Hillside sits above downtown Duluth, with scenic views of Lake Superior and the adjacent harbor and parks. Although the neighborhood includes assets such as two commercial streets, a medical district, and several cultural and community organizations, Hillside also exhibits several conditions typical of older, inner ring neighborhoods: vacant and blighted buildings, aging infrastructure, and significant portions of the population with below-median household incomes and high unemployment. To address these issues, the At Home in Duluth Collaborative has invested millions of dollars in revitalizing Hillside, including rehabilitating homes and educational and cultural facilities, as well as restoring many of Hillside’s historic buildings. The recent renovation of the neighborhood’s Fire House No. 1 and its annex, built in 1889 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places
, has continued this trend. The buildings are now part of the Firehouse Flats complex, which along with newly constructed apartments, provides affordable rental housing while preserving two pieces of Duluth’s historic fabric.
Collaborating to Revitalize Hillside
The At Home Collaborative, a partnership of more than 20 local nonprofit and city agencies convened by the Duluth office of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), began working in Hillside in 2000. The collaborative invests in housing, builds family income and wealth, encourages economic activity, enhances education access, and supports healthy environments in the target neighborhoods of Hillside, Morgan Park, West Duluth, and Lincoln Park. One of the collaborative’s major tasks has been the preparation of the Hillside Neighborhood Revitalization Plan, with priorities set by neighborhood residents and businesses. The plan’s priorities include renovation of Fire House No. 1 and its annex into affordable and supportive housing. MetroPlains revitalized the historic property and incorporated it into the new Firehouse Flats development, with the help of Duluth LISC through neighborhood planning and assistance with securing financing.
Renovating Fire House No. 1 and its Annex
MetroPlains completed the renovation of Fire House No. 1 and its annex in December 2012, and now the historic buildings include 12 affordable units, two of which are reserved for chronically homeless persons. A skyway connecting the fire house and annex allows easy access between the two structures. A new building containing twenty-eight additional affordable units, including two reserved for chronically homeless persons, has been constructed next to the annex, where a temporary storage facility and other nonresidential buildings once stood. Residents of the units reserved for chronically homeless individuals and families will receive services from Churches United in Ministry (CHUM), a faith-based organization assisting low-income people in Duluth; the services, based on individual needs, will include applying for public assistance, addressing mental health issues, locating resources for after-school child care, and counseling on educational and employment goals. The one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments, with views of Lake Superior, will house extremely low- and very low-income households. The complex also contains community, exercise, and laundry rooms, as well as underground parking – an asset during Duluth’s cold winters. The Firehouse Flats development is expected to reach full occupancy by spring 2013.
Total development costs for Firehouse Flats were approximately $9.4 million. Funding sources for the project include the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency, Greater Minnesota Housing Fund, and federal and state historic and low-income housing tax credit equity. To receive the historic tax credits, MetroPlains renovated Fire House No. 1 and its annex according to the requirements of the U.S. National Park Service. The Duluth City Council established the Firehouse Redevelopment Tax Increment Financing District to finance land and building acquisition, site preparation, and improvements to public utilities, streets, and sidewalks.
Integrating Affordable Housing into Hillside
Erin Anderson, staff member at MetroPlains, noted the challenge that usually arises when affordable housing is proposed in an established neighborhood with single-family homeowners nearby. Pam Kramer, executive director of Duluth LISC, echoed Anderson’s sentiment and said that Duluth LISC’s close involvement with Hillside over the past 14 years mitigated that challenge and was an important factor in the development’s success. In addition, residents, community groups, and city staff first came together in 2005 to analyze options for rehabilitating Firehouse No. 1 and the annex. The result is a development that Hillside residents support — affordable housing in preserved historic buildings and an architecturally compatible new building. Both Firehouse Flats and Hillside are poised to benefit from these carefully developed plans; residents of Firehouse Flats can walk to local businesses and other Hillside amenities, and as Kramer has pointed out, the apartments have generated interest in future market-rate housing.