The city of Duluth expects to know more about the condition of the historic building that once housed the Kozy Bar and Apartments by the end of the week, an attorney said Monday as a battle over the fire-ravaged building returned to court.
Duluth engineering firm LHB, Inc. is wrapping up its structural assessment of Pastoret Terrace and Paul Robeson Ballroom, 129 E. First St. The property was heavily damaged in a Nov. 1 blaze, nearly 10 years after the structure was first rendered uninhabitable by fire.
Assistant City Attorney Elizabeth Sellers told a judge that she wasn't sure if workers have been able to physically enter the premises.
"I know that part of the investigation involved bucket trucks and examining the facade's integrity on the First Street side," Sellers said at the virtual hearing of State District Court. "I know they have been up on various ladders looking at the roof — or what's left of it."
The building's former owner, Eric Ringsred, and a group of preservations known as Respect Starts Here are hoping to save the 133-year-old building. Their attorney, Miles Ringsred, blasted the city for what he described as its "disregard" of an August court ruling that required preservation of the structure, pending further litigation.
"It's like the fox guarding the henhouse in a certain sense," he said of the Duluth Economic Development Authority, which obtained the building after Eric Ringsred lost it to tax forfeiture in 2015. "Their stewardship of this property has been well-documented, and this is just another example of it."
The half-hour hearing showcased the frustration involved in a decadelong struggle over the property — and how that has been exacerbated by recent events — but it did not result in any clear answers as to what's next for the troubled building.
The property has been tied up in court since early 2018, when Eric Ringsred sued to prevent the city from demolishing it. Ringsred, who lacked insurance on the property when a major fire broke out in November 2010, argued the city was violating historic preservation laws by seeking to demolish the building.
Sixth Judicial District Judge Eric Hylden originally ruled in favor of the city, deeming the structure to be beyond repair. But the Minnesota Court of Appeals revived the case in August, determining that the decision was erroneously based on economic considerations alone.
The three-judge panel sent the case back to Hylden for further proceedings, also requiring that DEDA "perform all maintenance and repairs necessary to prevent the property's further deterioration."
A mediation session was planned between the parties last week, but that has been postponed pending the results of the structural assessment.
While both sides expressed a desire to reschedule those talks, Miles Ringsred indicated he doesn't believe DEDA is meeting its obligation to safeguard the building. The son of the former owner said the city has ignored "very reasonable measures," such as inexpensive security cameras, that could have prevented the latest blaze.
"For the past five years, (our recommendations) have fallen on deaf ears, and the city has done nothing to adequately protect it," he told Hylden. "This was completely avoidable."
The attorney hinted that he will soon be seeking enforcement of the appeals court order, including the appointment of an administrator to oversee maintenance at the property.
But Sellers disagreed with Ringsred's assessment, noting that DEDA and the City Council recently authorized the expenditure of up to $135,000 to protect the structure from winter conditions.
"The defendants here are poised and ready to comply with whatever court-ordered temporary injunction or mediated winter-weatherizing plan as required," she told the judge. "We take that seriously and we'll be ready to act on it."
William Paul, another attorney representing Eric Ringsred, pointed to the ongoing Essentia construction project in downtown Duluth as an example of what could be done. He described that structure as being "wrapped in plastic" in anticipation of the Northland winter.
Aerial photographs taken by the News Tribune on Monday would suggest the Kozy building is in need of more protection than that. The roof, now covered in fresh snow, appears to be significantly compromised.
Hylden said he's aware of the risks posed by a long Duluth winter and acknowledged the plaintiffs' desire for immediate action. But he described the mandate from the Court of Appeals as "vague," leaving him without clear direction on repairs that should be ordered.
The judge said he had hoped to see an agreement on pre-winter maintenance, noting the fire seriously impaired those efforts. He directed the parties to schedule a new mediation session, while also allowing the litigation process to play out.
"I don't really blame anybody," Hylden said. "This is just kind of litigation, to a certain extent, and sometimes it does take longer than we'd like. But we will be getting there sooner rather than later."