A fire Sunday morning at Pastoret Terrace on East First Street caused significant damage just days after the Duluth Economic Development Authority approved up to $135,000 to secure the building for winter.
Duluth Fire Chief Shawn Krizaj told the media Monday afternoon the fire at the Pastoret is still under investigation. Due to concerns about the structural integrity of the building before the fire Sunday, Krizaj said, firefighters didn’t enter the building at any point Sunday or Monday, nor did personnel from the Fire Marshal’s Office.
Krizaj said no utilities are hooked up to the building and it was not struck by lightning.
“Most of the investigation thus far has been happening outside the building,” he said. “We’re working with local contractors and structural engineers to determine the safety and integrity of the building before we can actually send anyone inside.”
Krizaj said it may be a day or two before they are able to enter the building, but the city is hoping to have all the entrances and windows boarded up by the end of the day Tuesday.
Miles Ringsred told the News Tribune he and his father, Dr. Eric Ringsred, were at the St. Regis Apartments on Second Avenue East working to restore heat to the building with a plumber and other family members when they heard sirens from fire trucks. Miles Ringsred said they stepped outside and saw all the smoke coming from the Pastoret.
“We just happened to be right down there in the thick of it when it was all kind of going on and it was just pretty hard to believe," he said.
Eric Ringsred, the former owner of the buildings, and a group of preservationists called Respect Starts Here have been fighting to save the historic structures from the wrecking ball. Miles Ringsred is one of the attorneys representing Eric Ringsred and the group.
The buildings — which housed the former Kozy Bar and Apartments — were scheduled for demolition in early 2020 after a ruling from 6th Judicial District Judge Eric Hylden in October 2019 allowed DEDA to tear down the structure. In August, the Minnesota Court of Appeals overturned the ruling, remanding the case back to the lower court for reconsideration and advising DEDA, the building's current owner, to take steps to protect the historic building from further damage.
On Wednesday, DEDA authorized city staff to spend up to $135,000 to button up the property for winter. City of Duluth spokesperson Kate Van Daele said the DEDA resolution will continue to move forward and is expected to be on the City Council agenda Nov. 9.
“The city of Duluth has received very strong language from the Court of Appeals in terms of their expectations and this is a part of our compliance with that court order,” Van Daele said.
Numerous fires have broken out at the Kozy since 2010. This is the second fire in the building this year. In April, a small fire that burned through a boarded-up door frame, causing $100 in damage, was determined to be caused by arson.
Miles Ringsred told the News Tribune though he’s waiting for more information from the city regarding damages, he believes Sunday’s fire has caused more significant damage than past fires.
When asked if the most recent fire could change anything regarding the lawsuit to save the building, Miles Ringsred said, “It further complicates an already complicated situation.”
Ringsred said the plaintiffs and defendants were in the process of setting up a mediation session to see if they could come to terms with how best to preserve the building while the case played out in the court system. After the fire, Ringsred said he’s not sure yet what the right path forward is right now, but they would like to see the city install security cameras around the property.
“(Security cameras) alone could have prevented this,” Ringsred said, adding he hadn’t filed any new motions with the court as of Monday afternoon. “We’re trying to figure out whether it’s better to get in front of the court sooner rather than later if there are any immediate things that we think should be happening that aren’t, but we’re still just kind of waiting to get a sense of the scope of this and what’s going on and what the city’s position is moving forward on it.”
Some Duluth City Council members told the News Tribune the Sunday fire is just further proof the Pastoret should be torn down.
Councilor Derek Medved, who is also a member of DEDA, voted no Wednesday on the funds to secure the structure for the winter, and after the fire Sunday, he’s not going to change his position unless otherwise ordered by the court.
“It is yet again burned, is even in further disrepair and now is even a greater public safety concern,” Medved said.
Councilor Roz Randorf said she wants a firm quote on what it would take to make sure the building won’t be a public safety issue but still believes the building should come down.
“It has long since passed its historic significance,” Randorf said. “(Eric Ringsred) made sure of that when he didn’t manage it and maintain it and now his delays are costing us even more money with this frivolous lawsuit.”
Councilor Zach Filipovich said he could see the smoke from his home near Mesaba Avenue and was filled with dread when he learned it was the Pastoret that was on fire Sunday.
“It’s so unfortunate that a building with the historic significance the Pastoret Terrace has was allowed to fall into that type of disrepair because of the previous owner's lack of action,” Filipovich said.
Filipovich and Councilor Arik Forsman said they want to hear more from the city attorneys to learn more about the city’s obligation to preserve the building and what impact this fire will have on the court’s decision.
Councilor Joel Sipress said he is also waiting to see what type of implications the most recent fire will have on the status of the building. He said it’s unfortunate that the city is being forced to spend money to maintain a building that clearly needs to be taken down.
“Speaking as someone who thinks that it is absolutely tragic that things reached this point and as someone who believes we need to do a much better job in our community maintaining our architectural resources, that particular building, unfortunately, has reached the point of now return and when that happens you have to do the right thing and take the building down,” Sipress said.
Libel lawsuit dismissed
Sixth District Judge Shaun Floerke dismissed three of four counts listed in a lawsuit filed by Eric Ringsred against the city of Duluth and the Duluth News Tribune.
According to the court order, publishing and transmitting privilege applies to the News Tribune and therefore a libel count and First Amendment rights interference count against the newspaper were dismissed. The order also states that Ringsred is a “limited purpose public figure” and the law requires him to show “actual malice.”
The News Tribune reached out to Ringsred for comment, but did not hear back immediately.
“Obviously, we're pleased with the court's decision. We felt strongly our reporting staff did an excellent job covering an ongoing story of public concern and did so adhering to the principles of the fair report privilege,” said Neal Ronquist, Duluth Media Group publisher. “We will continue to cover this story, as well as other stories of public interest, with similar vigor and adherence to the highest ethical standards.”
A count of interference with Ringsred’s First Amendment rights by the city was also dismissed, but a count of libel against the city will be determined by a jury trial. The court order says a jury must decide whether it's true that the Pastoret is "structurally compromised" and also the issue over former city attorney Gunnar Johnson's statement that the demolition order was "pivotal" in redevelopment efforts.
Van Daele said in a statement that DEDA does not comment on ongoing litigation.
This story was updated at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 2 with additional information about the state of the building and the lawsuit. It was originally posted at 3:01 p.m. Nov. 2.