A local curator’s perspective: Save the old hotel, a piece of downtown Duluth history – Duluth News Tribune
Last summer, during my parents’ annual visit to Duluth, my father wanted to visit an antique store in Canal Park. As cyclists, I decided it was best to take the Lakewalk, via Gichi-Ode Akiing, to Downtown Old Town Antiques, located in the former Astoria Hotel. When we visited, he had made a comment about wanting to come back to this store.
Unfortunately, the owner of the building, Hall Equities Group of California, decided that a parking lot would be a better use of this site. The planned demolition of the old hotel displaces three beloved local businesses.
The building designed by John J. Wangenstein in 1905 contributes to our Duluth Historic Commercial District on the National Register of Historic Places. It would be the seventh downtown building, and the fourth historically designated, to be demolished in the last year alone in the neighborhood. A handful of other downtown historic buildings are heading for a similar fate. Plus, the building sits in the middle of the historic arts and theater district.
Poor planning leaves the fate of this part of downtown to the whims of outside landlords and developers, turning this historic district into a concentration of generic glass towers and parking lots. A smaller scale of this myopia occurs in our nationally designated main street community in Lincoln Park.
Hall Equities Group of Walnut Creek, Calif., seems focused on extracting as much money as possible from Duluth instead of being an investor in our small business economy. He apparently sees Duluth as a source of profit above all else. The company is also trying to reduce its tax burden and is set to reduce our local tax revenue by $15,000 per year compared to the parking lot next door.
Tearing down old buildings that provide street-facing storefronts also removes affordable opportunities for small retail businesses. Despite major downtown reconstruction during the 1960s Gateway Urban Renewal Project, today’s downtown street-level retail businesses are almost entirely housed in buildings constructed before the Second World War. The demolition of the former Astoria Hotel will create a quarter-mile gap in non-food retail on Superior Street, making the quintessential downtown shopping experience inaccessible for people with reduced mobility.
Studies by the National Trust for Historic Preservation show that reusing old buildings is greener than building new ones. Urban renewal requires filling landfills and using carbon-intensive materials from around the world. New construction is a major contributor to the climate crisis. At the same time, the reuse of buildings invests proportionally more in jobs in local trades.
The city of Duluth has declared a climate emergency in 2020. Poor planning is letting pedestrian-friendly buildings disappear while encouraging a car-dependent downtown. The city considers the disposal of plastic bags to be bad for the environment. It’s time for city leaders to embrace the same mindset for buildings.
Duluth recently celebrated a shoutout in Esquire magazine as the location for “Hallmark Christmas Movie Magic.” It’s time for us to play the holiday movie analogy of a community coming together to save their historic buildings.
Saving the old Astoria Hotel 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.