Future uncertain for Esmond building in Duluth's Lincoln Park

The future of the Esmond Building -- formerly the Seaway Hotel -- remains a mystery. The Duluth Housing and Redevelopment Authority owns the once-troubled Lincoln Park building and issued a "request for qualifications" earlier this year, seeking ...

The outside of the Esmond
Ed Smith steps outside to have a smoke on one of the benches outside the Esmond Building, formerly the Seaway Hotel. (News Tribune file photo)

The future of the Esmond Building - formerly the Seaway Hotel - remains a mystery.

The Duluth Housing and Redevelopment Authority owns the once-troubled Lincoln Park building and issued a "request for qualifications" earlier this year, seeking to identify prospective redevelopment partners.

But Jill Keppers, executive director of the Duluth HRA, said the authority received a "pretty thin" response - just four proposals in all.

"The responses we received didn't really capture what we had in mind for the building, so our team of reviewers ... agreed that we'd be better off to do some more planning and have a more specific RFQ (request for qualifications) at a later date," she said.

Keppers said the HRA will seek more community feedback in April and will work with its architectural and design team to better define some of the different options for the building, as well as projected costs.


With that information in hand, Keppers said the HRA could issue a subsequent RFQ a couple of months from now.

The initial vision has been for some sort of retail business to operate on the ground floor of the Esmond, with workforce housing to be developed on the upper floors.

Keppers said the HRA is interested in supporting Lincoln Park's efforts to promote and grow a craft district.

"It's exciting. Lincoln Park is a neighborhood full of energy, and it has great community and business partners. So they all want to see this be a success, as do we, and as does the city. So I think with all of us working together, we'll come up with a great vision for the building," she said.

The Esmond, constructed in 1913, had fallen into serious disrepair, and was nearly forced to close because of public safety concerns in 2012. But the HRA purchased the property and has since worked to stabilize it.

The low-rent building is home to some of the most marginalized and hardest-to-house tenants in Duluth - folks who often have few other housing options.

The construction of a new 50-unit low-income apartment building - Garfield Square - is expected to begin in a matter of months. That $13.4 million building should be ready to welcome its first tenants by early summer of next year, said Rick Klun, executive director of Center City Housing, which will own and operate the structure.

"It looks like everything is lining up for us for a late summer/early fall start. We're still working on all the financial stuff and all the drawings and getting the pricing in line and all of that," he said.


Klun said Garfield Square is being developed with an eye toward improving the living conditions of people who currently reside at the Esmond, and in turn, freeing up that property for redevelopment.

At present, the Esmond is home to about 60 people, but Keppers expressed confidence that will decline to 50 through attrition by the time the Esmond is ready. She anticipates a relatively seamless transition.

One of the challenges of redeveloping the Esmond into a more conventional apartment building will be to provide more parking. Many of the building's current tenants do not own vehicles, but Keppers said most of its future residents probably will.

Keppers acknowledged the Esmond Building will require much work before it is suitable for reuse, and the HRA will be working with engineers and architects to gain a better grasp of the probable costs involved.

As to whether the existing building actually will have a future after Garfield Square is in operation, Keppers said: "I think it's an open question."

"Maybe there will be a fully newly-constructed building where the Esmond now sits," she said. Until a clearer picture emerges, Keppers said the HRA will focus on keeping the Esmond in operation and serving the needs of its residents.

"Right now, I'm still trying to make lemonade, because we were handed kind of a lemon but also an opportunity to keep people housed in the community," Keppers said.

As for the HRA's continued involvement at the Esmond, Keppers said "It will probably come down to: What's the best value for taxpayers? Is it better for the HRA to walk away? Or is it better for the HRA to stay involved and try to recoup some of our investment over time?"

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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