire, but which was often scrutinized for the police calls it and the Kozy Bar generated.
"It was challenging in some ways and, believe it or not, inspirational in others," Ringsred said of the experience.
Judge Eric Hylden, presiding over the bench trial, asked Ringsred why he let the property go tax forfeit even though he had sold the NorShor Theatre and Temple Opera Building to DEDA for $2.6 million in 2010.
Despite the sale, Ringsred said: "It was difficult to make ends meet at the time."
He explained that he had a vision of revitalizing the neighborhood around the Pastoret Terrace and Robeson Ballroom. Toward that end, he also bought the neighboring St. Regis Apartment Building for about $600,000 and spent thousands more to rehabilitate the property.
"Money was short, but I relied on my ability to repurchase the property if it went tax forfeit," he said. "Needless to say, that was a large error in judgment."
St. Louis County chose to convey ownership of the property to DEDA rather than allowing Ringsred to settle up and reclaim the buildings.
Even though he no longer owns the buildings, Ringsred said he continues to make monthly $5,000 payments to Paul King, the previous owner who sold him the property in 2006. He said that the payments constitute King's sole source of livelihood.
Hylden asked Ringsred why he didn't just pay his taxes.
Ringsred explained he didn't have $30,000 sitting around and said: "There is no investment in Wall Street. There is no pension fund."
But in retrospect, Ringsred conceded he probably should have acted differently, saying: "I could probably have come up with that money if I had known all that was to ensue."