Developers said to be interested in armory redevelopment project

To the thousands of people who pass Duluth's former armory on London Road every day, no progress can be seen on the condemned landmark's highly touted restoration efforts.

To the thousands of people who pass Duluth's former armory on London Road every day, no progress can be seen on the condemned landmark's highly touted restoration efforts.

The building still bows at the feet of Lake Superior, silent and slowly crumbling.

But a group of well-connected activists, engineers, architects and business people say that appearance is not reality.

Supporters of the renovation say they've been working under the public radar for months as they mount a delicate hunt for a private developer for their expensive venture, which combines historic renovation with a new hotel, underground parking and condominiums.

They announced Tuesday that three private -- and so far-unnamed -- developers are negotiating to back the project, which could cost up to $30 million. The nonprofit Armory Arts and Music Center of Duluth also has pulled together federal preservation grants and tax incentives totaling $4 million for the project, said Susan Phillips, president of the group.


While no one has committed, organizers said they expect to have some very good news to announce by May.

Phillips would say that only that her group is on the verge of getting a developer to commit and is hammering out the final details and contracts. She expects construction to begin as early as this spring and wrap up by the fall of 2008.

"The news here is that this is finally moving ahead," Phillips said. "Of course, everything comes down to the money."

The project's now nearly three-year-old plan would restore the old drill hall and ballroom by leveraging the brick and granite armory's prime location. It has some of the best views in town and the city's beloved Rose Garden right across the road.

Armory board members, city planners and other community leaders said the armory redevelopment would be the springboard for further work in the neighborhood.

Their ambitious plans call for an "Armory Plaza Development District" similar to Minneapolis' Uptown. It stretches from 10th to 15th avenues east between London Road and East First Street.

The entire concept was vetted last year by a national urban planning experts, city officials and local volunteers in the communitywide Knight Foundation/University of Miami School of Architecture Charrette.

With the city's help, they want London Road narrowed into a parkway to accommodate pedestrian crosswalks to Leif Erikson Park and the Rose Garden as well as diagonal parking. They would also close 12th Avenue East below Superior Street and 13th Avenue East at Jefferson Street to help implement their vision of walkways and parking-only entryways.


The ultimate hope is for the Plaza Shopping Center, next door to the army, to be torn down and rebuilt by its current owners, Labovitz Enterprises, as a complex comprising a grocery store, shops, housing and more underground parking.

Beyond that, planners see more new "mixed-use" developments within the district that combine pretty building facades for street-level restaurants, offices and stores, along with up to 250 new housing units for a variety of income ranges.

Armory board members and a charrette steering committee are selling their ideas by highlighting other businesses and services that already exist within walking distance, including a gas station, bank, drug store, popular church, self-service laundry and medical clinics.

There also is now an Armory Plaza Development Association. Organizers said the new separate nonprofit is working with property owners in the district as well as the City Planning Department, the Duluth Housing and Redevelopment Association and the Greater Minnesota Housing Fund.

The group also has been active the lobbying effort in St. Paul to create a 25 percent Minnesota tax credit for historic preservation.

However, for now, the district redevelopment is an unfunded dream. Or at least it is a dream share by many of the city's movers and shakers and drawn out in detail by professional designers.

As for the armory, the nonprofit only owns the 107,000-square-foot building and property and retains an option to buy the travel agency building next door totaling 1.8 acres.

Development consultant Ed Briesemeister, of Great Oaks Consulting in Delano, Minn., was hired by the nonprofit to help manage the process and negotiations with prospective developers. Greg Wegler of Kraus-Anderson Contractors and Mark Poirier of LHB architects and engineers also are working with the three potential developers on different armory plans.


The other local project participants Lake Superior Design Group, Johnson Killen & Seiler law firm, Local Initiatives Support Group and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Back in 2003, the city sold the 1915-era armory to the nonprofit for $1, several years after the building inspector ordered it demolished.

And armory supporters maintain that the condemnation and demolition order was incorrect. They said they have an engineering report that determined that the steel structure remains sound.

"It is rock solid," Wegler said. "What you see, the holes in the ceilings and chipped paint, that's mostly superficial."

Phillips said they were ready to go with a developer from New Orleans in July of 2005, but he backed out after Hurricane Katrina hit a month later to focus on rebuilding his home turf.

The project regained its momentum several months ago when the nonprofit issued new requests for proposals to developers across the Midwest. The 43-page packet details the properties potential and lays out the nonprofit's expectations that the auditorium - which is in the rear of the building -- be restored for musical performances, weddings and banquets. They also want a coffee bar off the Jefferson Street entrance.

In addition, they want to see small museum devoted within the armory dedicated to Duluth native Bob Dylan. The world-famous singer songwriter said he was inspired by a Buddy Holly concert he saw at the Minnesota National Guard Armory in 1959. Last year, the City Council also created Bob Dylan Way, a 1.8-mile route that runs past the armory.

"The key will be to get the project sustainable and profitable," said Carolyn Sundquist, an armory volunteer and prominent historic preservationist.


For the 2,500-person capacity auditorium, which does not have permanent seating, they envision stages, walls and drapes that can be moved inward by hydraulics to fit any occasion and crowd sizes as small as 200.

The nonprofit estimates it would cost roughly $7 million to renovate only the armory.

"It won't be a museum piece," Poirier said. "But we will have to be true to the historical aspects."

The front of the building and its views would be open for new apartments, offices, condominiums or whatever the developer desires, Phillips said.

"This is just too good a building and too good a location for it to just sit there much longer," said armory volunteer Sandy Thompson.

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