Local Preservationist's View: Save former hotel, a piece of Duluth's downtown history
From the column: "The city deemed disposing of plastic bags is bad for the environment. It is time for city leaders to take that same mindset to buildings."
This past summer, during my parent’s annual visit to Duluth, my dad wanted to visit an antique store in Canal Park. As bicyclists, I decided it would be better to take the Lakewalk, via Gichi-Ode Akiing, to downtown’s Old Town Antiques, located in the former Hotel Astoria. During our visit, he had made a comment about wanting to come back to that store.
Unfortunately, the building’s owner, Hall Equities Group of California, has decided that a parking lot is going to be a better use for that site. The planned demolition of the former hotel is displacing three beloved local businesses.
The 1905 John J. Wangenstein-designed building is contributing to our Historic Duluth Commercial District on the National Register of Historic Places. This would be the seventh downtown building, and the fourth historically designated, to be torn down in just the past year in the district. A handful of other historic downtown buildings are heading toward a similar fate. In addition, the building sits in the middle of the Historic Arts and Theater District.
Poor planning is giving the fate of this part of downtown to the whims of out-of-town owners and developers, thus turning this historic district into a concentration of generic glass towers and parking lots. A smaller scale of this shortsightedness is taking place in our nationally designated Main Street community in Lincoln Park.
Hall Equities Group of Walnut Creek, California, seems focused on extracting as much money as possible out of Duluth instead of being an investor in our small-business economy. It apparently sees Duluth as a source of profit above all else. The company is also attempting to reduce its tax burden and is set to reduce our local tax revenues by $15,000 per year as compared to the parking lot next door.
Knocking down old buildings that provide street-facing storefronts also removes affordable opportunities for small retail. Despite the major rebuilding of downtown during the 1960s Gateway Urban Renewal Project, today’s downtown street-level retail is almost entirely housed in buildings built before World War II. Tearing down the former Hotel Astoria will create a quarter-mile gap in Superior Street’s non-food retail, causing the quintessential downtown shopping experience to become inaccessible for people with mobility disabilities.
Studies conducted by the National Trust for Historic Preservation show that reusing old buildings is more environmentally sound than building new. Urban renewal requires filling up landfills and using carbon-intensive, globally sourced materials. New construction is a major contributor to the climate crisis. Meanwhile, reusing buildings proportionally invests more heavily in local trades jobs.
The city of Duluth declared a climate emergency in 2020. Poor planning is letting pedestrian-friendly buildings go away while encouraging a car-dependent inner city. The city deemed disposing of plastic bags is bad for the environment. It is time for city leaders to take that same mindset to buildings.
Duluth recently celebrated a shoutout in Esquire magazine as a place of "Hallmark Christmas movie-worthy magic." It’s time for us to play up the holiday movie analogy of a community coming together to save its historic buildings.
Saving the former Hotel Astoria would be a win for small businesses, local jobs, the climate, and Duluth’s irreplaceable historic character.
Blake Romenesko of Duluth works at Glensheen and is vice president of the Duluth Preservation Alliance.